Fantastic farro

Published on March 27, 2014

Thought to be one of the oldest grains on the planet, the ancient grain farro dates back to feeding Roman armies and nourishing the tombs of Egyptian kings. If you’ve never heard of it, you’ll likely be seeing a lot more of it soon, given it’s starting to make a comeback to grocery and speciality stores.

Farro is a type of hulled wheat. And while many ancient grains are gluten-free, this one isn’t. It has a nutty flavour similar to oats and barley, and a firm but chewy texture similar to wild rice. It resembles a plump barley grain and often takes on the flavour of foods with which it is cooked.

Nutritionally, farro is a good source of B vitamin niacin, fibre, iron, zinc and magnesium. For a similar serving size, farro contains more fiber than its whole-grain counterparts brown rice and quinoa. It’s also a good source of healthy polyunsaturated fats and protein.

Farro also contains a particular carbohydrate called cyanogenic glucosides, which has been found to stimulate the immune system, regulate blood sugar levels and lower cholesterol.

The answer to what, exactly, farro is can be a little complicated. A lot of the farro available here in Canada is imported from Italy. In Italy, the term farro is used to refer to three ancient wheat varieties: einkorn, emmer and spelt (or farro piccolo, farro medio and farro grande, respectively.)

To know what variety of farro you are purchasing, look at the product packaging. Frequently the front will state “Farro” and in smaller print you’ll see which variety it actually is. For the most part, the variety we normally see here is either emmer or spelt.

Aside from noting the variety of farro, you’ll want to ensure the kind you choose is a whole grain.

Avoid the word pearled, which indicates that some of the nutrient-rich bran has been stripped away. This helps the grain to cook faster, but comes with the cost of missing nutrients. Instead, look for whole farro or at least semi-pearled farro (aka semi-perlato/semi-brillato, with most recipes calling for this kind) for a whole grain or maximal nutrition.

The whole-grain farro does take longer to cook, but with a coffee grinder or blender you can always crack it yourself to speed up the cooking process, while maintaining nutritional wholesomeness and freshness.

To cook farro, soak whole or unpearled farro overnight to soften the hull, or outer layer. For one cup of farro, boil with three cups water. Cover and simmer for 30-40 minutes and, voila, you’ve got a nutritious whole grain that is a great substitute for small sized pasta or rice.

Farro does not become hard when refrigerated, unlike many grains, and can also be prepared in large batches and frozen for later use.

The risotto recipe below (or farrotto as they are often called) uses farro grande, the spelt variety. The original version is double the portion size and suggested as a main dish. However, as below, I’d suggest dividing this recipe into eight servings and serve it as a side dish, thereby lowering the calories, sodium and fat per serving.

Lemon scented farro risotto

3 tbsp (45 mL) unsalted butter

1/2 cup (125 mL) finely diced shallots

1/4 tsp (1 mL) freshly ground black pepper

1/8 tsp (0.5 mL) salt

1 pkg (225 g) PC Blue Menu Farro

3 cups (750 mL) PC Blue Menu Chicken Broth (approx.)

3/4 cup (175 mL) grated Parmigiano Reggiano (about 25 g)

2 tsp (10 mL) finely grated lemon rind

In wide-bottomed saucepan or frying pan, melt butter over medium heat. Cook shallots, pepper and salt for six to eight minutes, stirring often, or until shallots are tender and translucent. Stir in farro and cook for one minute, stirring. Add one cup (250 mL) of the broth; cook uncovered for six to eight minutes, stirring frequently until liquid is absorbed. Add another one cup (250 mL) of the broth; cook uncovered for another six to eight minutes, stirring frequently until liquid is absorbed. Add remaining one cup (250 mL) broth; cook uncovered for a final six to eight minutes, stirring frequently until liquid is absorbed and farro is tender-crisp with a pourable consistency. Add additional stock, if necessary, to achieve pourable consistency.

Stir in parmigiano and lemon rind. Serve immediately.

Makes eight side-dish servings.

Per serving: 165 calories, fat 6 g, sodium 200 mg, carbohydrate 23 g, fibre 2 g, protein 5 g. Recipe source

Amanda O’Brien is a registered dietitian in St. John’s. Contact her through the website