Anatomy of Farro Piccolo with many Complimentary Vegetables

This is the kind of vegetable dish that gets me very excited. All of the components of this dish have been in the human diet in some form for thousands of years, coming together in such a way that when farro, smoked mushrooms, and asparagus hit our tongue, the brain immediately sets off the biological alarm deep within us that clues us, purely by instinct, that what we are eating is exceptionally nutritious. It’s comforting in a very unique way, different from the response we might get from a great plate of chicken and dumplings, or an outstanding gumbo. This is pure, raw nutrition, and it’s balancing at the same time it’s delicious.

I also love this kind of dish because it allows me to showcase another side of Southern cooking that’s long been forgotten: The South, just like the north, was and is being settled by immigrants from around the world, and those immigrants brought with them their favorite foods and their staples. Many of these foods eventually made their way into the books and movies that have made such foods as grits, black eyed peas, and fried green tomatoes famous. Other foods remained in obscurity along with their ethnic groups, and eventually were forgotten by most. That doesn’t make them any less Southern, it just makes them a little harder to come by, perhaps a regional favorite, or something you’d only find in the odd home garden or small farmstead for consumption right there on the farm. Farro is one of these crops.

Farro is a most magnificent grain. Its various cultivars have been under cultivation for ten thousand years! It has literally been the storage crop and fuel for some of history’s greatest civilizations. Farro boasts a sublime mouth feel, almost like caviar, with a toothsome bite that gives way with a little “pop” to a creamy, risotto-like interior and heady aroma that fills the taste buds and nose with the earthy and robust flavor of ancient grain.

So, I decided that while farro is not a cliche Southern food, it’s Southern enough for us, especially since ours is grown and milled organically by Anson Mills in Columbia, South Carolina. Farro piccolo is a particular strain with small grains and a nearly spherical shape that’s delightful. Its hearty texture and robust flavor will serve as a platform for a riot of vegetable preparations over the growing season, so while this dish will always have farro, everything else about it will evolve with the market over the season. It will be a great way to follow the season’s produce.

Already the dish has changed since the above photo was taken – green asparagus is in and golden ball turnips are out – so don’t read the recipes and expect what you’re doing to look exactly like the photo. You can also use almost any seasonal vegetable preparation you’d like, and check back with us often to see what we’re doing. Morels will be in soon!

This is the easiest dish yet – there are several components but feel free to use only one or two of them if you’d like to make a side dish. it’s also worthwhile just to cook up some farro and eat it plain. If you hunt down good farro (try www.ansonmills.com or Whole Foods) it’s a delight in itself, great for breakfast with fruit, tossed in a salad, or eaten alone.

So, the dish is Anson Mills Farro Piccolo, garlic confit puree, white and green asparagus, smoked mushrooms, roasted shallots, Absinthe-soaked raisins, fried parsley. I’m taking a different approach this time, and instead just presenting the recipes for individual components. Hopefully it’s less intimidating than a laundry list of ingredients right at the top. Also, it will hopefully leave you feeling more free to drop a component to save time or due to taste.

This is a vegan preparation. If you like butter, by all means you can substitute it almost anywhere. If you stick with the all-veggie preparation, the flavors will be cleaner and more vibrant; with butter, they will be richer and weightier.

Serves 6

Garlic confit puree

  • 1/2 cup whole peeled garlic cloves
  • 1 cup corn or canola oil

In a small saucepan, place garlic and oil. Using a clip-on thermometer, raise temperature to 250 degrees, Maintain temperature to cook garlic until very tender, about 3 hours. Drain and reserve oil for seasoning and viniagrettes. Puree garlic in the blender, scraping sides down often, until smooth, rich, and creamy, like loose mayonnaise. Add a little leftover garlic oil to soften if desired. This will be seasoned as the dish is finished.

Absinthe-soaked raisins:

  • 1 cup golden raisins
  • 1/2 cup absinthe, herbsainte, or pernod
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • pinch salt
  • pinch cayenne

Place all ingredients in a small, non-reactive saucepan, cover, and bring to a simmer over low heat. Before the mixture reaches a boil, remove from heat and set aside, covered, for 6-8 hours or overnight. Can be stored in their liquid, refrigerated, indefinitely when covered tightly. Expect some flavor deterioration over six months or so.

For the farro piccolo:

  • 1 pound farro piccolo, farro perlata, or whole wheatberries
  • 2 quarts water
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1/2 cup garlic confit puree

Place farro, water, salt, and cayenne in a 3-4 quart non-reactive saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer. Simmer until the berries are cooked – do not boil! This will take about 45 minutes for piccolo, up to 75 minutes for larger wheat berries.  They are done when the center is creamy, not starchy. The hull should retain a nice crunchy bite. Can be held in hot water for thirty minutes or so while other components are completed. To prepare for service, heat in water to a near boil, drain immediately, and toss with the garlic confit puree, mixing well. Re-season with salt to taste, starting with 1/2 teaspoon and moving up from there. Serve at once.

Smoked Mushrooms:

  • 1 pound mushrooms, such as shiitakes, morels, portobellos, or criminis, dry cleaned
  • 1-2 ounces pecan wood chips (cherry or hickory will work well also – avoid oak or mesquite)
  • 1 ounce expeller-pressed peanut oil
  • salt and black pepper to taste (I recommend starting with 1/2 teaspoon and going up from there)
  • 1 ounce brandy (optional)

You can skip the smoking step if you don’t have a smoker or don’t like the flavor. Be careful – mushrooms are very porous and absorb smoke easily. You are looking for a very light smoking. Heavily smoked mushrooms can taste very bitter. Place mushrooms in stainless basket in smoker place wood chips in smoking box. Cold smoke for ten minutes. Remove and set aside in a well-ventilated area. To prepare for the dish, heat peanut oil over medium heat (do not smoke the oil – you are looking for a moderate temperature saute here) and add the mushrooms. Saute until the mushrooms are sweated and cooked through. Hit with brandy (careful for flames!) and season with salt and pepper. Continue to cook over moderate heat until any pan liquid is reduced and has a light sauce consistency.

Salsify:

  • 1/2 pound salsify
  • juice of two lemons, and zest of one
  • 4 pieces star anise
  • 6 pieces whole cloves 4 bay leaves
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 cup cold water
  • 3 cups turbinado sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 2 teaspoons vegetable oil for sauteing (grapeseed, corn, or canola)
  • additional salt, to taste

in a 3-4 quart non-reactive saucepan, place lemon juice, the peeled zest of one lemon, the anise, clove, wine, water, sugar, salt, and pepper. Quickly peel the salsify, chop into 4″ segments, and wash under cold running water. immediately drop each piece into the pot. The lemon juice will prevent browning, which happens quickly with peeled salsify. Place saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve sugar. Reduce heat and simmer to cook salsify through, 30-45 minutes. Drain salsify and cool to room temperature. In this state, salsify can be stored, covered tightly, in the refrigerator for up to one week. To prepare for dish, heat vegetable oil in hot saute pan over medium-high heat. Add salsify and saute, turning constantly, until evenly browned on all sides. It should remain creamy white in the center. Season with additional salt if desired.

White Asparagus

  • 1 bunch white asparagus
  • zest of one lemon (use the extra lemon peel from the salsify preparation)
  • 3-4 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 3 cups cold water
  • 1 cup turbinado sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 2 teaspoons vegetable oil for sauteing (grapeseed, corn, or canola)
  • additional salt, to taste

White asparagus needs a little more attention than green. The dark conditions under which it is blanched can cause it to become a bit stringy. Gently peel the very outer layers of the asparagus before placing in a 3-4 quart non-reactive saucepan with the other ingredients. Place saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat and simmer to cook through, about 10-15 minutes. Drain asparagus, retaining liquid to blanch the green asparagus, and cool to room temperature. In this state, asparagus can be stored, covered tightly, in the refrigerator for up to one week. To prepare for dish (at this stage can be cooked in the same pan with green asparagus) heat vegetable oil in hot saute pan over medium-high heat. Add asparagus and saute, turning constantly, until heated through. Add more salt if desired. Serve at once.

Green Asparagus

  • 1 bunch green asparagus, woody stem bottoms trimmed
  • leftover liquid from white asparagus

Place asparagus and liquid in a 2-3 quart non-reactive saucepan. Place saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat and simmer to cook through, about 6-7 minutes for al dente. Drain asparagus and cool to room temperature. In this state, asparagus can be stored, covered tightly, in the refrigerator for up to one week. To prepare for dish, heat vegetable oil in hot saute pan over medium-high heat. Add asparagus and saute, turning constantly, until heated through. Add more salt if desired. Serve at once.

Roasted shallots

  • 12-18 small shallots, peeled whole (look for French gray shallots in early summer from Green Acres at teh Green City Market – they are the best!
  • 3 Tablespoons top notch extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper, or to taste

Toss peeled shallots in two tablespoons of the olive oil with the salt and pepper. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet pan and bake at 325 degrees until cooked tender and just browning. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. These can be refrigerated up to one week. To prepare for service, use one tablespoon of olive oil in a saute pan over medium-high heat. Saute whole shallots in hot olive oil (maintain the oil below smoke point) until caramelized an amber color on all sides. Add more salt if desired. Serve at once.

Fried Parsley

  • 1 quart cooking oil, such as grapeseed, corn, or canola
  • 1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, cleaned and thoroughly dried
  • salt and black pepper, to taste

In a large saucepan or home deep fryer, heat the oil to 400 degrees while using a clip-on thermometer. Pick the leaves from the parsley while the oil heats. Once hot, drop the parsley leaves into the oil in small batches. Flash fry until crispy, being careful not to brown, about 20-30 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Dust very lightly with salt and pepper. May be stored at room temperature for up to 24 hours.