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Farro Risotto with Roasted Butternut Squash and Thyme-Roasted Mushrooms

I fell in love with farro (also known as emmer) when I lived in Italy.  One day when I was miserably sick with a head cold, thousands of miles away from my family and not yet realizing how to make my own chicken soup, I went to the small store that sold mostly frozen produce that was near my apartment.  In one of the display cases was a large plastic bag of what I could determine was a vegetable soup mix.  I decided to try it.

Being sick is no fun, but it is even less fun when you live in another country and have no idea what over-the-counter product will cure your ills.  I inhaled the steam from the broth to try to open up my clogged nose.  Then, I dipped my spoon in the bowl to taste it.  The vegetables were fine, but there was something else in there that I couldn’t quite identify.  It was had a hearty, nutty taste to it.  It wasn’t exactly rice or barley, which I’d had usually had in soups.  What was it?

Turns out that it was farro, a grain, a type of wheat actually, that has been around for quite some time and one that is popular in Italian cooking, even though I had never encountered it before that day.  It is eaten in soups, risotto-style (like this recipe), and even made into pasta.  What I really like about it is that it has the stronger flavor of a brown rice with the textural consistency of a risotto rice.  It makes me feel a bit healthier about shaving a pile of cheese on a plate of it.

This recipe is completely vegetarian and has a couple of steps taking place at the same time, to speed it up.  The farro will take longer to cook than a usual risotto rice, much like brown rice takes longer than white.  Roasting the vegetables gives them a heartier flavor to match that of the farro.  The Salad with Balsamic Vinegar-Fig Reduction from last week would make a great accompaniment to the risotto.  A meal with these dishes could almost make you feel like you were in one of the more sophisticated tratorrie.



Farro Risotto with Roasted Butternut Squash and Thyme-Roasted Mushrooms

Prep time: 45 minutes
Serving Size: 4 main dish portions (6 primi piatti)

Ingredients:
3 cups butternut squash, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 cups cremini mushrooms (baby portabellas), cut into quarters
3 cloves garlic, smashed but left in their skins
2 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 springs thyme
1 small onion, finely minced
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 c. farro (also known as emmer)
1/2 c. dry white wine
2 c. vegetarian vegetable stock
3 springs thyme, leaves removed (about 1 tsp.)
salt
pepper
Grana Padano cheese, grated

Assembly:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (see Measurements & Conversions for other temperatures).  Prepare two roasting pans, each with one Tbsp. of olive oil.  Put the mushrooms into one pan and the squash into the other.  In the pan with the mushrooms, put two springs of thyme and one clove of garlic.  In the pan with the squash, put in the other two cloves of garlic.  Place them in the oven.  Set the timer for 20 minutes.

In the meantime, in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and the olive oil together.  When mixture is foamy, add onion to the pan.  Let it cook for five minutes, until the onions start to become translucent.  Add the farro and stir so that each grain becomes coated in the butter and oil.  Let cook for about a minute.

Pour in the wine and cook over low heat until almost all of the liquid has evaporated.  At this point, start to add the vegetable stock a couple of tablespoons at a time, stirring to incorporate into the risotto and letting it cook down until it is almost evaporated before adding more stock.  Although this step seems fiddly, it is important to continue to do it to break down the starches in the grain to achieve the desired creamy consistency.

At some point during the add-stock-and-stir phase, the timer for the oven will go off.  Check the mushrooms and the squash.  The former are probably done.  Remove them from the oven at set aside.  The squash will probably need about 10 more minutes to cook, but check them to see if they are tender enough to push all the way through with a fork.  When they are that consistency, remove them from the oven.  Set aside.

After you have added the second-to-last portion of the stock and the mushrooms and squash are out of the oven, remove the thyme stalk from the mushrooms and remove the garlic from both pans.  Peel and mash the garlic and add to the farro.  Add the last portion of stock along with the mushrooms and squash and all the liquid from the baking pans.

Stir everything together to incorporate.  At this point, add the thyme leaves and taste the dish to test the seasoning.  Add salt and pepper as needed.  Serve immediately with a dusting of Gran Padano.

Buon appetito!