Farro Freak-Out

I was always good at school.  It wasn’t that I was so terribly smart.  I was just terribly determined.  In high school, when my biology teacher required us to collect and identify desert wildflowers, I sent my mom out to collect samples.  My springtime allergies raging, I melodramatically treated each specimen like poison.  But, by golly, I got a good grade.

This January, when I went back to school for the first time in more than 15 years, some of that intensity returned.  Sure, the class I signed up for was as close to pure fun as possible.  I’m getting a Master’s degree in food writing at BU’s Gastronomy program, founded by Julia Child and Jacques Pepin.  What could be cooler than that?

But, as soon as my registration was accepted, the questions began:  Should I bring a pen and paper or a laptop for taking notes?  Do I trust the website that claims I don’t need a book, or do I take a trip to the bookstore to double check?  What do I wear for my first day of school?

My boyfriend even got in on the drama, teasing me about buying a new pencil box.

If the local CVS stocked Wonder Women pencil boxes, I probably would have come away with one!

I decided to write about farro for my first homework assignment.  You might remember that I fell in love with a farro dish on my tour of Tuscany in the fall?  Farro is an amazing grain.  Soft, but chewy. A little bit nutty.  A whole lot flavorful.  And, mixed with olive oil, garlic, mint, and pine nuts, it’s about as close to heaven as a side dish can be!

I found “whole” farro in Whole Foods.  (Imagine that!)  But, my friend Christie told me that whole farro takes more than twice as long to prepare.  First, it must be soaked, then it takes quite a while to cook.  I decided semipearled farro was the way to go, and found it at a specialty foods store in Cambridge.

Success!

The poor check-out girl rang me up, and then let out a little squeal.  My order of one small bag of farro and a completely unnecessary Kit Kat bar came to more than $9.  When she went to void the order, we found the problem.

Yeah, this stuff ain't cheap. But, it's soooooo good!

I’m not usually the person who goes for the expensive food option.  I buy mostly conventional fruits and veggies.  I use whatever fish is on sale.  I buy generics.  Except generic soda.  Generic soda is gross.

But farro is worth the extra price.  Unlike white rice, pasta, potatoes, and other white starches, it’s packed with protein and other nutrients.  It has heft, without a ridiculous amount of calories.  It’s slightly chewy, but still soft.  Slightly nutty, but not overwhelming.  Seriously, it’s the perfect grain.  So, don’t be cheap.  It’s worth it.

I had intended to write an essay about the benefits of farro.  I would talk about the nutritious punch it packed.  I would describe its status as one of the world’s oldest grains.  I would explain that it was an unhybridized form of wheat that had been providing Italians with all the goodness nature intended for thousands of years.

I didn’t get to do any of that, because I realized the day before my assignment was due that I wasn’t supposed to write about one ingredient.  I was supposed to compare two or more!

I rushed home from work and set two pots out on the stove.  Over the next few hours, I prepare both whole and semipearled farro.  My new idea was to compare and contrast.  Want the short answer?

Whole farro is, well…whole.  Semipearled farro, like white rice, has had some of its husks removed.  But, the differences between whole and semipearled farro are much more subtle than the differences between brown and white rice.  In reality, once you take the time to prepare them…they’re pretty much exactly the same.  I tested and tasted.  Tasted and tested.  After a while, I forgot which was which.

So, don’t run around town.  Use whichever one you find.  And, when you find it, make this!

Tuscan Farro Salad with Mint and Pine Nuts

2 cups water
3/4 cup pearled farro
2 medium tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1/4 sweet onion (recommended: Walla Walla) chopped
1/4 cup fresh chopped mint
1 large garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
Bring the water, farro and salt to a boil. Cover, turn heat to low, and cook for 25-30 minutes. When the farro is soft but still a little chewy, drain off the excess water. Set aside to cool.

Make a vinaigrette with the mint, garlic, vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Mix everything together. Serve room temperature.

It's been a few weeks. This photo is making me want more!

Seriously, this stuff is heaven. I made enough for both Jerry and I to walk away with leftovers, but I wanted to cry when mine were gone. So very sad.

But, if you’re looking for something a little simpler, do what my friend Christie does. Make some farro. Throw in a little butter. And serve a soft cooked, fried egg on top. Wowza.

I added the chopped green onions for photographic interest, but the dish would have tasted better without them!

My first assignment might have been a dismal failure, but I’m starting to catch my groove.  When appropriate, we’re going to publish my homework over at WBUR’s food blog, Public Radio Kitchen.  Check out Assignment #2.

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