Friday, June 22, 2012

Farro Salad with Mushrooms, Chèvre and Thyme

One of the most ancient of grains, Farro was first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent almost 10,000 years ago, and is said to have sustained legions of Roman troops during biblical times. Farro is still grown these days primarily in Morocco, Spain, Turkey and in northern and central Italy, where I recently discovered this highly nutritious grain while visiting Umbria earlier this year. Rich in protein and fibre with a nutty, chewy texture, farro is perfect in grain salads, soups, stuffings and pilafs, and is also a great alternative to meat. 

Whole grain farro

It's no surprise that the popularity of ancient grains has risen in recent years with the increasing interest in living healthier lifestyles. Many restaurants are now preparing dishes using quinoa, amaranth, kamut and farro for a variety of reasons: fabulous flavour, increased health benefits, and satisfying people's desire for new culinary adventures.

Farro comes ether 'pearled', 'semi-pearled' or 'whole grain'. Pearling is a process in which some or all of the bran and germ are buffed away. A similar process turns brown rice into white rice, with similar results — a grain that’s more refined, but largely voided of nutritional value. Whereas whole grains retain all of their nutrients, and has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and obesity. Best of all, whole grains have a more of a robust, nutty flavour, which is often absent in refined grains. However semi-pearled and pearled farro cook faster than whole-grain farro — about 60 minutes for whole-grain, 30 minutes for pearled — but the trade-off is decreased nutritional content. Your choice.

This wonderful Farro Salad with Mushrooms, Chèvre and Thyme recipe is simple, healthy and delicious. Sautéed onions, garlic and wild mushrooms are tossed together with cooked farro and dressed simply with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Unexpectedly good, the deep flavours of the soft mushrooms pair perfectly with the chewy texture and earthy nuttiness of the farro. You have to figure, something that's been around this long, must be good!

Farro Salad with Mushrooms, Chèvre and Thyme
Serves 4-6

1 cup 'whole grain' or 'pearled' farro, rinsed
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1/2 red onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
10 oz cremini or shiitake mushrooms
1 tsp red chili flakes
2 tbsp fresh whole thyme
salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup crumbled goat cheese, feta or Parmigiana-Reggiano
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

In a large saucepan, add the rinsed farro, 3 cups of water or vegetable stock, and a touch of salt. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer and cover. Simmer until the farro is tender, about 15-20 minutes for pearled, or 50-60 minutes for the whole grain variety. The farro should have a chewy al-dente texture. Drain any excess liquid and transfer to a large bowl. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil and the balsamic vinegar and toss gently. Set aside.

Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté until they are becoming translucent, about 3-5 minutes. Add the garlic and red chili flakes, sauté for a minute or until it becomes fragrant. Add the mushrooms and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Sauté the mushrooms until they change in texture and color. This will take between 10 and 15 minutes depending on size and type of mushroom. They will begin to turn a deep brown color. Add the fresh thyme about midway through and continue to stir as the mushrooms cook.

Once the mushrooms are soft and tender, remove from heat. Stir in the mushrooms, goat cheese and pine nuts with the farro. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper if necessary. Garnish with fresh thyme and serve immediately.