By Lesa Sullivan, of The Pink Hobart
Over the years, I've watched several of ChefShop.com's more “unusual” ingredients – like preserved lemons or piquillo peppers - suddenly go super white-hot on the food market, and I always get a little thrill when it happens. When I was at ChefShop.com in the late nineties, no one had even heard of Farro. Then one day, an employee came back from Italy with starry eyes and a bag of what looked like big wheat berries. We skeptically boiled up a small batch and gave it a taste. It was the beginning of a long and lasting love affair.
A Brief History of Farro
Farro, also known as emmer,* was one of the earliest domesticated crops in the Near East, where it was highly valued as a crop that would do well in poor soil. There are even indications of humans consuming emmer as early as 17,000 B.C.—even before the advent of agriculture! It was grown in Egypt and Mesopotamia and eventually migrated, as many grains did, through the Mediterranean region and Europe.
In addition to growing in many soils, Farro was appreciated for its heartiness – it is very high in fiber, protein and nutrients – it was valued just as much by some cultures, the Italians in particular, for its flavor. It’s toothsome, wholesome, and full of big, nutty, grain flavor. When our first shipment came in, we ate it all through that summer with everything. We ate it cold, hot, fresh and “a few days out” (it tastes better as it sits, and doesn’t lose its chewiness!). We ate it for breakfast with berries and as a snack. We wondered if anyone else would love it like we did.
Farro - The New, Hip Grain
As it turns out, plenty of folks liked Farro. Our Farro salad was a hit three years running at Food & Wine Magazine’s Classic in Aspen. Since my first introduction to it, I've seen Farro show up in all kinds of hotspots. One reason for its popularity is its nutritional value. This is the grain that kept Roman Legionnaires alive; it's an easy favorite of the health-conscious.
Of course, Farro is especially good for you if it’s organic and wholegrain (like the one we’re offering from Lentz Farms...see below!). Grains have three parts to the edible kernel: the endosperm, sperm (or germ), and bran. The endosperm is the inner soft, white carbohydrate portion. The germ holds proteins, and the bran, vitamins and minerals. Farro is naturally high in fiber and nutrients, and in this wholegrain version, nothing has been removed. (Farro described as “pearled” or “semi-pearled” has had all or part of the bran removed and has often been parboiled as well, which speeds the cooking time but takes away from the nutritional value, nutty flavor and texture.)
Is Farro Gluten-Free?
Farro is not gluten-free, but it is considerably lower in gluten than wheat, and it is generally more easily digestible by the human body than wheat. If you have a relatively mild gluten sensitivity, Farro may work for you. Check with your doctor.
I like to think of how we are making our own contribution to the Farro movement . . . by bringing you Farro from a farm practically outside our backdoor. (Broadly speaking…!)
Our New Farro
We at ChefShop.com are always on the lookout for wonderful, new products. So we are thrilled to introduce our favorite new Farro – an organic, heirloom Farro grown locally on a small family farm in eastern Washington.
Lentz - A Family Farm for Four Generations
Lena Lentz Hardt lives on the farm that her great-grandfather established in 1898 in eastern Washington. For generations, the family grew wheat and barley, just about the only things everyone thought grew on such dry land with very little precipitation. (Unlike famously rainy Seattle, the eastern side of Washington state receives far less moisture. Lentz Farms only averages a minuscule eight inches of rain a year.)
Lena is now the last of her family living on the farm, and a few years ago, she was struggling with low wheat prices. One day, her business partner, René Featherstone, heard her bemoaning the low prices and suggested she grow something else. Lena was skeptical. What else would grow on this dry land, with no irrigation?
But there was an answer: ancient hulled grains - a.k.a., Farro and Spelt. In the early 1990s, René had researched and published an article on spelt and ancient grains, hardy crops that thrive in dry climates and yield very healthful (and tasty!) grains. Lena was convinced, and in 2000, they grew their first Spelt crop, adding Emmer, or Farro, the following year.
Off to an excellent start, they nonetheless encountered challenges. Unlike wheat, Spelt and emmer kernels come away from the stalk still covered in a tough hull, which must then be removed with a special de-hulling machine. Still, although it makes for more labor, the hull has advantages: It protects from pollution and helps keep the grain fresh. Organic growing poses another set of challenges. It was not easy for Lena to find an organic seed-cleaning plant to separate the grains from the stalks after harvest - because if a plant processes conventionally grown grain, then organic growers can’t use it for their organic grains.
But the demand for Lentz Farms grains has grown steadily, especially for the organic grains. And Lentz is providing not only a top-quality product, but another rare commodity in the eastern Washington grain market – they are a farm that sells directly back to the community, to small local bakeries and some shops throughout the region, rather than selling all of their product for large-scale national and often international distribution, as most wheat growers there do.
How to Cook Delicious Farro
Farro is quite versatile. It works as the basis for a meal-in-itself salad or for a simple side dish. It cooks up beautifully, retaining a chewy texture and nutty flavor, and works well with robust flavors like red wine, wild mushrooms, onions and also meat.
Farro is great in simple soups, made with fresh onion, thyme, tomatoes, richly flavored beef stock and red wine. Finish with a drizzle of punchy olive oil and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano for a real luxury. This is a warming, filling meal hearty and flavorful, the epitome of satisfying! But it’s not just for the winter – room-temperature Farro salads make wonderful picnic lunches or summer dinners.
Maybe you’re thinking, well, this sounds wonderful, but it does take a long time to cook, doesn’t it? Yes . . . but we like to think of it as simple way to make a great dinner. Just cover farro with water to soak before heading to work in the morning. When you get home, first thing, drain it, put it in a pot, cover with fresh water, bring to a boil, and then simmer. Then, it cooks for 1 hours or so, while you sip a glass of wine. In the last 20 minutes, saute some onion with mushrooms and a little thyme or rosemary or just a splash of red wine. Toss together a salad. Voilà. (And you’ll have terrific leftovers for lunch the next day!)
Forgot to put your Farro in a pot of water this morning? No problem. Just place your Farro in a pot, cover it with water - about 3 times as much water to Farro - bring to a boil than let it simmer away for about 50 to 60 minutes. It is a little chewier than if you had soaked it all day -- but I like it that way.
*A note about terminology: The word “farro” is Italian, and farro has long been a favorite in Italy. The term “farro” can indicate any of three ancient hulled grains (emmer, spelt and einkorn), although in this country, the term generally refers to emmer, a full-flavored, nutty-tasting grain. Lentz Farms labels their product “Emmer Farro” to be clear, and we at ChefShop.com also use the word “farro” to refer specifically to Emmer Farro.
(c) ChefShop.com, 2010