The soldiers of ancient Rome carried bags of farro on their belts. They ground it into flour for flat breads, or ate it boiled as whole-grain porridge. People still do the same things.
Southern Turkey was cultivated farro's first home. Now you'll find it throughout the Mediterranean. I first ran into it in Italy where it grows mostly in the central regions of Tuscany (where farro from the mountainous Garfagnana area is prized), Umbria, Marche and Lazio, and you'll find it used farther south, too. I could go on and on about its history, but what was fun was when Italians rediscovered it in the late 1990s and it became the new chic.
Find farro online and in Mediterranean groceries and specialty food shops. I like the Rusticella brand, which gives the grain's botanical name on its label, Triticum Dicoccum. Any dish calling for pasta, rice, barley or wheat is fair game for farro. Here is a basic farro recipe with some ideas for how to fancy it up.
Always check package directions before cooking farro. Depending on their origins, some farros may need presoaking. Farro doubles in volume when it cooks and keeps in the refrigerator, covered, for three or four days. Make it ahead for last-minute additions to soups, salads and stews.
Once boiled, farro should be tender, but retain a pleasing firmness at its center. Eat farro hot or at room temperature, with a twirl of olive oil, a few torn leaves of herbs and grinds of black pepper, as a first course, a main dish, or a side dish. Then prepare any of the variations described below.
Makes 4 to 5 cups.
2 cups (12 ounces) whole-grain Italian farro (Triticum Dicoccum)
4 quarts of boiling salted water
Rinse farro in a strainer under cold running water. Have the salted water boiling in a 6-quart pot. Drop in the farro, stir and get water to a steady, lively simmer. Partially cover the pot and cook 30 to 45 minutes, or until tender.
Drain the farro in a sieve. Eat hot or at room temperature, seasoning to taste.
TURNING SIMPLE FARRO INTO OTHER DISHES:
o Antipasto of Farro: Toss farro with small amount of minced red onion, olive oil and wine vinegar to taste. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Just before serving, fold in coarsely chopped Italian parsley and fresh basil to taste. Diced tomato and peppers, steamed greens, and/or cold poached seafood could go into the antipasto as well.
o Farro with Pasta: Any pasta sauce is delicious with heated-up farro. Especially good are the tomato-based sauces and anything based on vegetables, especially sauteed greens.
o Turkish Style Farro Salad: Toss the farro with pomegranate molasses, fresh squeezed lemon juice, olive and salt and pepper to taste. Crumbled feta cheese is a good topping here.
o Farro and Bean Salad: Add 2 cups rinsed and drained canned pinto beans to the Farro Salad or Antipasto of Farro above. I like chopped apples and toasted walnuts in this mix.
o Farro "Risotto:" Saute onion, sweet peppers and garlic with pinto beans and then add cooked farro. Pour in 2 cups of broth 1/2 cup at a time. Cook off each addition, stirring constantly and then another 1/2 cup. Serve with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
o Farro with Sauteed Mushrooms: Brown together thick-cut Portobello or wild mushrooms and chopped onion in olive oil. Add a small amount of white wine and deglaze pan. Season to taste and toss with warm farro.
o Sweet Farro Mountain Style: Toss room-temperature farro with fresh ricotta and honey to taste. Finish with a sprinkling of cinnamon. Italian mountain farmers used to make meals of chestnut flour polenta eaten this way. They say farro is just as good.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper hosts "The Splendid Table," American Public Media's weekly national show for people who love eat, and is the co-author of "The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper: Recipes, Stories and Opinions." Ask questions and find Lynne, recipes and station listings at www.splendidtable.org or 800-537-5252.