Back in 2001, when we were working on our cookbook, farro was still rare. If you went to the right restaurants, if you frequented the vortices of culinary hipness. Italian delis, in New York or San Francisco maybe. Specialty food stores, the occasional sighting. How the world has turned in a dozen years! Now you can often buy farro in grocery stores, which is a good thing if you want to make this week’s Tomato – Farro Soup.
If you were only 10 back in 2001 or you’ve lead a grain-deprived life, here’s a farro primer. Italians know farro as three different grains–einkorn, emmer and spelt–referred to as farro piccolo, farro medio, and farro grande. Emmer, the farro imported from Italy you’re likely to encounter in specialty stores, has a delicious nutty flavor and a satisfying, mildly chewy texture, as long as it’s not overcooked. Once cooked it resembles barley in appearance, although without barley’s tendency to expand and turn mushy after sitting in liquid. If you’ve ever had a pot of barley soup turn into a splodgy mass after a sleepover in the refrigerator you’ll know what I’m talking about. Almost all imported Italian farro is emmer that has been semi-pearled and parboiled to reduce cooking time for the export market. It requires no soaking and generally cooks in less than 25 minutes. But beware. Some groceries with a more organic or whole food outlook, including Whole Foods, now sell spelt farro, which takes much longer to cook than emmer (think wheat berries vs. barley). And they have dramatically different tastes and textures. If spelt and emmer were both communists, spelt would come off as stiffly doctrinaire, whereas emmer would be the Italian intellectual lingering over lunch, understanding that even the revolution must defer to a bowl of excellent soup. Locally, Formaggio’s in Cambridge carries imported emmer farro. If you’re reading this from afar, you may have to do a little culinary sleuthing to make sure you get the right product. Look for emmer or triticum dicoccom, and semi-pearled or pearled (Italian: semi-perlato and perlato/decorticato) on the label. If the product is Italian, it will almost certainly be emmer, which is what you want.
Where were we?
Right, Tomato-Farro Soup. Despite all the technical grief I’ve just put you through, farro–and this soup–is simple. (So simple I had trouble finding new things to photograph.) In our cookbook we made the soup with plum tomatoes scorched under the broiler, but high-quality canned tomatoes will get the job done in less time with greater ease. As New England enters the season of freezing rains, and worse, you can use the extra time to relax with a glass of wine, savoring the aroma of simmering soup as nature batters fruitlessly against your windows. And when you wake up tomorrow, you’ll still have soup leftovers in the fridge, not splodge. Enjoy. Ken
TOMATO – FARRO SOUP
Makes 4 to 6 servings
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 ounces pancetta cut into ¼-inch dice
- 2 celery stalks, peeled and chopped into ¼-inch dice
- 1 small onion, chopped into ¼-inch dice
- 1 medium leek, white part only, trimmed of roots and tough outer leaves, chopped into ½-inch dice and swirled vigorously in a bowl of cold water to remove any grit
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 cup farro, rinsed
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 5-6 cups chicken broth
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 3 14-ounce cans fire-roasted tomatoes, pulsed in food processor until coarsely pureed
- 2 pepperoncini, thinly sliced and seeds removed, for garnish
- 2 tablespoons fresh basil leaves cut into thin strips, for garnish
- Freshly grated Parmesan, as needed
- Heat 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook until the fat starts to render, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the celery, onion and leeks and season with salt and pepper. Cook until tender, about 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute. Add the farro, bay leaves, thyme, oregano. Stir. Add 5 cups of chicken stock, sugar and tomatoes. Add optional cheese rinds.
- Cook uncovered until the farro is tender (not mushy), about 30 minutes. If the liquid gets too thick, add more stock. When the farro is done the soup base should be thick but not pasty.
- Taste and adjust the seasonings. Remove the bay leaves and any cheese rinds. Ladle the soup into warm bowls. Garnish each bowl with pepperoncini and basil. Add a generous grating of Parmesan and then drizzle each serving with extra virgin olive oil.
This soup came knocking on The Garum Factory door. Last week Stacy, veteran server at Rialto, said, “You should put the Tomato – Farro soup back on the menu.” And then Ken brought it up a week later. He must have had farro on the brain after our recent cabbage post. So here it is.
The original recipe calls for broiling 4 pounds of plum tomatoes, but as I’m watching the first snow flakes of the the season this morning, with a long day ahead of me, I’m thinking that any decent canned are a fine alternative. (I used Muir Glen Fire-Roasted Tomatoes.) This recipe is a good opportunity to cull the cheese drawer in your refrigerator for leftover rinds of grating cheese. Throw them in while the soup is cooking; they add body and flavor. Remove any undissolved pieces before serving.
We eat Tomato-Farro Soup all winter. And of course, in our household, a poached egg will find it’s way into a bowl at breakfast time.