Italian Inspiration: Farro Arugula Salad

No one is going to be surprised to hear that our trip to Italy last September was inspirational to my cooking. After living in the city for a couple of years, we opted to go country to start our vacation way off the beaten path. We drove from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport up through Umbria on the back roads and across the spine of the Appenines into Le Marche, to Piobbico specifically, down a dusty road through the hills to La Tavola Marche, an agritourismo owned by hosts extraordinaire Ashley and Jason Bartner.

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Driving in, we passed a few cars parked in the grass on the sides of the road, saw a man disappearing into the trees with a stick and a basket: mushroom hunters! With the cooler weather and fall rain, the mushrooms were starting to pop up on the hillsides. Ashley and a friend of the farm, a local cardiologist and mycologist took a few guests on a mushroom hunt one afternoon. We were lucky to find a couple basketfuls of mushrooms during our scramble through the trees and underbrush.

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Our visit being during the shoulder season (not dissimilar to the cool wet Spring we’re having here this year), dinners were a mix of the last of the garden produce and heartier cool weather fare. Everything Jason cooked was incredibly delicious, simple but beautiful ingredients prepared in interesting ways, unpretentious but as good as any white tablecloth meal I’ve ever tasted. We ended up eating every dinner there, unable to resist the nightly feasts.

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I love the intimacy with which Italians (born and adopted) dealt with their food: the mushroom hunts, the seat in the sun with a glass of beer to clean each mushroom by hand, the well-attended weekly markets in each town, the cheerful and lengthy discussions about gelato flavors, the long family lunches we saw on the Adriatic in Fano, the resourcefulness of “eating up the garden” before the weather turned. It’s a characteristic of that culture that places a high value on the fellowship of the table as well as the food that is placed on it, a congenial community feel to the act of eating.

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This was a salad we were served as part of a prima course, but so immensely satisfying that I’ve adapted it to be a really delicious main course salad. A couple of the ingredients, farro and porcini, might be a little exotic, but are two of my favorite pantry staples. Farro is the grain that fueled the Roman’s armies, an ancient grain that is similar to spelt. It is chewy but not sticky with a hearty flavor ( a bit like wild rice). Porcini – I very occasionally see fresh porcini for sale, but they are usually pretty expensive and a bit battered and bruised so I use dried porcini instead. Porcini (which means “little pigs”, isn’t that awesome!) have a rich earthy meaty flavor that I love. I use them crumbled in my meatballs and meat sauces and to flavor risottos. I’ve also added fresh crimini mushrooms to this recipe for substance, flavor and texture in lieu of foraged mushrooms. The nuts and arugula add crunch and a peppery bite and the salty tangy pecorino cheese rounds out the flavor chord.

I’ve adapted this recipe from my memory of the meal we had in Italy and have posted it with the Bartner’s permission.

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Farro Arugula Salad

the farro method:

1 cup whole grain farro

4 cups water

¼ cup dried porcini pieces, crumbled

sea or Kosher salt

Rinse the farro under running water to remove any dust or husks. Add the dried porcini, cover the grain with the water and let it soak for a couple of hours or overnight in the fridge.

Add salt as if you were salting pasta water. Cook the grain in the soaking water for 20-25 minutes until the farro is chewy but not mushy. Drain thoroughly in a sieve to remove any remaining cooking liquid.

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the salad:

1 lb crimini mushrooms, cleaned and quartered

olive oil

1 sprig fresh rosemary, roughly chopped

sea salt

1/3 cup raw walnuts, pecans, or almonds, coarsely chopped or broken into pieces
fresh ground black pepper

12 ounces arugula

pecorino romano cheese

Heat a generous glug of olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan over high heat. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally until they become bronzed and golden. Add a pinch of salt and the rosemary, lower the heat and stir in the chopped nuts, Stir together over medium heat until the nuts are lightly toasted. Remove the pan from the heat and add the farro. Toss in the arugula and another drizzle of olive oil, allowing the arugula to wilt a bit in the residual heat. Serve at room temperature with pecorino romano shaved over the top.

A note about dried porcini: you may notice that your dried porcini look very unprocessed, maybe some bits of straw or grit on them. If so, give them a toss in s bowl of water before adding them to a recipe. Some producers sell a very clean product but others are a little rawer and earthier. It’s simple to clean them so don’t worry if yours look a little dirty

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Millet Spinach Salad with Pepitas and Cranberries

There is always that sense of ravenous desperation in the spring that sends us on long hunts for the first asparagus, nettles, rhubarb, salad greens, or radishes of the season, the hope against hope that there will be something crisp and juicy and fresh and alive at the farmers market despite my still being wrapped in down and wool. This year that hunger was particularly sharp.  With PATH out of commission from October into January, Hurricane Sandy stranded me on a small island on the far side of the Hudson from the trucked-in variety to be found in Manhattan markets; our own supermarket was flooded with damage that took 15 weeks to repair. Our little greengrocers re-opened sooner but have very edited produce departments. And, honestly, there were other more important things than produce to worry about during this past dark winter.

But spring has finally arrived and the burgeoning farmers markets and longer days have inspired us. So long story short, a few weeks ago we thought it would be fun to be mostly vegetarian for a while to see how many ways we could cram vegetables into our diet, like a tonic to our systems. I appreciate the luxury to have so many things available to cook and I’ve been enjoying the challenge to my creativity. Instead of trying to replicate the meat-and-three-sides meal, I’m looking to more vegetarian (or at least less meat-centric) food cultures for inspiration with vegetable curry, my sriracha soba noodle salad, my beloved pizza with “salad” on top, or black bean and corn chiles rellenos. I’ve been using a variety of whole grains, enjoying their uniqueness when they are the feature rather than the side dish.

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Millet is a staple food in parts of Africa and India but is most commonly seen in bags of bird seed in North America. It is a tiny grain, about the size of a seed bead, and cooks to a similar texture as couscous at the 1:2 grain to water proportion but with a cornier, nuttier flavor (which the toasting or frying I describe in the millet technique section enhances). I’ve used it in a multigrain bread where it adds a little texture to the loaf. I wanted to cover all the bases of texture and flavor in this salad: crunchy toasted pepitas and creamy fresh goat cheese, tangy sweet cranberries and earthy spinach and crisp savory red onion to tie it all together. We ate this with an avocado salad last night.

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Millet Spinach Salad

the millet technique:

1 cup millet

2 cups water

olive oil

salt

Pour a tablespoon or so of olive oil into a heavy bottomed sauce pan, stir in the millet over medium heat. Toast the millet, stirring frequently, until it smells lightly nutty. Raise the heat to med/high and pour  water over the millet. Stir to break up any clumps, add a couple pinches of salt and bring to a boil. When the water boils, reduce the heat to low, cover with a tight-fitting lid and simmer for 20 minutes until the water is absorbed. Turn off the heat and leave the millet covered for another 20-30 minutes until it is cool enough to handle. The millet will be fluffy and all the water should be absorbed.

the salad:

olive oil

½ red onion, thinly sliced

1/3 cup raw pepitas/pumpkin seeds

3 cups spinach leaves (stemmed and roughly chopped if the leaves are big)

¼ cup dried cranberries

white wine vinegar

salt and pepper

fresh goat cheese

In a large skillet or sauté pan, heat 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil and stir the pumpkin seeds into the oil over medium heat. Stir constantly until the pumpkins seeds are golden brown and toasted. Turn off the heat and stir the sliced onion in, it should wilt slightly in the residual heat of the pan, infusing the oil with flavor. Pour the millet into the sauté pan. It will probably be in large clumps like couscous; gently break it up into individual grains with your fingers. Drizzle the wine vinegar over the millet. Toss in the spinach and cranberries and mix into the millet. Salt and pepper to taste. Dollop chunks of fresh goat cheese over the top and serve at room temperature.