Moving to Italy is something that I daydream about all the time. I haven’t yet managed it, but that is not the case for my friends Jim and Rod. After many trips to Italy, and two recent trips to Lucca, they have decided to make the big move. On their latest trip, they rented an apartment just steps outside of Lucca’s walls in a quiet neighborhood (giving me a bad case of apartment envy, not to mention envy of their two gorgeous balconies). Then they came home to New Mexico, sold their house, gave up years of collected belongings, and packed their essentials. How exciting is that?
Recently, I had Rod and Jim over for a going-away lunch. It is quite hot in New Mexico at this time of year, so I fixed an Italian-inspired lunch that involved little actual cooking. On the menu was a cold farro salad with shrimp (more about farro in a minute), sliced tomatoes with burrata (topped with basil, salt, and olive oil), and a simple bruschetta of bread topped with olive oil and salt. The wine was a Gavi, my favorite light Italian white, perfect for a hot summer day. Dessert came from Whole Foods and wasn’t the least bit Italian – Key lime tartlets.
Are you familiar with farro? It’s an ancient form of wheat; some say it is the grain from which all modern wheats are descended. Farro is an important part of the Lucchese culinary tradition, found mostly in soups that also feature beans or vegetables.
Farro is high in fiber, has good protein and vitamin content, and is lower in gluten than modern wheat. Farro can be found in three forms: whole grain, semi-pearled (polished to remove some of the tougher outer husk) and pearled (all the husk polished away). The form influences both nutritional value (highest in the whole grain) and cooking time (quicker with pearled forms). I tend to use the semi-pearled variety when I can find it, but also like the whole grain, which maintains a chewier texture even after the longer cooking time.
The farro salad that I make uses a base of 1 ½ cups uncooked farro, covered in water (about 3 ½ cups but the exact amount isn’t critical – just cover the farro at least 1 inch deep and drain off any extra water at the end of cooking), and ½ tsp salt. Bring to a boil, turn heat down to simmer, and cook until tender. Cooking time varies depending on type of farro used and altitude. I live at about 5,000 feet; my whole grain farro took about an hour. Pearled farro can cook in as little as 20 to 30 minutes. If using whole grain, the cooking time is shorter if it is soaked overnight before cooking. When done, drain off any extra water and cool the farro before preparing the salad.
To make the salad, add the following to the cooked and cooled farro and toss:
½ of an English cucumber, seeded and cut into small cubes
1/3 c. finely diced red onion
4-5 oz. of crumbled feta cheese
¾ tsp coarsely ground black pepper
½ - 1 tsp sea salt (I use Penzey’s French Gray Sea Salt)
5 tbl. fresh lemon juice
5 tbl. good olive oil
Mix together and chill for an hour or two before serving.
The farro salad goes well with steamed shrimp, 1 to 1.5 pounds marinated several hours in 4 tbl olive oil, 4 tbl fresh lemon juice, 1 tbl chopped fresh mint leaves, and ½ tsp coarsely ground pepper. Sprinkle with sea salt before serving.
After a wonderful lunch, I'm sending Jim and Rod off on their Italian adventure with big hugs and a “Ci vediamo a Lucca in Settembre” (see you in Lucca in September).
They've even promised to cook for me in their new kitchen.
-post by JMB