Ancient emmer farro has a new crop of fans
When Bluebird Grain Farms of Winthrop, Wash., started growing emmer farro, it gave life to a new crop not only of the ancient grain but also of a lot of new fans, including Seattle-area chefs who are making everything from warm salads and side dishes to dessert doughnuts.
Get the goods
Bluebird Grain Farms' emmer farro comes in a whole-berry version (for salads and side dishes, soups and risotto); cracked (for polenta and hot cereal); flour (for baked goods and pasta); and as pancake and hot-cereal mixes.
Find them at PCC Natural Markets, Whole Foods Market and Metropolitan Market, by phone at 888-232-0331 or online at www.bluebirdgrainfarms.com.
Last fall, during a media dinner at Tavolàta restaurant in Belltown, I met Sam Lucy and his wife, Brooke, who grow emmer farro and other heirloom grains at Bluebird Grain Farms in Winthrop.
I was especially happy to break bread with these farmers, because I'd noticed a recent proliferation of emmer farro dishes on Seattle-area menus — dishes such as La Spiga's Farro "Chitarra" Spaghetti with Basil Pesto and Rover's Baked Halibut with Morel Farro Risotto and Sorrel Sauce.
I figured that emmer farro was fast becoming the ingredient du jour among Seattle chefs, thanks to its whole-grain goodness and organic, locally grown lineage. Not to mention its nutty, slightly sweet taste and toothsome texture, kind of like wild rice on steroids.
This power-packed grain traces its roots back 17,000 years to the beginning of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia. The mother grain of modern-day durum wheat, it's grown in countries such as Morocco, Spain and Turkey.
As well as Italy, where it's known as farro and often "pearled" or "polished" — the outer bran layer removed — so it's quicker to cook and more tender, if less nutritionally sound.
The Lucys grow their emmer farro from heirloom seeds that originated in Rwanda. They maintain their signature grain's healthful properties and freshness by carefully de-hulling it and storing it in old-world wooden granaries that keep it dry and free of mold.
At the Tavolàta dinner, chef/owner Ethan Stowell earned the title "Iron Chef of Farro" after wowing us with a whopping nine dishes, including Farro Salad with Buffalo Mozzarella and Butternut Squash, Oxtail-and-Farro Soup and Grilled Rib-Eye Steak with Farro, Chanterelles and Turnips. Farro flour even found its way into lemon doughnuts.
During dinner, I learned that Sam Lucy comes from a long line of farmers in New Hampshire. He moved to Eastern Washington 17 years ago and got into farming as a way to help preserve land in the Methow Valley that was otherwise destined for development.
At first he grew a little grain in rotation with other cover crops, which helped restore nutrients to the depleted soil. Response was positive when he offered samples to family and friends.
In 2005, he and Brooke began Bluebird Grain Farms because "emmer is what we should be growing and what people should be eating." They farm their 200 acres biodynamically; their products are certified organic.
Sam Lucy says it's tough to keep up with demand now, especially because his family and small staff try to do it all. But it's worth it.
"It feels good to grow good food," he says.
Seth Caswell, who created his signature farro fries while chef-ing at Stumbling Goat Bistro, was so impressed with Lucy's food and the grain that he named his new Queen Anne restaurant emmer&rye.
"In a simple, single grain," he says, "nutrients intermingle with stories of the past and hopes of the future."
Braiden Rex-Johnson is a Seattle cookbook author and food and wine columnist. Visit her at www.NorthwestWiningandDining.com. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
Butternut-Squash, Black-Currant and Blue-Cheese Farro Risotto
Serves 4 to 6
Farro risotto is a seasonally changing item on executive chef Angie Roberts' dinner menu at BOKA Kitchen + Bar at the Hotel 1000 in Seattle. It pairs particularly well with roasted chicken and a lighter-style pinot noir.
6 cups water
1/4 cup dried black currants
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon, plus 1 teaspoon unsalted butter, divided
1/2 cup diced butternut squash
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
For the farro risotto
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small white onion, diced
1 1/2 cups whole-grain farro berries
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup crumbled Rogue River Blue cheese, or other good-quality blue cheese
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1. In a medium saucepan, bring the water to a full, rolling boil. Place the currants in a small bowl and add 1/4 cup of the boiling water and the sherry. Cover and set aside. Reduce the heat to low and bring the water to a simmer.
2. Melt 1 teaspoon of the butter in a small skillet, add the squash, and cook until tender, stirring occasionally, 5 to 7 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper and reserve.
3. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until softened, stirring occasionally, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the farro and cook, stirring constantly until the grains are coated with oil, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the wine and cook, stirring constantly until the wine evaporates or is absorbed, 1 minute.
4. Add a scant cup of the simmering water and cook, stirring frequently, until the water is absorbed, 10 to 12 minutes. Repeat this process five more times. The farro is done when it is tender but still chewy, and suspended in a thick, creamy liquid, 55 to 60 minutes.
5. Drain the currants and discard the water. Stir in the cheese, reserved squash, currants, sage and the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter and simmer until the risotto thickens slightly and glistens, 2 to 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.
— Recipe courtesy of Executive chef Angie Roberts, BOKA Kitchen + Bar
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.
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