In the time since we last spoke, I’ve revised the manuscript for my next book! I’ve traveled alone with my five-month-old baby to a family wedding on the other side of the country! I’ve felt like an Olympic gold medalist for having survived traveling alone with my five-month-old baby to a family wedding on the other side of the country! I’ve consumed biscuits and dark chocolate milkshakes and fingers and cheeks, listened to Fugazi and almost remembered what it felt like to be 15 and have a crush on Guy Picciotto, tried two recipes for healthy cookies, decided that I’m not into healthy cookies, made my daughter wear a pair of sunglasses that were intended for a doll, and rekindled my love for farro. The usual.
I don’t know what made me think of farro again, but I’m glad I did. A few years ago, I went through a period of cooking it regularly, but then I forgot about it. I’m good at that. Farro went the way of this apple cake, these oatmeal popovers, this egg salad, this broccoli soup, and this boiled kale, foods that I love but almost never think to eat. But: yesterday I bought farro for the third time in less than a month. The third time! LOOK OUT.
A billion (or five and a half) years ago, when Brandon and I got married, one of the dishes that our caterer made for the reception was farro with caramelized onions, carrots, celery, and feta, with a red wine vinaigrette. I didn’t have much experience with farro, but I liked the sound of it when they suggested it, and it was, in fact, terrific: chewy, nutty, and complex. In its uncooked state, it looks a little like barley, and once cooked, it looks a lot like brown rice, but its flavor is more interesting and lighter somehow than either.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been cooking big batches of farro and stashing it in the fridge, scooping out a few spoonfuls at lunch or dinner as the base for a hearty salad. I’ll bet a lot of you do this, too, with some grain or other? At first, I threw in whatever I found in the crisper drawer and any leftovers that were lying around, but slowly, over a number of days, I settled on a few ingredients that got along especially well. The flavors in my salad are not unlike the farro salad from our wedding, but mine is quicker to make, more of a bang-it-together thing. I’ve been sitting on this post for a while, wondering if this recipe – if you can even call it a recipe – was too simple to write about, but then I decided that if I like it enough to eat it a few times a week, well, you know, what the hell, why not.
Let’s call it a warm farro salad with chickpeas, feta, and spicy dressing. You’ll need a good-sized bowl – maybe the kind they call a pasta bowl? I use a medium-sized mixing bowl, because I’m a classy lady. Whatever you’re using, put a nice amount of warm farro in the bottom of it, and then pile on a spoonful of chickpeas, maybe half of a sliced carrot, a handful each of chopped escarole and radicchio, and a generous hunk of feta, crumbled. You could also add some small pieces of cooked chicken, if you want, or leftover steak or braised pork, and other raw or roasted vegetables. Everything is negotiable, except the feta. DO NOT SKIP THE FETA. Then you douse your salad with a dressing that’s essentially nuoc cham: fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, water, garlic, and a chile. You are now ready to sit down with your mixing bowl and eat. There’s something very special, I think, about the union of farro and feta, and then the chickpeas, the bitter chicories, the sweet carrots, and the salty-hot dressing: it’s crunchy and juicy, now warm, now cold. It was my dinner yesterday and my lunch the day before, and if I’m lucky, it’ll be my dinner tonight.
P.S. My friend and Spilled Milk co-host Matthew Amster-Burton has written a new book, and he’s just launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund it. It’s called Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo, and like everything Matthew writes, it’s funny, insightful, and very smart. (…Annnnnnd now he is blushing.)
I’ve found farro in Seattle at Whole Foods, PCC, and some grocery stores, or you can get it from ChefShop. I like the farro grown by Bluebird Grain Farms of Winthrop, Washington. Farro should be soaked briefly before cooking, although Matthew often uses Trader Joe’s quick-cooking farro – done in 10 minutes! – and says that it’s great. In any case, I give instructions below for cooking standard farro, and hey, feel free to scale up and cook an even bigger batch, if you’d like. From one cup of uncooked farro, I wind up with enough cooked farro for three or four servings of this salad.
Also: among types of feta, I like French feta best.
For the farro:
For the dressing:
For the salad:
Put the farro in a medium (2 ½- to 3-quart) saucepan, add cold water to cover, and set it aside to soak for 30 minutes. Then drain the farro, put it back into the saucepan, and add 3 cups of cold water and ½ teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil; then reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook until tender but still a little chewy, about 45 minutes. It’s up to you, really, how “done” you want your farro. At 30 minutes, mine is usually too tough, but a few minutes later, it’s just right: al dente, but not exhausting to chew. When it’s ready, drain it, and either use it while it’s warm or transfer it to a storage container for later use. (Covered and chilled, cooked farro will keep for a few days, easy.)
To make the dressing, combine the fish sauce, lime juice, 2 tablespoons of the brown sugar, 6 tablespoons of the water, the garlic, and chile in a small bowl. Whisk well. Taste: if it’s too pungent, add more water 1 tablespoon at a time. If you’d like a little more sweetness, add more brown sugar ½ tablespoon at a time. (Covered and chilled, the dressing will keep for three days to a week.)
To assemble a portion of salad, scoop out a couple of large spoonfuls of farro – maybe 1/3 to ½ cup – and put it in a wide bowl. If the farro is cold, you might want to microwave it for 45 seconds or so, to warm it. That’s what I do. Or you could put it in a small ovenproof dish, covered, and bake it for a few minutes to warm it. Or you can just leave it cold. Add a large spoonful of chickpeas, a good handful each of escarole and radicchio, and maybe half of a carrot, sliced. Top with a generous amount of feta, and then drizzle some dressing – maybe a tablespoon? Or to taste – over the whole thing. Toss, and eat.