Farro is one of those ingredients that magic a meal out of a few vegetables. It is wonderful in summer; with punchy tomatoes and fresh herbs or alongside the nicoise family of tuna, capers and olives, but also great in winter with pumpkins and brassicas. We eat it a lot. Long faces are occasionally pulled when the smaller people find out it is farro instead of pasta, but bowls are routinely wiped clean by the end of lunch.
Plump, nutty, almost sweet, farro is one of those seriously ancient grains cultivated by the Etruscans and Romans, and still grown in Umbria, Abruzzo and Tuscany. There are three types; farro piccolo; rarely used, farro media; the most common form, best bought as semi perlato (semi pearled) so that it cooks easily but retains its goodness, and farro grande or farro spelto which is spelt, a much tougher slower cooking grain which has more relevance ground into spelt flour.
Farro is a high in vitamins and fibre and very low in gluten. It is wonderful cooked into minestrone and winter soups, or used as a base for salads dressed with the best extra virgin and mixed with summer vegetables. It’s a blank canvas kind of ingredient on which to build a healthy seasonal lunch. While farro takes number one spot in my larder, barley and millet are other good grains for fast meals.
Winter farro salad with broccoli and red onion
300 g pearled or semi pearled farro (cooking time approx 20 mins)
1 head (or 2 small) of super fresh green broccoli
1 red onion
A couple of winter tomatoes (optional)
4 – 10 anchovies in oil (optional)
Handful of rocket or baby spinach
Wash and cut the broccoli into smallish florets. Peel the trunk and finely slice it too. Cut the red onion into slithers and soak in water for 10 minutes.
Lightly salt a large saucepan of water, add the farro and bring to the boil. Lower the heat a little and let it cook for 10 minutes at which point you can add the broccoli to the same pot along with another teaspoon of salt to help maintain the colour. The cooking times should now coincide for tasty mix of broccoli and grain, where the broccoli has broken down a little and some of the green has seeped into the farro.
Wash and cut winter tomatoes or greens to add to a nice large bowl, and add the drained red onion. Drain and cut as many anchovies as you like, the saltiness balances so nicely with the broccoli. Check that the farro is cooked al dente, drain, cool a then toss into the other ingredients. Generously dress with the best olive oil you have. Farro is grown is real olive oil country – in fact Australia’s Mount Zero Olives also grow farro – so the flavours are like peas in a pod. Use a bigger stainless steel bowl for tossing and then transfer to a serving bowl for the table if needed, space is essential for good mixing. Season with extra sea salt, a grind of black pepper, and a sprinkle of parsley.
Summer Farro with eggplant and robiola
300 grams pearled or semi pearled farro
2 long dark eggplant, cut into chunks and salted
4 medium salad tomatoes, or 250 g cherry tomoatoes
1 small red onion
1 handful flat leaf parsley
2 sprigs oregano
2 springs basil
100 g soft cheese like robiola, goats cheese or marinated feta
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Wash, cut into chunks and salt eggplant, leaving it to drain on kitchen paper or a clean tea towel. I don’t rinse eggplant after draining as a lot of the salt has been lost with excess water and a little helps in cooking.
Cook farro according to cooking instructions. Drain and cool in serving bowl.
Cook eggplant in a heavy based frypan over a medium heat. Use a little olive oil and keep tossing chunks of eggplant until they colour well and start to collapse. Dice tomatoes and chop fresh herbs and add to farro. Add cooked eggplant and half the soft cheese and toss everything well with good extra virgin olive oil. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, and top with the remaining soft cheese to serve. Italian soft cheeses like Robiola and Caprino have the creaminess with a little bite that I miss in soft marinated fetas that Australian cheesemakers have become so good at. Red wine vinegar is optional, just a dash.
Another good autumn winter combination is roasted pumpkin, lemon and walnuts, and in summer zucchini and mint works well.
About the oil. Buy local (Australian oil is so good). Buy single origin when you can – direct from the grower, a local frantoio or a shop that sells and mail orders farm to consumer oil like The Tuscan Farm Shop.
All photos by Ali Allen with cooking and styling by me.