Meatless Monday: Fun With Farro

01/31/2011 10:50 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What is "natural flavoring?" Quite often it's a marketing gimmick designed to get you to believe a product is pure and healthful. The truth is, according to the Code of Federal Regulations, natural flavoring is "derived" (read processed) from nature for "flavoring rather than nutritional" purposes. Products may be labelled "healthful" and "all-natural," but often they're so processed that they're neither one -- and for all their natural flavoring, they're not so edible, either.  Accept no imitation -- you deserve the real deal. 

The foods that impress me most are processed the least.  They provide the most nutrition and the biggest, truest flavor for the buck. And they've been around long before FDA regs, long before any of us were around. I'm talking your plant-based foods, fresh produce, dried beans and whole grains. Lacking fab labels and clever Superbowl commercials, they're overlooked and underrated. Whole grains in particular have lacked a great marketing team and haven't gotten the media buzz they deserve.

Rather than being processed till they're nutritionally neutered, whole grains are grains with their kernel and bran intact. Once shunned because they weren't refined, it is their whole lack of refinement, or processing, which makes them valuable. They're are a cheap source of hard-core nutrition, but we didn't care. Until now.

According to a new report, there's been an uptick in sales of whole grain products. My advice? Bypass the whole grain product and go right for the whole grain.

One of the oldest and yet the least well-known is farro. Technically, this grain is a variety of wheat, but it's really more like the prototype of wheat, dating back 17,000 years. Our ancestors grew and ate farro, but it takes modern marketing to get us to know and apprecate it. It's a little sweet, a little nutty and gorgeously creamy in the mouth, it gives you a sense of contuinity by reconnecting with the foods our ancestors ate (they never ate Happy Meals) and has sky-high nutritonal creds, too. Farro's rich in fiber, protein and B vitamins and low in gluten.

Long beloved in Italy, farro (triticum dioscum) is misunderstood here, and is often assumed to be the same as its almost identical twin spelt (triticum spelta). Make no mistake. Spelt, while great and grainy, can take hours to cook, and still every single grain will remain chewy and firm. If it's a risotto texture you're going for, spelt will defeat you. Farro, though, is squarely on your side. It cooks in about half an hour (roughly the same amount of time it takes to cook brown rice) and its natural creaminess lends itself to risotto. All the better, it does so naturally all by itself, without you having to spend an hour at the stove stirring and coaxing Arborio rice, risotto's traditional grain, into a melting tenderness.

We' re often so enamored of foods that claim to be natural and healthful on the label, we overlook foods that are really are. Give this robust grain a try. It's just right for winter, and just right nutritionally. Even without a label that says so.

Farrotto with Greens, Pinenuts and Currents

Call it farrotto, call it Fred, this is a sweet cheat on risotto, made with farro.

To soak or not to soak, that is the question. Many chefs go straight ahead and cook the farro without soaking. I soak it overnight and it comes out tremendously creamy and cooks up quick. Try it both ways.

4 teaspoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 dried red pepper, crumbled, or a couple good pinches dried red pepper flakes
1 big bunch spinach, kale, or other winter greens of your choosing, chopped well
2 cups farro
5 cups vegetable broth or water
1/4 cup currents
1/4 cup pine nuts
sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Rinse farro in a colander and place in a large bowl. Cover with cold water and soak overnight (or not, your call).

Preheat oven to 350.

Pour pinenuts in a shallow oven-proof pan and toast for about 6 minutes, or until they just turn golden. They can go from golden to black in a matter of minutes, so watch the time and zip them out of the oven when they're ready.

Heat olive oil in a generous stock pot over medium-high heat. Add minced garlic and crumbled pepper or pepper flakes. Stir for a few minutes or until garlic and pepper sizzle and become fragrant.

Toss in chopped greens by the handful. Stir until just wilted, about 4 to 5 minutes.

Remove greens to a separate bowl.

No need to wash the pot at this point, add farro directly to it. Stir for a couple of minutes, until farro toasts and gets a little luster from the residual oil.

Pour in vegetable broth or water. Stir and bring to a boil.

Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer farro for 30 minutes, or until most of the liquid is absorbed (farro will continue to soak up liquid as it cools). Farro will be thick and creamy with a risotto-esque consistency.

Stir in greens and currents, which will plump in the heat from the farro.

To serve, reserve 1 tablespoon pine nuts. Gently stir all the remaining pinenuts into the farro. Mound into a serving bowl or spoon onto individual plates. Sprinkle the last of the pinenuts on top for garnish.

Keeps several days, reheats beautifully.

Serves 6.

We' re often so enamored of foods that claim to be natural and healthful on the label, we overlook foods that are really are. Give this robust grain a try. It's just right for winter.