In the midst of some intense pressure-cooker, game-show-style writing on the nature of American and Brazilian poetry, the properties of propriety, the materiality of words, I have decided to take a break. That means watching The Princess Bride and thinking about farro. Fred Savage is so little. Andre the Giant so tender. The whole premise is inconceivable (with a lisp), yet so enchanting. On to farro...
Once upon a time, at the end of the Ice Age, humans in the Fertile Crescent began to tire of wandering the land hunting and gathering, so they settled down to cultivate edible plants. Farro, widely known as emmer wheat, was one of these grains. The gods of radiocarbon dating have identified emmer from Israel going back as far as 17,000 BC.
Fast forward to one year ago. Location: Cafe Rouge, a restaurant on 4th St. in Berkeley chosen by friends, specializing in "rustic Mediterranean fare as well as American dishes," as the website informs us. I scan the menu, slide an oyster into my mouth (ordered by aforementioned wise friends before I had arrived), and think to myself, what's farro?
Our server comes.
"What's farro?" I ask.
"An ancient grain," she says, with a far-away look in her eye.
"Ooooh. Let's get that," I say.
An ancient grain. It has a nice ring to it. Eat it and you are connected to Egyptian pharaohs, lonely goatherds on the grassy hills above Rome, enterprising Phoenician sailors scenting the wind for signs of land.
I was quite pleased with the farro's substantial texture and how it combined with dark leafy greens. At home when I cooked it, it seemed chewier than at the restaurant, but I don't know if cooking it for longer would have helped. I'm still experimenting. It could be that they used a higher quality, more refined version. This farro came from Rainbow Grocery. Other things to know: Farro is the Italian name for this wheat, cultivated mainly in Tuscany. It is not the same thing as spelt, a mistake that caused some trouble for Heidi Julavits, as she tells us in the NY Times. Buy it semi-pearled (semiperlato) if you don't want to get stuck having to soak the whole grains over night.
Above, I tried stewing it with tomatoes and topped the hearty mess with onion slivers fried to a crisp.
Rinse the farro and pick out any delinquent-looking grains. You can soak it in a bowl for awhile if you want the cooking to go faster, but you don't have to. Heat up some oil in a pot and throw in some sliced onions or scallions to sautée, maybe leeks, carrots, and/or pancetta. Add the farro, a 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and water at a 1 : 3, farro : water, ratio. Here is where I added the stewed tomatoes as well. Bring it to a boil, take it to a simmer, keep it going for 30-40 minutes, and check it for cracked kernels and edible chewiness. It also makes nice soups, especially with white beans.
Here is Mario Batali's recipe for Farro Soup in the Style of Lucca: Minestra di Faro Lucchese. When I think of Mario, I remember when a friend told me of how he saw the Food Network chef in New York smoking a cigarette against the side of a building and wearing Crocs. This is funny if you know what he looks like or maybe just because Crocs are always kind of funny, though kind of sad too. Here's Mario's website if you want to check out his beard and ponytail.