Farro: The Oldest Grain You Haven’t Met Yet

—by Stacie RobinsonBowl of farro soup

Thinking of a Mediterranean meal to accompany a glass of vino for a balmy late summer supper on the patio? Feel like a rustic Tuscan treat, but think you need to break out of your pasta rut? Think farro!

Farro (pronounced FAHR-oh), also referred to as emmer wheat, is a grain in the same genus of plants as common wheat and spelt (Triticum). You can think of farro as the ultimate heirloom variety.

This ancient version of wheat has remained unhybridized for thousands of years. It was cultivated in Mediterranean regions of North Africa and the Middle East. Farro grains have been found in Egyptian tombs and were a staple food of the Roman Empire. Farro has remained a popular staple in the Tuscany and Abruzzo regions of Italy, where this hearty grain thrives in rugged mountain conditions. In fact, the robust constitution and longevity of Italians in these regions is sometimes attributed to the nutritional benefits of their whole-grain farro diet.

But, you’re not eating a history lesson for dinner! What about flavor? Farro is surging back into popularity thanks to its light nutty flavor and pleasantly firm texture. This is a whole-grain cook’s dream. It cooks to tender chewiness in just 10 to 15 minutes, but maintains a structural integrity that makes it hard to overcook. Farro can be used much the same way as wheat or spelt berries. Cooked farro grains make a tasty and nutritious addition to salads, or a great rice alternative in pilafs or even risotto.

Here’s a recipe that honors the Italian tradition of farro as a staple grain in a hearty meal:

Classic Tuscan Farro and Bean Soup
(Active prep time: 30 minutes. Simmer time: 15+ minutes.)
1 cup farro grains (uncooked)
4 cups water
4 cups vegetable broth (or water + bouillon)
2 cups cooked garbanzo beans (or one can, drained)
2 cups crushed tomatoes (fresh or canned, grilled/roasted is ideal)
1⁄2 pound sausage (or vegetarian substitute)
1 medium onion (diced)
1 large sweet red pepper (diced)
2 cups kale (chopped)
3 cloves garlic (minced)
1 teaspoon paprika (smoked is ideal)
1 teaspoon sage
salt to taste
red chili flakes to taste

Place farro, water, and broth in a large stew pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 10 minutes.

As you simmer, sauté the sausage until fully cooked and browned. This step may be minimized if you use a vegetarian, fully cooked, or hard cured sausage. A dry chorizo is great. Or, for a fresh and uncooked sausage, I had great luck with the Ferndale Market Garlic and Red Pepper Turkey Sausage from the co-op’s freezer case (this is the version included in nutritional information below).

Add onion, peppers, garlic, and spices to the sauté pan and cook until just tender (3–5 minutes).

Add the kale at the last minute to wilt.

Dump the sauté pan into the stew pot. Add the canned (or freshly pre-cooked) garbanzo beans and tomatoes and simmer for at least 15 minutes to let flavors mingle.

Nutritional information (for a big bowl equal to 1/10th of this recipe):
Calories: 163
Carbohydrates: 25.2g
Fat: 3.3g
Protein: 10.3g
Over 50% of daily recommended vitamins C and K, and manganese.
10–20% of daily recommended vitamins B1, B3 and B6, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc.
Around 5% of daily recommended vitamins A, B5, B2, B12 and E, calcium, and selenium.

[Stacie Robinson is a wildlife ecologist, working at the U of M vet school researching wildlife diseases. Enjoying the outdoors has given her an enthusiasm for wild foods as well as whole foods.]