What follows is closer to a set of guidelines than it is to a real recipe, so do with it what you will. The most important part is the onions: be sure to take your time with them, and stir them frequently. Make this on a Sunday, or on a weeknight when you have some extra time to cook.
We eat this as a main dish, but it would be a nice side for almost any roasted or grilled meat. It is also delicious – and prettier – with some cooked kale or chard stirred in. Just boil the greens in nicely salted water for about 5 to 7 minutes, until tender but not mushy; then drain them, squeeze all the water out, coarsely chop, and add to the farro mixture.
And about farro: most of what is sold in the U.S. – I’ve found it at Whole Foods and fancy grocery stores, or you can get it from ChefShop – is grown in Italy, but there are also some domestic producers, like Bluebird Grain Farms in Winthrop, Washington. It is usually sold semi-pearled (semiperlato), meaning the some of the bran has been removed. If you buy whole farro, though, it will likely need to soak overnight before cooking – rather than a brief soak for semi-pearled – and will need to cook for 30 to 45 minutes more.
First, the onions: slice them thinly. When I caramelize onions, I slice mine about ¼-inch thick, and I slice them lengthwise, from top to bottom – going “with the grain,” so to speak – so that they hold their shape. (If this makes no sense, check out the first two minutes of this video, from Fine Cooking. It’s a great demonstration.)
Pour a few glugs of olive oil into a large (12-inch) skillet. You want to be generous here, nearly coating the bottom of the skillet. Warm the oil over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, dump in the onions. They should sizzle. Stir them to coat, and then add a couple of pinches of salt. (Some people say that this causes the onions to fall apart more quickly, but I do it anyway. I like that it causes them to release some water, so that they stay moister, and it seems to make them caramelize more evenly, too.) Reduce the heat to low or medium-low, and continue to cook slowly, stirring occasionally. First, they will soften a bit; then they will go a little golden; and then they will begin to caramelize. It takes a long time to do this properly, so be patient – and stir regularly, especially as they take on color. My last batch of caramelized onions took about an hour and a half. When they’re done, they will have shrunk down in volume by quite a lot, and they should be a deep amber color and almost translucent.
Meanwhile, once you’ve got the onions started, put the farro in a medium bowl, add cold water to cover, and set it aside to soak for 30 minutes. Then drain it, turn it out into a medium saucepan, and add 3 cups of cold water and ¼ teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; then reduce the heat and simmer until tender but still a little chewy, about 30 minutes. It’s up to you, really, how “done” you want your farro. At 20 or 25 minutes, mine is usually too tough, but a few minutes later, it’s perfect: no longer a major jaw workout, but still al dente, for lack of a different term. When the farro is ready, drain it, and set aside.
While the farro is cooking, put the lentils into another medium saucepan. Add 3 cups of cold water and ¼ teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; then reduce the heat and simmer until tender but not falling apart, about 20 to 25 minutes. Drain, and rinse briefly under cool water.
By this point, ideally, your onions will be nicely caramelized. Now combine it all – onions, farro, and lentils – in a bowl and stir gently. Taste, and adjust seasoning, if necessary. Serve with feta crumbled on top and, if you like, hot sauce and/or a squeeze of lemon.
Note: Leftovers keep nicely in the fridge. Rewarm slightly before eating.
Yield: 3-4 servings