I've recently discovered farro, a wonderful little ancient grain that apparently once sustained hordes of Roman legions and which is now a cause of some confusion. Believed to be Italian in origin, it's sometimes mistakenly translated or described as barley, spelt or wheat berries, when it fact it is not quite any of those. However, I don't think such definitions really matter, because what is important is the sheer deliciousness of these little nuggets of wheat, which are versatile and lend themselves to all sorts of culinary uses. They've become a new favourite in my kitchen, eclipsing hot rivals such as buckwheat, quinoa and couscous - at the moment I can't get enough of their delicious texture and subtle nutty flavour.
Unfortunately, farro is not easy to come by in this country. I've never actually seen it for sale, and I frequent all sorts of weird and wonderful little delis and health food shops. I managed to come across my stash in Italy last year, where I picked up a couple of bags in a small city supermarket for about a euro each, in the same way you might find pearl barley in most of our supermarkets. I was unfeasibly excited by the fact that I had finally found this elusive grain, a cause of some curiosity as I've read about it in a few recipe books. My boyfriend looked at the nondescript bags of brown blobs that I was brandishing feverishly, and appeared more than a little bemused.
Farro looks very similar to pearl barley, and is pretty much interchangeable in recipes. Both grains absorb large amounts of water when cooked to turn into fluffy yet nutty little pearls of chewiness, deliciously textured and the perfect plain vehicle for salad ingredients or a great bolsterer of hearty soups. You can also use them as you would risotto rice, for a less starchy and creamy but equally delicious risotto.
This, my final recipe for Thomson Al Fresco, is a suggestion for a delicious self-catering recipe based on Italian ingredients that you'd be likely to find in local markets and delis. It's quick to make, very simple, only uses one pan and is flavoursome and healthy too, plus possibly the most colourful salad you'll ever throw together. It's a blueprint for all the tasty things you may find around you, were you lucky enough to be on a camping holiday in Italy - salami, ripe tomatoes, fresh herbs, beautiful cheeses and balsamic vinegar. And, of course, that sustainer of Roman martial prowess: farro.
First, a blank canvas of chewy, nutty farro grains, simmered until just tender in stock. These are mixed with wilted spinach, roasted red peppers from a jar (so much easier than trying to do it yourself, plus they have a delicious depth of flavour you just can't get from making your own), chopped cherry tomatoes, slices of salami (take advantage of whatever delicious specialities you have in your region), torn mozzarella (again, you can adapt this to make use of whatever cheeses are good nearby) and fresh basil leaves (or you could use fresh oregano or thyme). A splash of balsamic vinegar to dress, a smidge of salt and pepper, and you have dinner or lunch right there.
I was expecting this to be tasty, but I wasn't prepared for quite how tasty. The key is the red peppers, which lend some of their delicious smoky oil to the mix and turn everything sweet, juicy and wonderful. The mozzarella adds a delicious buttery note, while the salami contributes piquancy and a rich smoky meaty flavour. There are tomatoes and basil for freshness, and that splash of balsamic to enrich the whole thing. While consigned to a supporting role, the farro definitely stands out, with its delicious firm texture and nutty flavour, contrasting very well to the other rich ingredients. Don't be put off by the sheer amount of vegetables in this - it's incredibly tasty, with nothing about it that would suggest 'health food' except the colours.
Farro salad with roasted peppers, tomatoes, mozzarella and basil:
This recipe is more of a guideline than anything else. For each person, use approximately 100g (or half a cup) farro (or pearl barley if you can't find it). Cook this in boiling water (or stock if you have some) for about 20-30 minutes, until tender but still with some bite to it. Drain and return to the pan.
To the hot farro, add some baby spinach (a large handful per person), which will wilt as you stir it around the pan. Add some roasted peppers from a jar - you can drain these on kitchen paper or take them out of the jar using a fork if you don't want too much oil in your salad - around 3 tbsp per person. Add some quartered or halved cherry tomatoes, around 7-8 per person. Add 8 or so slices of salami per person. Season well with salt and pepper, and add a splash of balsamic vinegar. Mix well, then distribute onto plates before topping with torn mozzarella (or whatever cheeses you have to hand - goat's cheese or feta would also work well) and fresh basil leaves.