Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Harvest Porridge

After hunkering down/shoveling out of the big Nor’easter that blew (and blew and blew) through New Jersey the day after Christmas, I craved something warm and hearty for breakfast.  My mind turned to a meal I had a few weeks before, after a chilly morning walk along the Hudson River.  

There is a Le Pain Quotidien in Battery Park City that serves something called Harvest Porridge.  It is made of farro, almond milk, dried cranberries, pecans, and walnuts, and sounded as healthy and filling to me that day as it did this snowy morning - just what my achy, shoveled-the-long-driveway-three-times-in-40-mile-per-hour-winds body was calling out for.

Farro (also known as emmer) is referred to as an ancient grain for good reason; it was the first cultivated grain, appearing over 10,000 years ago in the Near East and Mediterranean.  Farro was found in Egyptian tombs and was standard fare for the Roman Legions as they conquered Western Europe.

Farro fell out of favor with growers because of its low yields and lengthy milling process.  It’s a shame because this whole grain is one of the healthiest you can eat.  Farro is a complex carbohydrate that contains double the fiber and protein of regular wheat.  It’s loaded with antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins, which contribute to reduced inflammation, stable blood sugar levels, and lower cholesterol. Did I mention it's delicious, too?

Farro is hulled wheat, meaning it has a hard, inedible outer husk that encases and protects the grain inside.  It can be purchased whole or pearled. Whole farro is the more nutritious of the two types because it retains the bran layer and germ when the outer husk is removed; the drawback is it takes longer to cook.  Pearled farro loses the bran and germ along with the husk during the milling process.  This enables the grains to cook faster (about half the time) but lowers the nutritional content.  
The majority of farro today comes from Italy but there are a few US sources producing high quality, heirloom grains.  South Carolina’s Anson Mills sells several varieties of farro, as does Washington’s Bluebird Grain Farms.  I bought mine at the Friday Union Square Greenmarket from Cayuga Pure Organics, supplier of New York grown organic grains, flours, and dried beans.   Founders Dan Lathwell and Erick Smith have been involved with farming in Ithaca, NY since the 1970’s and are committed to sustainable farming practices such as composting, crop rotation, and growing food without pesticides, GMO’s, and artificial fertilizers.

Farro is considered country food in Italy; its chewy texture and nutty flavor make it ideal for soups, salads, stews, and pilafs.  The firm texture is what made it appealing to me as a breakfast cereal.  I like oatmeal, but sometimes the texture is too mushy for my taste. Farro is an excellent alternative. 

Harvest Porridge
Adapted from Le Pain Quotidien

My only caution to you when cooking farro is this:  know what you’ve got.  Is it pearled or whole?  Most farro recipes I come across don’t distinguish between the two types and give cooking times based on one or the other (from my experience, it’s usually pearled).  As a general rule, pearled farro takes half as much time (30 minutes) to cook as whole farro (60 minutes) so adjust your recipe accordingly. 

I had some experimenting to do with my farro.  When I bought it from the Cayuga stand, it wasn’t labeled one way or the other and I hadn’t a clue about this “whole” vs “pearled” business.  I pulled out a farro recipe and started cooking.  It seemed like it took forever to cook – much longer than what the recipe called for - and the grains never really got soft and chewy.  I gave up and tossed the whole thing in the garbage. 

I went back and spoke to the woman I had bought it from and turns out, my farro was whole. She recommended cracking it in a coffee grinder to decrease cooking time and magic! - it worked!  I’ve also read you can pour hot water over whole farro and let it stand overnight to soften and decrease cooking time.

So let my experiment be a help to you; the last thing I want to do is scare you away from this excellent grain.  If all this sounds too complicated, start with pearled farro, which is less temperamental to cook with.  Yes, you’ll lose some nutrition, but it’s still a powerhouse food.   

The original recipe called for agave, which I didn’t have on hand so I substituted a splash of maple syrup instead. 

Almond milk is made of ground almonds and contains no cholesterol or lactose, making it a healthy alternative to cow’s milk.  It has a pleasant, mild flavor and is quite tasty in this recipe. Of course, regular milk is fine to use, too.

3 cups unsweetened almond milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon maple syrup or raw agave nectar
½ cup whole farro, cracked in a coffee grinder or pearled farro, as is
¼ cup dried cranberries
2 tablespoons chopped pecans
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts

In a medium saucepan, combine almond milk, vanilla extract, and maple syrup.  Bring to a boil over medium heat.  Stir in farro.  Simmer over medium-low, about 35 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add dried cranberries.  Continue cooking another 10 minutes or until farro is tender and has absorbed the milk.  Spoon into bowls and top with pecans and walnuts.

Serves 2


Alexis at Cayuga was kind enough to share more info about their farro and farro in general.  Here is what she had to say.  Thanks, Alexis!
I find it best to first soak the farro in room temperature water for about 6 to 8 hours before cooking.  Our bodies do not create the enzyme we need to properly digest and metabolize most grains.  Plus the longer the grain soaks, the less one is bothered with cooking for hours and hours.  If anything happens to float to the top of the bowl/pot during this soak period (which may be over night if that is how you chose to do so) scoop it off and discard!  During the actual cooking process I suggest treating the farro like a wild rice; water ratio of 3 (cups of water) to 1 (cup of grain).

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