During a recent business trip, I was reading an article in the in-flight magazine about food trends, specifically ancient grains. Just as heirloom varieties of produce and meats have experienced a rebirth, there is a growing interest in ancient grains such as quinoa and spelt, grains that were consumed centuries ago in ancient civilations. Unlike corn, rice and wheat, which have all been bred selectively over thousands of years, the ancient grains remain unchanged from the way they were cultivated in the days of yore. And some are still staples in far flung parts of the world.
A few days later, my husband and I were wandering around the grocery store when he spotted a bag of farro on the shelf. Farro is an Italian grain grown in Tuscany that is said to have fed the Roman legion while they were on campaigns. Its a wheat berry, the whole grain of a certain variety of wheat that is native to that region. We stood there looking at the bag and discussing what we’d do with the stuff. And mostly out of curiosity, it landed in the shopping cart.
I had a pound of shrimp in the freezer and a few tomatoes that were starting to get a little wrinkled on the counter. This was my starting point for a dish that featured farro. Jason read the directions for cooking this grain, which recommended cooking it separately in salted water and adding it to the sauce once it was tender. He got the farro on the stove while I started working on the sauce. I cleaned the shrimp and set the shells aside. My prep began with a classic mirepoix of celery, carrots and onions, all diced finely. I just happened to have a few garlic scapes in the fridge, so I diced one up and added it to the mix. I sautéed the shrimp shells until they turned bright red, resulting in a thin layer of fond on the bottom of the pan. Next I sautéed the shrimp very quickly, just to partially cook them and again, add flavor to the pan. Next came the mirepoix, which I cooked until it was lightly browned. While the mirepoix was cooking, I diced up three medium sized tomatoes and they went into the pan when the mirepoix was browned. I sautéed all these ingredients together for about 5 minutes to let the tomatoes break down a bit, adding salt and pepper at every step. Finally, I added about a cup and a half of chicken stock to deglaze and create an abundant sauce. White wine would have worked just as well, but chicken stock was what I had on hand. I let that reduce just a bit, boiling vigorously, before I drained the farro and added it to the sauce. It had been simmering gently for about 30 minutes and the berries had cracked, but the farro still had a wonderful toothsome texture and a nutty flavor.
Finally, I turned off the heat and added the partially cooked shrimp to the pan, pushing them down into the sauce to let the heat finish cooking them. I dotted the top of the dish with a few small chunks of butter and covered it with a healthy handful of freshly chopped basil. I called Jason to the dinner table.
We sat across the table from each other admiring the beautiful dish of saucy farro and shrimp before us. With great anticipation, we tucked in. It was completely delicious, the al dente farro had an earthy flavor and it had started absorbing the sauce. I flashed on a mental image of ancient Rome with members of the senate sitting down to big bowls of farro, fresh vegetables and jugs of wine. I am now a farro fan and I’m already thinking about my next farro experiment.