Farro with Roasted Cauliflower, Chickpeas and Kale
Mother Nature is a cruel mistress. She teases and flirts with the first few sunshiney days of spring. She whispers sultry sweet nothings in our ears. “Mmm…you must be awfully warm in that heavy sweater of yours…maybe you should just take it off?” Eager and encouraged, we oblige. We strip down and strut around in a seasonal mating dance, basking in the warm glow of her affections. And then POW! Just like that, she takes it all away and leaves us shivering and blue balled with her fickle fancy. Today, once again, the back yard is groaning under a cold and desolate blanket of snow.
It’s depressing, really. I’ve spent the last two weeks anticipating and salivating over the prospect of steamed fiddleheads in vinaigrette and wild leeks from the farmer’s market. Those dreams were just a fleeting fancy though. Apparently we’ve still got some time to wait before fresh local produce is abundant again. In the mean time, I refuse to resort back to braised meats and roasted root vegetables. Bleech. I’ve eaten enough butternut squash this winter. It’s time for some cross over food – the food which is lighter and greener, but still nourishing and hearty enough to keep the winter woes at bay.
I love cooking with whole or ancient grains like quinoa, millet, kamut, barley and spelt. They have a high nutritional value, deliciously varied flavors, and when purchased at a bulk foods store they’re generally also very affordable. And, as you know, I’m a sucker for affordable.
Farro is a rather new addition to the cast in my cupboard, because frankly I rarely came across it and had no idea what to do with it. After a little bit of research, this is what I learned:
- Farro is an ancient grain, with evidence of human farro consumption dating back to 7700 BC.
- The grain is easily digested, has low gluten levels, and nutritional benefits include being high in fiber, magnesium and vitamins A, B, C and E.
- There is a lot of speculation about farro. Is it wheat berry? Spelt? Maybe both, depending on size? Something called emmer? The verdict is still out on that one, but it’s generally accepted that farro is it’s own distinct ancient grain which has similarities to both wheat and spelt.
- Being a low-yield crop means that it’s less popular to cultivate. Although farro grows in the Middle East and North African regions, common cultivation is more popular in Italy.
- Farro can be cooked similarly to rice by bringing it to a boil and then reducing the heat to let it steam for 20 – 25 minutes. You can also boil it like pasta, draining off the extra water when the farro is tender. My preference is to steam it because I like that the grains become tumescent and just slightly split, but stay fluffy and light. Boiled grains always seem vaguely slimy and mushy to me. Cooked farro grains should be just slightly chewy and delightfully toothsome.
- The flavor is delicate, slightly sweet and a little bit nutty.
Because farro is commonly found in Italian cuisine, usually in whole grain form to give soups some gusto or add body to a salad, I took some inspiration from common rustic fare. I love traditional home cooking, particularly what is often described as ‘peasant food’. After all, why do we look down our noses at simple and honest meals? There is a time for fresh borlotti beans and a time for canned chickpeas. Sometimes grain-rich, easy, and comforting food deserves a little place in the sun as well….particularly when the winter drags on so long that you’re starting to wonder if you’ll ever see the sun again.
Farro with Roasted Cauliflower, Chickpeas and Kale
- 1.5 cups farro *
- 3 + 1/4 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock**
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 head cauliflower
- 4 tbsp olive oil, divided
- 1 yellow onion
- 3 large cloves garlic (or 4 medium ones)
- 3/4 tsp hot red pepper flakes
- small bunch kale (about 6 packed cups when chopped)
- 1 can chickpeas (19 oz)
- 1 lemon
- salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
* I found farro in a local grocery store which stocks a lot of Mediterranean (specifically Italian) goods. You may also be able to locate it at a bulk foods store. If you can’t find farro, barley would be an adequate substitute.
** Vegetable stocks vary enormously in terms of color and flavor. I suggest looking for a richly flavored and aromatic golden stock, as opposed to a tomato based stock. A recipe for flavorful vegetable stock can be found here.
Preheat your oven to 400ºF.
Cut the half head of cauliflower up into florets that could reasonably be considered bite sized, but not exactly reminiscent of popcorn. Drizzle the cauliflower with 2 tbsp of olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and toss them around to make sure that each piece is evenly coated in a light sheen of oil. Spread the cauliflower out on a baking sheet and tuck it into the center of your oven.
Let the cauliflower roast away, pausing only after about 10 minutes to shake the pan and flip the florets over so that they don’t just caramelize and cook on one side. The cauliflower will need to roast for about 20-25 minutes in total, or until it’s tender and slightly golden most of the way around with bits of delightful char smattered here and there.
In the mean time, throw the farro into a dry pot set over medium-high heat. Stir the farro and let it toast for only a minute or two – be vigilant, because you want toasted farro and not burnt farro.
Toasting the farro is not really part of the cooking process, but I love toasting grains before I cook them because it just releases a whole new dimension to the grains’ flavor.
When the farro is fragrant and nutty smelling you can stir in 3 cups of chicken stock (reserving the last 1/4 cup) and the bay leaf. Keeping the pot over medium high heat, bring the stock up to a rolling boil. As soon as you’ve reached a good boil cover the pot, turn the heat down to minimum, and let the farro steam away undisturbed for 20 – 25 minutes. Remember not to peek and lift the lid while the grains transform. Nobody likes to be surprised when they’re undressing.
And see? Just like cooking rice! Now how easy is that?!
Dice the onions and mince the garlic cloves.
(If you haven’t already checked on your cauliflower and given it a good flip, well, there’s no time like the present)
In a large and deep pan heat the remaining 2 tbsp of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, garlic and hot pepper flakes. Sautee them gently for about 5 minutes, or until the onions are soft and translucent.
Cut the tough stems off of the kale and discard them. Give a nice rough chop to the rest of the kale leaves. There should be about 6 cups of chopped kale in total, which seems like a lot until you consider that after it cooks you’ll be left with just enough to get stuck in your teeth as a celebration of awkward social occasions the world over.
Add the kale to the onions and sprinkle liberally with salt and freshly ground pepper. Pour in your remaining quarter cup of chicken stock and immediately cover the pan with a tight fitting lid. Let this cook away undisturbed for 5-7 minutes, at which time the kale should be soft and wilted but still recognizable as a winter green.
Drain and rinse your can of chickpeas and add these to the kale.
Squeeze in the juice of a nice heavy lemon and give the pan a stir.
Ah, and the cauliflower! God forbid that we should forget about the cauliflower. I really enjoy that roasting cauliflower transforms it from a pudgy, pale band geek (you know it’s true. When’s the last time that you had a vegetable platter and thought, “Dang! Somebody ate all the cauliflower already!!”) into a rich, sweet and nutty sophisticate. Roasted cauliflower can work a room and be just as comfortable lounging around in sweats with baked chicken, discussing existential poetry with that goddamned hippie wild rice, or cozying up intimately beside a titillating and testosterone fueled beef tenderloin.
Add the roasted cauliflower to the kale and chickpeas.
Fluff the cooked farro up with a fork (all of the liquid should be absorbed), remove the bay leaf, and stir this well into the vegetable mixture.
Hearty and wholesome, dinner is served.
I’ve been trying to incorporate more vegetarian and vegan meals into our diet. Mike has no problem with this, and now he only occasionally mutters things like, “Huh. This is good…..but it would be better if it had chicken in it….” I find that to mitigate our struggle, using whole grains, protein rich legumes, and a hearty balance of vegetables are really the keys to success for our vegetarian or vegan meals. Particularly because they’re heart healthy but just filling enough that I’m not wandering around the kitchen a half hour later looking for cheese.
Ooh, lovely caramelized cauliflower. Be still my heart. The combination of textures with the slightly chewy farro, creamy beans, watery bright greens and just a light kiss of lemon and chili – well, it makes my belly sing.