Let me back up for a minute and explain what farro is. It's the grains of an ancient wheat variety known as emmer. I don't know if you noticed, but in the recent years farro has become the darling grain of restaurant chefs. It has an earthy flavor without the feel of cardboard. It gets tender quickly, but doesn't turn mushy easily. It can be used in soups, in salads, in side dishes, and in risotto preparations instead of rice. Cooking it is idiot proof (assuming you bought the correct product). If you can boil boxed pasta, you can cook farro.
Buying farro is where things get hairy. The problem is that restaurants and recipe writers just call it "farro." What they really want to say is "farro perlato" or "pearled farro." "Pearled" grains are polished to remove most of the outer bran making them more tender. When I first started cooking farro, about 5 years ago, I was lucky to only come across the pearled variety at my local Whole Foods. I didn't know what the word "perlato" meant back then and didn't pay attention to it on the package. I just bought it, cooked it, ate it, and was happy.
Since Whole Foods farro was a bit pricey ($9/Lb), I thought I found a bargain when I saw it at Christina's spices in Cambridge. It was 4 years ago, so I don't remember the price. They labeled it "spelt / farro." Many on-line sources convince me that spelt and farro were the same thing, so I decided to try it. I remember swearing when after 3 hours of cooking that stupid grain refused to become tender enough to eat. That's when I thought I had farro buying all figured out. I now had empirical evidence that spelt and farro were not the same thing and if I wanted farro, I needed to buy farro (ideally, imported from Italy since that's the type I had wonderful results with).
Little did I know that there was plenty more "wrong" farro I could buy. As I found out on my recent trip to Whole Foods, not everything labeled "farro" and imported from Italy tastes like that heavenly grain I got in restaurants. My local Whole Foods carries two types of farro. One is labeled "whole farro" and the other is labeled just plain "farro." Both of them look and taste just like spelt and in my opinion have no good culinary applications except for being added to salads in small quantities. Now that I have tried whole farro, I wouldn't be surprised if the emmer wheat that farro comes from and spelt (another type of wheat) are indeed very similar. The main difference is in how they are processed. There is no reason why they couldn't polish spelt to rub off the bran like they do for farro perlato. I have just never seen it sold that way.
|Whole Farro on the left / Farro Perlato on the right|
I asked the Whole Foods grains guy about farro perlato, and he said they don't carry it (at least not in that store). I guess they are thinking that "whole" grains sell better to the health conscious Whole Foods shoppers. The funny thing is that the nutritional labels for whole farro and farro perlato don't look any different. They both have about the same amount of fiber and protein, so there are no great advantages to inflecting pain and suffering on your jaws.
"Now I am in trouble," I thought. "Where will I get farro for my beans and grains class?" I started googling for "farro boston" when a much easier solution dawned on me. I buy all my cooking tools on-line. Why not farro? I was concerned that the shipping costs were going to be nasty. But eventually, I found one company who sold it through Amazon at a very reasonable price of $12/Lb including shipping.
That's barely more than what Formaggio's in Cambridge charges for farro and definitely more convenient. It breaks down to $6.50 for farro and $5.50 for shipping. I ordered one pack to try. It was perfect. Now that I took a closer look, the shipping costs per package go down if you order more than one. So buying 2 packs of this farro on-line is no more expensive than buying it at Whole Foods.
April 13, 2011 update: Thanks to my wonderful reader, Chris, I was able to locate very inexpensive farro perlato in the Boston area. I just called Formaggio's Kitchen in Cambridge and they indeed have farro perlato. 2.2 Lb bag sells for $9. That's half the price of Whole Foods. Whoever thought to seek a bargain at Formaggio's!
Once you are the proud owner of farro perlato, the rest is easy. Bring lots of salted water to a boil like you would for pasta. Stir in farro and cook until tender but toothsome, about 20 minutes. Drain and serve hot, or rinse in cold water and serve in a salad. You can also cook it using a risotto method just like you would Arborio (or any other type of risotto rice).
For the dish in the picture, I combined cooked, rinsed, and cooled farro with fennel and radishes (both were sliced on a mandoline), thinly sliced scallions, dill, and sectioned oranges. I dressed this salad with lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper. The sexy looking fish on top is broiled sable.