Someday, we will reminisce about the Age of Atkins with disbelief. At least as hilarious as the infamous cabbage soup diet is the idea that celebrities and fashion types were not long ago gnawing on whole salamis—but wouldn’t dare touch fruit. That phase is gradually fading into history. But those malnourished trendoids aren’t ready to indulge in mashed potatoes or spaghetti just yet. Restaurants, gourmet markets, and cereal commercials alike, show evidence that whole grains are the new protein shake.
Americans may be headed towards an approach to eating so boring, so rational, that it might just work. Avoiding white food (regular pasta, white bread) is a pretty good rule, and many of the city’s finest restaurants are making it easy. At 360 in Red Hook, the menu changes daily, but Chef William Brasile often uses whole grains in place of other starches, especially in the winter. Recently, braised chicken with mushrooms was served over chewy pearled barley. (An Arrowhead Mills package insists it’s “not just for soup anymore!”)
These are magical moments when gourmands and dieters agree, mostly—the barley at 360 seemed well acquainted with butter, but the grain itself is high in fiber, potassium, thiamin, and low in fat. Chefs love whole grains because they have an earthy, nutty flavor and a versatile texture, therefore contributing more than white rice or pasta. Grains are the fruits of grasses, and are composed of three parts: germ (protein and oil), endosperm (carbs and protein), and bran (fibrous outer layer). In many cases, we only eat the endosperm, the most common example being white rice.
At his distinguished Tuscan restaurant, Beppe, Chef Cesare Casella features a grain from the wheat family called farro, prominently on his menu. He cooks it in the traditional Tuscan style called farroto, treating the grain like risotto. “I love to cook farro because my hometown is famous for it; I grew up with it. We ate it with beans, but I prefer to make farro in the risotto style because it doesn’t overcook like rice, it is easier to cook, and it is more healthy.” Farro, or Emmer Wheat, originated in North Africa and the Middle East, but is most beloved by Tuscans, who use it in soups and even cakes, as well as in farroto. Casella favors farro from the Garfagnana area of Tuscany for its deep nutty flavor and firm, chewy bite.
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thin
1/2 cup spring onions (bulb only; reserve top, trim and slice)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus two tablespoons for finishing
2 cups Farro della Garfagnana
1/4 cup white wine
6 cups vegetable stock (may substitute chicken stock)
1 cup raw, cleaned peas
1 cup blanched, peeled fava beans
8 zucchini blossoms, chopped (flower only, remove stem)
1 cup asparagus (sliced on the bias, separate heads)
1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1/2 cup Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
1/3 cup pesto (recipe follows)
Freshly ground black pepper, salt, and red pepper flakes to taste
Place garlic and spring onion in large sauté pan with extra virgin olive oil. Cook over medium heat until the onion becomes translucent and garlic begins to brown. Add the farro and toast 2 to 3 minutes, stirring to prevent sticking. Add the white wine and reduce by half. Add 2 cups of stock and simmer for 10-15 minutes. The farro will start to swell. At this point, add 2 more cups of stock and cook an additional 5-7 minutes.
Add peas and asparagus (bottoms only) and cook for 8 minutes, adding stock as necessary. Add fava beans, onion tops, and asparagus heads, cook another 5-10 minutes, until asparagus tops are tender. Add zucchini flowers, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste.
Remove the pan from heat. Add Parmigiano, pesto, and additional extra virgin olive oil. Stir vigorously. The finished farrotto should be smooth and moist. Add remaining stock if the farro seems too dry.
Complements of Cesare Casella 2004
Makes 1 cup
3 bunches basil
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley
1 bunch chives
1/4 cup Parmigiano Reggiano
2 tablespoons goat cheese, optional
2 tablespoons pine nuts
Freshly ground black pepper, salt, and red pepper flakes, to taste
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
Combine all ingredients, except extra virgin olive oil, in blender or a hand blender-safe cup. Add 1/4 cup of olive oil and pulse for 1 minute, using a rubber spatula to move ingredients from top to bottom, so everything is evenly incorporated.
Continue to add olive oil, 1/4 cup at a time, until mixture is smooth and harmonious. There should not be any lumps at all. Place pesto in an airtight container until ready to use.
Complements of Cesare Casella
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 15, 2005