One of the things I love about cooking is that there is always more to learn—new ingredients, new/different methods, new equipment. Of course most of these things are not really "new", but they are new to me as I am continuing to learn. Recently something I have been wanting to learn more about is farro. Farro is an ancient form of wheat from the Mediterranean. For a variety of reasons it is experiencing a surge in popularity on restaurant menus here in the United States. Consequently, it is showing up with increasing frequency in cookbooks and trendy food magazines. After looking for local sources for farro off and on for a couple of years, I finally decided to purchase a bag on-line so that I could cook with it and taste it for myself. If I like everything else I try as well as the soup I made the other night, this will certainly not be the last time I write a post about it.
The farro that I purchased is "semi-pearled". When a grain is "pearled", it is polished to remove the bran. Grains are pearled to speed up their cooking times. A "semi-pearled" grain still has some of the bran left on. This means it retains much of its nutritional value. Since a semi-pearled grain will cook almost as quickly as a pearled grain, this seems like an excellent compromise. Apparently semi-pearled is the form in which farro is most typically sold in Italy, too. From what I have been able to tell, unless a recipe calls for "whole farro", semi-pearled or pearled is probably what is meant.
One other thing I thought I would mention is that many cookbooks (and other resources) state that farro is the same thing as spelt (another ancient form of wheat). This is not true. Farro is Triticum dicoccum and spelt is Triticum spelta. The reason that I mention this is that spelt is widely available. If you are looking for farro and can't find it, but have been told that spelt is the same thing and you find that, you would have no reason not to purchase the spelt and use it in your recipe. Since in my experience most of the spelt that is available is a true whole grain (unpolished) it will take much longer to cook than pearled or semi-pearled farro. I'm guessing that you can use whole spelt interchangeably with whole farro—but as I mentioned, that's not what most recipes call for.
The soup I made is Farro & Tuscan Kale Soup adapted from Olives & Oranges by Sara Jenkins and Mindy Fox. The soup is well named because the farro and the Tuscan kale (also called Lacinato Kale, Dinosaur Kale, Cavolo Nero, or Tuscan Black Cabbage) are the unabashed stars of the show. After making a flavorful base of pancetta, aromatic vegetables and a hint of tomato, you add the farro and kale, along with water or a light broth, and simmer until both the farro and kale are tender—the two conveniently take about the same amount of time to cook. It could hardly be easier.
I found many variations on this traditional soup during a quick internet search. You will find variations that use canned tomatoes instead of tomato paste—no doubt creating a richer, more forward tomato presence. There are also recipes that add potatoes and/or cooked white beans with the farro and kale. Excellent additions, I'm sure...but I really loved the simplicity of the soup without these. Finally, Jenkins recipe did not include the pancetta that I did—although she does suggest it as an authentic variation. I can't imagine the soup without it. I love the added depth that just a touch of cured meat adds to a soup.
In the book, they suggest serving the soup topped with a soft poached egg for a complete meal...and next time I will have to try it that way. As I said, we loved this soup. It was even better the next day. I do have one complaint though. With a bowl of soup that is filled with wheat, I found it hard to justify accompanying my bowl of soup with a nice crusty piece of bread.... No matter. I made up for it by having a second helping of soup.
Farro & Tuscan Kale Soup
2 T. Olive oil
2 oz. pancetta, finely diced
1 leek, white and pale green only, halved and cut in 1/3-inch dice and thoroughly rinsed in several changes of water
1 small onion (4 to 6 oz.), cut in ¼-inch dice
2 medium stalks celery, trimmed and cut in ¼-inch dice
1 large carrot, peeled and cut in ¼-inch dice
Salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 to 3 t. double concentrate tomato paste
6 to 8 cups water, or chicken/vegetable stock or a mixture
1 c. farro, preferably semi-pearled, but pearled may also be used—rinsed
2 bunches Tuscan Kale, stems stripped away, leaves cut in 1/2-inch wide ribbons and thoroughly rinsed
Parmesan and Olive oil for serving
Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot set over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook until fat is mostly rendered—3 minutes or so.
Add the leek, onion, celery and carrot along with some salt and freshly ground pepper. Cook until the vegetables are wilted and beginning to soften—about 5 to 7 minutes.
Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Whisk the tomato paste into 1 cup of water and add. Bring to a simmer and cook until all of the liquid has evaporated—about 20 minutes.
Add another 5 cups of water (or stock), the farro and the kale.
Bring to a simmer (the kale will collapse to the level of the liquid within a few minutes) and cook, stirring occasionally, until the farro and kale are both tender and the flavors of the soup are blended—about 25 to 40 minutes. If, at any time after the kale collapses, the soup seems too crowded, add more water and continue to cook. When the farro and kale are tender, taste and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and some freshly shaved or grated Parmesan cheese.
Makes about 2 quarts of soup, serving 4 to 6.
(Recipe adapted from Olives & Oranges by Sara Jenkins & Mindy Fox)
Notes & Variations:
• If you have any rinds of Parmesan in your cheese drawer, add them to the soup with the farro and kale. They add wonderful flavor. Remove the rinds before serving the soup.
• If you prefer, you may add some canned tomatoes to the soup instead of the concentrated tomato paste in water. Run the tomatoes through a food mill fitted with a fine disc, or purée them in the food processor. Add, thinning with a bit of water if you like, and cook until reduced and very thick before proceeding with the recipe. For this size batch of soup, use anywhere from half to a full 14-oz. can of Italian plum tomatoes.
• To prepare a vegetarian soup, omit the pancetta and increase the olive oil to 3 to 4 T. Use water for the liquid.
• Some diced, peeled potatoes or cooked white beans (with their cooking liquid) may also be added to the soup. Add with the farro and kale.
• If semi-pearled (or pearled) farro is not available, you may use whole farro, but since it takes much longer to cook, it should be cooked separately and added to the soup when the kale is almost tender.