Farro Risotto with Three Mushrooms

December 21, 2008 at 12:42 pm (B plus (3.5 stars, like a lot), Grains, Italian, My brain, restaurant inspired)

In October Derek and I took a trip to Tuscany.  The highlight of our trip was the four nights we spent in Southern Tuscany, at Terre di Nano, an estate perched on a hilltop halfway between Montepulciano and the tiny medieval village of Montechiello.   When we arrived at Terre di Nano our first night, it was quite late, and the manager suggested we eat dinner at a nearby restaurant: La Porta, in Montechiello.  The drive took less than ten minutes, but it felt longer because the road was narrow, unpaved, and pitch dark.  Despite the fact that Montechiello is a tiny village, and off the main road, La Porta was almost completely full; a large group of about 20 Americans took up over half of the tables.  The hostess sat us upstairs on a balcony overlooking the main dining room.  Although the couple at the neighboring table kept complaining about the cigarette smoke wafting down from the attic kitchen, I didn’t notice it.  I quite enjoyed our balcony perch; I liked watching from above as the waitresses brought out the food for all the other guests. We had a lovely, if not spectacular dinner at La Porta, and headed back to Terre di Nano.

The next morning at breakfast we met all the other Terre di Nano guests, and discovered that almost all of them had also eaten dinner at La Porta the previous evening!  One woman (the one who had been complaining about the cigarette smoke) could not stop raving about their mushroom barley risotto.  She said it was the best risotto she’d ever had. I was skeptical, as I’ve never had a barley risotto that I’ve liked.  Still, when we headed back to La Porta a few nights later, I decided to take a chance, and ordered the mushroom barley risotto.  It was excellent.  The texture of the risotto was creamy, but each grain was perfectly chewy and nutty tasting.  The mushroom flavor was intense, but not overpowering.  Even after finishing the (quite) large dish of risotto, I wasn’t tired of it.  It was anything but the one-note, overly-rich dish I was expecting.

My only objection to the risotto was directed at the menu’s claim that it was a barley risotto.  I’ve had pearled barley, and hulled barley, but this didn’t taste like either.  The grains had more fiber and heft than pearled barley, and more chew and flavor than hulled barley.  I suspected that the risotto was actually made with farro, a local Tuscan grain.  I asked the waitress to confirm that the risotto was really made with barley—she said yes.  Then I noticed that behind me was a shelf of local agricultural products that the restaurant was offering up for sale.  The shelf contained both barley and farro.  I held them up to the waitress and asked which was in the risotto.  She looked back and forth between them a few times, then said she had to ask the chef.  When she returned, she confirmed that the risotto was indeed made from farro.

Our waitress and menu aren’t the only ones confused about the difference between farro and barley.  All over the internet you see confusion about whether farro is the same as barley, the same as spelt, or some other grain entirely.  There was an even an article about farro in the New York Times recently, which attempted to debunk some of the misconceptions about farro.

Farro is not barley, but wheat.  The wheat family encompasses a number of related grains, including durum wheat (used to make pasta), spelt, common wheat (used to make bread flour), and kamut.  The precise name for Farro is Emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccon), and it is more closely related to durum wheat and common wheat than to spelt. From Wikipedia, the major domesticated forms of wheat:

* Common wheat or Bread wheat — (T. aestivum) A hexaploid species that is the most widely cultivated in the world. [note: called der Weizen in German]
* Durum — (T. durum) The only tetraploid form of wheat widely used today, and the second most widely cultivated wheat. [note: often used to make pasta, called Glasweizen or Hartweizen in German, according to Leo ]
* Einkorn — (T. monococcum) A diploid species with wild and cultivated variants. Domesticated at the same time as emmer wheat, but never reached the same importance.
* Emmer — (T. dicoccon) A tetraploid species, cultivated in ancient times but no longer in widespread use. [note: most commonly eaten now in Italy, but also still used in other countries like Switzerland]
* Spelt — (T. spelta) Another hexaploid species cultivated in limited quantities. [note: now more popular in the States among the “bio” set, apparently called der Dinkel or der Spelz in German]

Kamut is another wheat variety, with unusually elongated grains.  Unheard of 20 years ago, lately Kamut has been growing in popularity in the states. Kamut’s taxonomical classification is still unclear: some say it represents a unique species, others say it’s simply a form of durum wheat, whereas others argues it’s a hybrid of durum wheat and another wheat. I’ve found Kamut in Germany in my local Biofrischmarkt, under the name Kamut.

Oops, back to mushroom farro risotto.

Determined to recreate La Porta’s risotto, I returned from Italy with a pound of farro (purchased from La Porta for 3 euros, compared to the 9-10 dollars you’ll pay in New York), and a bag of dried porcini mushrooms.  I spent some time searching around on the web to try to figure out the best way to cook farro for risotto, but found a lack of consensus.  Some people said just to boil farro in water as you would pasta, then once it’s tender add in butter and cheese to make it creamy.  Other recipes suggsted parboiling the farro, then treating it as if it were arborio rice.  I decided to go with the latter method, as I thought it would result in a creamier risotto, without requiring a huge amount of butter and cheese.

I started out by boiling 2.25 cups of farro in 5 cups of water for 20 minutes.  I ended up with about 8 cups of semi-cooked farro.  I soaked the porcini mushrooms, and cooked the button mushrooms ahead of time, because Derek is picky about overcooked mushrooms.  He likes them plump and juicy, and I was afraid that after 20 – 30 minutes of simmering they’d be dried out and tough. Besides holding the mushrooms aside until the last five minutes of cooking, I followed a standard risotto technique, using the following ingredients:

  • 3 or 4 cups of parboiled farro
  • vegetable broth, plus the strained soaking liquid from the dried porcini mushrooms
  • 1.25 pounds white button mushrooms
  • a bit of red wine
  • 3 Tbs. butter (1 in the mushrooms, 1 for the onions, and 1 after the risotto was done)
  • 1 shallot + a bit of red onion
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1.75 ounces parmigiano reggiano
  • 1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
  • porcini salt and truffle salt
  • a pinch of sugar

The risotto turned out really well.  It had the same great chewy/creamy texture as La Porta’s version, and good flavor, although perhaps not quite as good as La Porta’s version.  Even Derek, who was very skeptical about my ability to replicate the original, said that it was excellent.

I ended up eating the rest of the farro plain, either for breakfast with soymilk and a bit of granola, or just treating it like brown rice.  It was delicious.  Farro is definitely now one of my favorite grains.

More about my farro: The label says Farro Decorticato, and it’s from Az. Agr. Barbi, which is apparently near Monticchiello.  I think decorticato means hulled.  The bag weighs 500 grams. I think it’s organic because it says “da agricoltura biologica.”  To prepare the farro, the label says to wash in cold water, then cook in a pot for 40 minutes.  It says it serves five people.

Update December 13, 2009:

I cooked 1.5 cups farro in 3 cups vegetable broth.  I brought it to a boil, then reduced to a simmer, and cooked until all the liquid was absorbed, about 35 minutes I think.  This produced 5 cups of al dente farro.  I used 4 cups for the risotto.  I sauteed 1.5 pounds mushrooms in 1 Tbs. butter, and added 1/4 cup white wine and some soy sauce (1/2 Tbs.?).  The mushrooms didn’t end up salty enough.  When the mushrooms were cooked but still quite fat and juicy, I removed them from the pan and set them aside.

I sauted the shallot and red onion (about 1/2 cup) in 1 Tbs. of butter and 1 Tbs. of olive oil, then added 2 garlic cloves chopped.  I added the 4 cups of parboiled farro, and some red wine (1/2 cup I think).  Then I added the liquid from the porcini mushrooms and more vegetable broth.  The farro ended up too soft.  I think I pre-cooked it too long.  Next time I would start with 1 cup of farro and 1.5 cups of vegetable broth, cooked for 20 minutes only.

At the end I added in the soaked, chopped porcini mushrooms and the cooked button mushrooms, and about 1/2 tsp. salt, then beat in the final 1 Tbs. of butter. We were out of truffle salt, and that definitely resulted in a less mushroom-y tasting dish.  It was still tasty, but less mushroomy.  We garnished the risotto with parmesan.  It was tasty, but not as good as last time.  I liked it with al dente farro much better than the somewhat soft farro I ended up with this time.

Derek rated this recipe a B+.  I would give it a B due to the texture and the absence of truffle salt.  With a few fixes it would definitely be a B+.

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Baked polenta slathered in carmelized onions

December 21, 2008 at 8:43 am (101 cookbooks, Grains, unrated)

At the local Turkish market last month I bought an enormous bag of yellow onions for a pittance.  Although I use onions all the time, after a month I’d barely made a dent in the bag.  Afraid that the onions would start to go bad if I didn’t increase my pace, I started searching around for onion-demanding recipes.  I considering attempting vegetarian onion soup, but instead ended up trying Heidi Swanson’s recipe for cornmeal crunch—essentially baked polenta slathered in carmelized onions.  The recipe calls for medium grind cornmeal, but I wasn’t sure what that means.  Is that supposed to refer to a not too coarse polenta grind, or a very coarse cornmeal grind?  I can only find two types of cornmeal here in Germany: a very fine cornmeal, and a quite coarse polenta.  I decided to take the middle ground:  I civilized my coarse polenta by pulsing it a few times in my mini-processor.

The water to cornmeal ratio in Heidi’s recipes seemed quite low (2-to-1).  After cooking the cornmeal the porridge wasn’t really pourable, as I had expected it to be, so I added a bit more water to thin the cornmeal down before pouring it into the baking dish.  Perhaps this is why my cornmeal didn’t turn out particularly crunchy, or perhaps it’s because I used a polenta grind instead of a cornmeal grind.  Along with the extra water, I also added more salt than the recipe called for, as I didn’t think 1/2 tsp. was enough for a full 1.5 cups of cornmeal. In retrospect, however, 1/2 tsp. of salt is probably a reasonable amount, considering the low amount of water called for.   Normally I use at least 4-to-1 water to cornmeal, so I end up with a lot more polenta, and as a result need more salt.

When it came time to stir 2/3 of the carmelized onions into the polenta I couldn’t do it—I didn’t think there’d be enough onions left to cover the top of the polenta.  Instead, I stirred less than half of the onions into the cornmeal, and then spread the remaining onions over the top of the cornmeal.  This was a mistake.  I didn’t read the recipe carefully enough, and didn’t realize that you were supposed to spread the onions over the top only after the cornmeal is cooked.  As a result, my onions started burning after only about 20 minutes, and I pulled the polenta out of the oven early (perhaps another reason my polenta didn’t end up very crunchy).  Still, the polenta was delicious.  It was very flavorful (and very rich).  Everyone liked it.  I’ll definitely make it again, following the recipe more precisely this time, but maybe using more onions.

Update January 11th:  I didn’t civilize my coarse polenta this time, but just used it as it was.  I added only the suggested amount of water and salt, and stirred in 2/3 of the onions as instructed.  I was out of parmesan, however, so simply left it out.  I baked the polenta for the full 45 minutes this time, then spread the remaining onions over the top.  The final polenta was not nearly as good as last time.  It was simply okay the first night, and not at all appealing as leftovers.  I’m not sure if it was the absence of parmesan, or the smaller amount of water, or the longer cooking period.  Whatever it was, I wouldn’t make it this way again.  I also thought the carmelized onions were a bit too wormlike.  I preferred them like they were last time–a bit on the charred side, but less slimy.

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