Monday, February 1, 2010


The blog... It's alive! After almost two years, the blog is back. So yeah. Um, anyway, farrotto, or, farro, prepared like risotto...

Farro is a very trendy grain lately, despite the fact that no one seems to be totally sure what it is. I got mine in a package thoughtfully marked "FARRO" at Whole Foods so I didn't have to do too much thinking on my own. Farro is apparently an "ancient grain" (I don't know, either) often used in the Veneto region of northern Italy, where they work risotto-like magic upon it. (Speaking of risotto magic, anyone who has not seen the episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations from Venice (season 6) should hurry up and stream it from Netflix to watch what the expert risotto chefs on Murano do instead of stirring. It will blow your mind. OK, it blew my mind. Maybe your mind is not quite as susceptible to blowout-by-risotto as mine seems to be. But it makes spectacularly clear what is meant by the Venetian preference for risotto "all'onda" or wavy.)

The interest in farro seems to stem from the idea that farro is capable of making a sort of wholeier-grainier type of Italian comfort food than the (I guess now passe) Arborio rice. Comparing the labels, farro did, indeed, appear to have approximately twice the protein per 50g as the Arborio in my cupboard, and approximately 3g of dietary fiber, which is 3g more than Arborio has. And there are probably other nutritional goodies hiding out in the little farro kernels that were not apparent from the limited info on the label. So, I see the appeal from that angle.

I made my farrotto more or less the way I would have made a risotto. I initially turned to the internet for guidance. I wasn't sure whether it was going to need overnight soaking or something. (It didn't.) The only real difference was, based on a suggestion I found here, I whizzed the farro around in the Cuisinart for a few pulses before starting, to crack some of the grains and make them cook more easily. This didn't seem to have much effect on the hard little grains, and I have absolutely no idea whether it made any kind of difference at all to the final product. On this particular day, I had a small head of radicchio in the fridge, so I shredded that, and sauteed it down thoroughly (it was pretty bitter starting out) with some caramelized shallots (I had forgotten I'd used my last onion... I don't know how that happened... but it was OK, because the radicchio really needed the extra sweetness from the shallots). The total cooking time might have been a little longer than it would have been for risotto, but I definitely didn't cook it for anything like the 1 1/2 hours suggested in the link above.

How did it stack up against risotto? As a more nutritious alternative to risotto (which I lately tend to prefer over pasta for weeknight what-do-I-want-to-do-with-what's-in-the-fridge? type meals) it's very, very promising. I'd definitely say it's an alternative, rather than a substitute. That's a good thing... it's a thing in its own right, not a nutritionally spruced-up version of something else you'd rather be eating, like, say, whole wheat pasta (which I'm still having a hard time getting behind, frankly).

First, the flavor. It's somewhere in the barley family. It's more assertive than risotto. I've seen it referred to as "nutty" but I think "earthy" might be more apt. I didn't happen to use any mushrooms, but there was a definite mushroom-y note. I used beef broth, and I'm glad I did. Basically, think anything that would work well with a hearty beef barley soup would be welcome. Mushrooms, absolutely. Maybe a little anchovy. Red wine or vermouth. Squash. Rosemary and/ or sage. Pancetta. Smoky flavors would work. This is not to limit things, really, but more to say that I bet subtle flavors could get lost if you didn't think it out carefully. Risotto is a base for the flavors you add to it (and serve with it). With farotto, you'll need to consider the farro flavor as a partner for the other flavors.

Secondly, there are big, significant differences in texture. Here's the really important thing to know about farro: unlike Arborio rice, FARRO WILL NOT GIVE OFF STARCH AS IT COOKS AND IS STIRRED. As you stir risotto, the grains of rice release starch. This is what gives risotto its lovely creamy texture, even before you've added cream or butter or cheese. For farrotto, on the other hand, this means several things:

--It means there's not much point in stirring it as often as you would risotto. So, that means somewhat less effort for those anti-stirrers among you (of whom, people who have cooked with me will know-- I can hear them snickering now-- I am not one).

--BUT it also means that the texture of your farrotto will not be thickened by starch the way risotto's is. So-- important point-- as you get toward the end of adding your broth, YOU'LL WANT TO SLOW DOWN and add it a very little at a time. When you're making risotto, if you add a little bit too much broth, it sort of absorbs into the rice and into the starchy/creamy "sauce" that makes up the risotto. If you add a little too much broth to farrotto, you'll have barley soup. The liquid isn't going anywhere unless you cook it off, and it won't be thickened by starch, because there isn't any.

--BUT BUT that means that your farrotto is ultimately a little more forgiving. If you don't serve it instantly, it's not as much of a big deal. It's not going to get gummy and sticky like risotto. It also means you can heat it up the next day for lunch a little more successfully. Though that also means if you tried to make farrotto arancini (the fried risotto balls that are the traditional Italian solution to the lousy sticky risotto leftovers problem) they'd just fall apart in the pan since there'd be nothing holding them together.

--BUT BUT BUT that means if you want your farrotto to be creamy, you're going to need to impose the creaminess from without. I added about a tablespoon of creme fraiche (not strictly traditional I realize) and that made the texture very nice. The whole pot (1 cup of farro) made about about 4 servings, so I figured... eh... a quarter of a dollop of creme fraiche (ok, plus the Parmigiano I grated over it) wasn't going to completely wipe out the nutritional advantage of the farro (especially since I probably would have added it to risotto as well). But it's something you'll want to be aware of. It would, for example, make a vegan farrotto less texturally appealing than a vegan risotto.

As for the texture of the individual grains, farro retains more bite than risotto rice. Again, it's definitely more forgiving. Risotto has a fairly brief perfection point, where the grain is no longer hard in the middle, but it's not yet too soft to have any bite at all. If you pass the ideal point with risotto, the grains get too soft, and the whole thing is just kind of mushy. Farrotto retains a nice almost elastic bite that didn't seem to be hurt by a little extra cooking (I was trying to get rid of the extra liquid I'd mistakenly added) or even by microwaving the next day. I'm sure it's theoretically possible to cook it to the point of mush, but the danger certainly didn't seem imminent.

So, I guess I'm on the farrotto bandwagon. Whatever. It was delicious. There's plenty of scope for having fun with. Definitely something to explore in more depth, even at the risk of foodie hipness.