All roads lead to Rome
Whenever one thinks of Ancient Rome, we always imagine the marvels of their architecture, the decadence of the Caesars and royalty, and the excitement of gladiators in the arena. We never really fathom or think about the average peasant in a village living a modest life in the grand empire.
Our story doesn’t really begin in Ancient Rome, but in a Cheesecake Factory of all places. Zuzana and I were out shopping and running errands, and decided to have lunch at a Cheesecake Factory...mainly because it was a better choice than all of the fast food options in the area we were at. On their menu, I noticed many dishes containing something called “farro” as either a side or ingredient.
Farro is an ancient grain food made from wheat. There is much debate on which strains of wheat are truly “farro”, but regardless, it’s created in the same vain by separation from the wheat plant and then dried into small seed-like grains. You would think it was some form of rice upon a glance.
The history behind farro has been that of the average peasants of Rome. The simple villagers who were not offered all the indulgences of royalty. They ate farro because it was cheap and available. They dressed it up in a number of ways using whatever vegetables, fruit, herbs, and even meat they had.
I personally fell in love with farro as a substitute for rice, truly because of how easy it is to prepare. No having to boil, steam, watch, time, and pray you avoid a soupy or sticky side. You just boil the farro grains until you reach your desired level of tenderness. Some will soak them overnight like beans, but I prefer to simply boil them to a rice-like texture.
Farro’s rustic-nutty flavor makes it very versatile for a number of dishes. The chefs at Cheesecake Factory use it in various salads either with leafy vegetables or even fresh beets. I’ve seen many recipes for soups and baked risotto-like dishes. I even recently made stuffed peppers with farro. Most surprising were some ideas of using farro like oatmeal for a hot cereal with fresh fruits, nuts, and honey. It’s really a unique grain that can go into many directions.
Today, I have for you the first dish I ever made with farro, but it’s been weeks now of making it and we honestly can’t get enough of it. It started when I boiled up some farro and combined it with a package of Trader Joe’s fire-roasted balsamic vegetables. Zuzana and I thought it was decent, but after going for attempts on my own with fresh vegetables, it’s become a wonderful side or even light main course. Have a look:
Farro with Balsamic Vegetables
- 2 cups of uncooked farro
- 2 tbsp of olive oil
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 1 Spanish onion, chopped
- 2 cups of chopped carrot
- 2 cups of chopped celery
- 2 yellow squash, sliced
- 8 oz of sliced mushrooms
- 1 stick of butter
- 1/4 cup of balsamic vinegar
- 1 tbsp of basil
- Salt and pepper to taste.
- Fill a medium-size saucepan halfway with water and bring it to a boil.
- Place the farro into the water and boil for 10 minutes or until your desired tenderness is reached.
- Drain the farro and set aside.
- In a stock pot, heat up the olive oil on medium heat.
- Place the garlic and onion into the oil when hot and sauté until onions begin to turn golden.
- Add in the celery and carrot, stir, and cook until the carrot softens.
- Carefully stir in in the yellow squash and mushroom. Cook for a few minutes.
- Cut the stick of butter up into smaller pieces and place into the mixture. Allow it to fully melt.
- Add in the balsamic vinegar and basil. Stir and continue to cook while seasoning with salt and pepper to your taste.
- Stir in the cooked farro and lower the heat to low or medium-low.
- Simmer the dish for 10 minutes and let the liquids reduce. Stir occasionally.
Be sure to do the prep work. This is one occasion when you want to have everything chopped and ready rather than trying to add as you go.
I also know many might cringe at the thought of adding a whole stick of butter, but I will say it does a lot for the flavor of this dish. If you really do not want butter, try margarine or even a stick of I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. I would not recommend trying to do this recipe without it.
Variations are really up to you. I like to add in zuccini sometimes or even some cherry tomatoes. You could add in chicken if you want to place meat in. Just be sure to use good judgement on when and how well you prepare other ingredients.
If you feel farro is too bland, even with added seasonings, try boiling it in chicken or vegetable broth. I generally like to do that.