Walk that walk

That farro was once stuck in my mind as a cold-weather food probably has to do with the way I first ate it, mixed with peas, served hot, oiled, and salty at my friend Julia’s table. It was late 2008, and I was still quite ill. Julia and her husband, Eitan, were cooking for us a lot those days. At first, they’d bring food to our place. On my first night home from the hospital, which happened to be a Friday, they piled up one of those collapsible luggage carts with Eitan’s chicken soup, Julia’s roast chicken, salad, challah, and wine, and wheeled it the half a dozen blocks from where they were living at the time. Once I was strong enough, Eli and I would walk to their apartment and they’d cook for us there.

Food tasted strange to me then. My brain was recovering from a hemorrhage and my body from infection. I couldn’t smell (my olfactory nerves had been damaged during surgery) and the antibiotics I was on only made matters worse. Brussels sprouts and broccoli tasted spoiled, lettuce intolerably bitter, and chocolate like metal. Julia made feasts –a buttery mushroom soup flecked with thyme, salads with olives and feta, giant potato pancakes sliced like pizzas to serve– but would remind me when I got there that I didn’t have to eat a bite; she was just glad I was there.

Farro is a tender Italian grain that feels nice to bite into. I’d heard of it, but never seen it until that night at Julia’s. It was the first food in a long time that excited me. The peas tasted funny to me in a way that, thankfully, I can no longer remember, so I had to pick them out, but the farro itself was perfect: chewy, lightly sticky, with a flavor that’s nutty and bright. The following fall, fully back on my feet, I started cooking farro myself. I’d spoon it, steaming, into bowls of garlicky greens or bean and mushroom ragout. I’d stir it into soups. Then spring would arrive, and I’d forget.

It was last summer, I think, or maybe the summer before, when I found half a sack of farro in the back of the pantry one day and decided to make a cold salad. There were cherry tomatoes involved, and arugula, chopped walnuts, and a bit of feta. It was hardly revolutionary. You’d think that, having done the same with lentils, couscous, bulgur, and buckwheat over the years, it would have occurred to me that farro could also walk that walk. Alas. The good news is that I’ve since been making up for lost time, cooking up a heap of farro almost every week, and mixing into it whatever the crisper drawer holds.

My favorite this summer is one of the simpler concoctions I’ve tried, just farro, beans, scallions, and a couple pinches of salt tossed in lemon juice and olive oil. Last week, when it was too hot and too wet to move in these parts, this salad was all I wanted to eat. (Except for take-out pizza. I gladly ate that one night, too.)

Julia and Eitan live across the river now. They have a son, Levi, who was born almost a year to the day after Mia. The six of us picnicked on Friday, feasting on this salad, deviled eggs, kale with fresh currants, bread, cheese, and cookies. It was late enough in the day so that the heat felt all right. There was a breeze, and we all chased the napkins that got away.

Farro Summer Salad

With so few ingredients at play here, quality matters. Choose an olive oil you like the taste of and beans you can get behind. I’m crazy for Rancho Gordo beans in general, and these days, their Rio Zape variety in particular. They’re a deep purplish bean with zebra-like markings, a meaty flavor, and velvety interior. I could also see this salad with cannellini, pinto, or even black beans, perhaps with lime juice and a sprinkling of chopped cilantro.

In case you’re new to farro, here’s how I prepare it: One cup of farro and three cups of water go into a saucepan. I add a pinch of salt, bring to a boil over medium heat, then turn down the flame so that the water just simmers. I partially cover the pot and cook for 45-50 minutes, stirring occasionally. (You can soak farro before cooking it, if you want. It’s not necessary, but it will reduce your cooking time by about 20 minutes.) The farro is done when tender and pleasantly chewy. Remove from the heat and drain. You’ll end up with more farro than you need for this recipe, but I think you’ll be happy to have it around.

2 cups cooked beans (see note, above)
1½ cups cooked farro
2 scallions, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons (or slightly less) extra-virgin olive oil
3-4 teaspoons freshly-squeezed lemon juice
A generous pinch or two of sea salt flakes, like Maldon
Freshly-ground black pepper

Combine the cooked beans and farro in a medium bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. Taste, and adjust with a bit more oil or juice, if necessary. Pour the dressing over the beans and gently mix with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula. Stir in the sliced scallions, and add salt and pepper, to taste.

Enough for 4, give or take.


Julie said...

I just arrived home after a week away and was wondering how my rather bare cupboards were going to be able provide for my lunch today. Then like magic your post popped into my inbox and as I read your Farro Summer Salad recipe I realized I had every single ingredient needed. Just enjoyed a bowl with some cannellini beans and a shower of fresh parley. Serendipitous inspiration! Thank you.

ELizabeth said...

I'm always a bit slow on the uptake on new ingredients so I've ignored farro for quite a while. But this post has convinced me I have to give it a try.

Rivka said...

I like this, everything about this. The farro, the kiddos, the better brain. Big like.

megan said...

I think I can do this! I think I need this! And I have stuff in the crisper that needs using...

Jess said...

Julie - Welcome home! I just had a peek at your Paris culinary tour -- amazing. This salad is no duck confit, but I'm glad you enjoyed.

ELizabeth - Oh yes, please do! Happy to hear you're game for something new.

Rivka - Thanks, friend. xo.

megan - Totally! You'll love it.

Evie said...

Thank you for posting this recipe.I can't wait to try it out. I've never cooked with Farro before and have been wanting to give it a shot!

Amanda Niehaus said...

Congratulations on 5 years, Jess. And don't friends make all the difference? xx

molly said...

Nice to bite into, indeed. Such a perfect description for lovely farro.

And so funny, as I, too, have always thought it a fall-and-winter affair, much like boots and big coats and woolly mittens. We tend to eat it with heaps of roasted mushrooms, piled atop arugula, and a bracing vinaigrette, mmmmm.... But beans, the green ones! Yes! And tomatoes! I'm seeing zucchini, corn, peppers, all cut to confetti...

Oh yes, bring on that summer farro.