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Ancient grain farro makes comeback

Chef LaurPiper prepares Shrimp Farro Salad TrattoriNo. 10 10 N. Dearborn St. Chicago. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Chef Laura Piper prepares Shrimp and Farro Salad at Trattoria No. 10, 10 N. Dearborn St., Chicago. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 26, 2012 8:03AM

‘In the past, I couldn’t give farro away,” says Chef Michael Shrader of Urban Union, 1421 W. Taylor.

Now he sells a lot of farro and arugula salads, seasoned with mint, lemon and Parmesan cheese. This fashionable new alternative to rice and potatoes is turning up on menus all over town, hailed for its nutty flavor and pleasingly chewy texture.

“It’s a grain with a lot of body to it,” says Chef Laura Piper of Trattoria No. 10, 10 N. Dearborn. She uses farro in salads, topping it with shrimp or mixing in peaches and figs.

Chef Paul Fehribach of Big Jones, 5347 N. Clark, likens the texture of whole-grain farro to caviar: “It’s firm and then it pops and then it’s creamy.”

Farro’s earthiness makes it hold up well against strong flavors, such as blue cheese, according to Chef Serena Perdue of Niche in Geneva.

“I make a risotto with it,” says Chef Tony Priolo of Piccolo Sogno, 464 N. Halsted, a longtime advocate of farro. “I fold it into polenta so the polenta has some texture. Last summer, I made beer with it at Goose Island Brewery.”

Priolo says you also can use it in desserts, similar to rice pudding, and it can be ground into flour for pasta and baked goods.

“Farro makes the best breakfast cereal!” enthuses Chuck Watson, president of Nature’s Earthly Choice, a farro marketer, who enjoys it with maple syrup and walnuts. “You’ll never eat oatmeal again.”

Ancient history

Farro can be confusing, though. For one thing, this “new” grain actually is very old. For another, it’s several different grains.

An Italian word, “farro” may refer to any of three species of the wheat family originating in the Fertile Crescent, an ancient agricultural region across present-day Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq.

“The ancient Egyptians and Etruscans brought farro over to Tuscany,” says Priolo. “Pino Luongo (founder of Coco Pazzo, 300 W. Hubbard, where Priolo once worked) lobbied to bring it to the U.S.”

What you’ll most likely find marketed now as Italian “farro” is “emmer,” according to Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, an artisanal grain dealer, who grows some 20 farro cultivars. Although menus rarely get that specific, farro technically should be labeled, from smallest to largest, “farro piccolo,” small farro (Triticum monococcum), also called “einkorn”; “farro medio,” medium farro (T. dicoccum), also known as “emmer,” and “farro grande,” big farro (T. spelta), commonly called “spelt.”

A fourth ancient wheat, Kamut, is larger yet. It merits capitalization because its name, an Egyptian word for wheat, is a trademark for a rediscovered ancestor of durum wheat sometimes termed Khorasan wheat (T. turgidum). Ancient Khorasan encompassed parts of modern-day Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. After a U.S. airman, Earl Dedman, sent home seeds he’d been told came out of an Egyptian tomb, his family grew and sold it as “King Tut’s wheat” in the 1950s but encountered little interest. Ultimately trademarked Kamut, it resurfaced in the mid-1980s as a health food.

Healthy and hearty

Sarah Gottleib, a dietitian at the East Bank Club, 500 N. Kingsbury, says that farro grains are higher in protein and nutrients than modern hybrid wheat, as well as packing a lot of power into few calories. “It’s really filling.”

Whole-grain and even pearled ancient wheats are higher in fiber than wheat, she points out. Spelt is high in B vitamins, she says, and Kamut contains selenium, an antioxidant. “Einkorn is a really healthy grain, high in beta-carotene and lutein.”

Also, Gottleib notes that although these wheat relatives contain gluten, “the gluten molecules are really weak,” so some people with wheat sensitivities may be better able to tolerate them.

Today’s farros are little changed from the earliest grains. The ancient wheats’ heavy hulls protect the grains from insects, making them good crops for organic growers, which has sparked the grains’ renaissance after centuries out of favor.

Most importantly, Anson Mill’s Roberts says, “The flavors are astronomically bigger than what we know, quote, unquote, as wheat.”

Leah A. Zeldes is a local freelance writer.

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