Go with the grain: Give farro a modern twist

Farro fed the Mediterranean for thousands of years and kept Roman legions on the march. Skye Gyngell gives this ancient cereal a modern twist.

I am currently having a small and intense love affair with a grain called farro. It's rarely seen or used here, but is well-loved in Italy and has been a crucial part of traditional cooking in parts of central and southern Italy since Roman times. Farro has a delicate, nutty flavour and an almost ancient feel to it. It's both chewy and tender and is delicious served hot or cold. I much prefer using pulses and grains to potatoes in cooking. They have a sense of warmth and goodness to them and are a rich source of protein. Either farro or spelt can be used in the recipes that follow.

I like to use the wholegrain farro which is usually labelled perlato, semiperlato or decorticato. It cooks fairly quickly and its final flavour is refined. You can also get a type called farro integrale which has the whole outer, brown hull intact - it requires a few hours of soaking and a longer cooking time and retains a firmness similar to that of wild rice. The great thing about farro is its ability to absorb the flavours with which it is cooked. And on that note, it is worth being mindful during seasoning; prudent use of salt and vinegar is essential.

Leftover farro keeps well covered in the fridge for a couple of days, and makes a lovely addition to risottos and soups, and bean and vegetable dishes. s

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, off Petersham Road, Richmond, Surrey, telephone: 020 8605 3627

Farro with porcini, aged Parmesan and Barolo

This is wintery in feel, but as l write the weather is miserable - it has rained all weekend - and l have dressed for the spring, so l feel cold, wet and in need of warm cheer.

Farro is an extraordinary absorber of flavour and, when matched with the right flavours, is very, very comforting.

2tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
3 sage leaves, coarsely chopped
120g/41/4 oz dried porcini, soaked in 250ml/8fl oz of warm water
300g/10oz farro
250ml/8fl oz good-quality chicken stock
250ml/8fl oz Barolo (or full-bodied red wine)
75g/3oz of Parmesan, half grated and half shaved
Sea-salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Place the olive oil in a medium-sized, heavy-based saucepan over a gentle heat. Add the chopped onion, garlic and sage and also a pinch of salt.

Take half the porcini from the water they are soaking in and chop roughly. Add to the saucepan and stir once or twice to combine. When the onion is soft (after 5 minutes or so), add the farro and stir well to coat in the olive oil, garlic, sage and porcini.

Add the chicken stock and wine and turn the heat up slightly and cook for between 20 and 30 minutes (farro and spelt cook quite quickly - you are looking for a nutty tenderness). Stir and taste frequently.

Finish with the rest of the porcini and the Parmesan. Adjust the seasoning; you will need a pinch or 2 of sea-salt and a really generous grinding of black pepper. Serve hot with chewy, peasant-style bread. Alternatively, it's delicious with grilled quail or rabbit. (omega)

Farro with mint, anchovies and English tomatoes

The best tomatoes to use for this simple, early-summer dish are Heritage; we get ours from Secretts Farm.

5tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2tsp good-quality red-wine vinegar
4 cured anchovies
5 tomatoes (if you can't find Heritage, then good ripe cherry tomatoes would work really well)
250g/8oz cooked farro
A handful of fresh mint leaves
A handful of basil leaves
A little sea-salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper

Whisk together the oil, vinegar and a little pepper and salt. The vinegar flavour should be barely detectable. Chop the tomatoes into rough chunks. Toss the farro, chopped tomatoes and anchovies together. Tear up the basil and mint leaves, then fold into the farro.

Taste, adjusting seasoning if necessary. Serve at once - the flavours should be bright, clean and clear.

Farro with broadbeans, peas, asparagus and spinach

This simple, seasonal, late-spring salad can be offered as part of an antipasto, perhaps with a bowl of knobbly black olives and some parma ham or top-notch salami. (omega)

60g/21/2 oz cooked broadbeans
8 asparagus spears, quickly blanched
60g/21/2 oz cooked peas
125g/4oz cooked spinach
250g/8oz cooked farro
4tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
The juice of one lemon
Sea-salt and freshly ground black pepper

As a rule of thumb, vegetables that grow above the ground should be dropped into boiling, well-salted water, while vegetables that grow below the ground should go into cold water. Broadbeans need no more than a minute in boiling water - asparagus the same. Peas need a minute or so more. I prefer not to refresh cooked vegetables under running water, but to dress them quickly while still warm. I believe that this gives them a better flavour.

Cook the spinach by simply rinsing well in cold water and placing a dry pan over a low heat - the water that clings to the leaves is enough to create steam to wilt the spinach. Once wilted, remove quickly and drain in a colander.

I always double-pod broadbeans; l do not find the pale, tough, outer skin pleasant to eat. It's extra work, but well worth it. Place the farro, spinach, peas, broadbeans and asparagus into a bowl and dress with olive oil and lemon.

Season with sea-salt and black pepper and toss together lightly with your fingers. Again, serve quickly while the flavours are fresh.

Carrot, celery, farro and borlotti soup

This comforting, gentle soup is homey in feel, but l would be happy to serve it in the restaurant, too. Farro and borlotti beans are good together, young spring carrots are delicious - and celery is good with almost anything.

Serves 4

40ml/11/2 fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, peeled and chopped (omega)
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
5 sage leaves, torn
4 carrots, peeled and chopped into characterful chunks
3 stalks of celery, chopped
250g/8oz cooked borlotti beans
250g/8oz cooked farro
600ml/1 pint homemade chicken stock, or water if you prefer
Sea-salt
Freshly ground black pepper

To finish the soup
30ml/1fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
A handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley
60g/21/2 oz freshly grated Parmesan

Place a medium-sized, heavy-based pan on top of the stove over a medium heat. Add the olive oil, onion, garlic and torn sage leaves; season with a pinch of salt, and sweat for 5 minutes.

Add the carrots and celery, then turn the heat to low and cook for 15 minutes more.

Now add the cooked borlotti beans and farro. Stir well and pour over the chicken stock. Turn the heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes more.

Taste, adding a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper and a good pinch of salt, if needed.

Finish with the chopped parsley, olive oil and freshly grated Parmesan.

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