After a very cool and rainy spring, we have been experiencing a scorcher of a summer here in Umbria. When temperatures reach 100 degrees in the shade, it's very difficult to get motivated to turn on the oven. Living in a stone farmhouse without air conditioning in the Umbrian countryside, you really do need to do everything you can to stay cool! Despite the heat however, our vegetable garden is flourishing, and each morning I pick a basket full of vegetables still warm from the sun that I have to incorporate into our daily meals.
On these very warm days, I try to do any necessary cooking in the early mornings or later at night, and often prepare uncooked pasta sauces, summer soups, and salads like this one. Fresh picked vegetables slowly roasted in the oven become lightly caramelized and have a wonderful sweetness that I truly love, so I try and include them in many of my recipes.
Farro, the Italian name for emmer wheat, is an ancient grain that is once again growing in popularity, but has always been an integral ingredient in the Umbrian pantry. Here, we use the grain in soups, salads, or in place of rice for risotto. When ground into a flour, it's used in desserts, pasta, and bread. Farro has a slightly nutty taste and a tender, al dente texture.
These days, farro is often referred to as a 'super grain,' because it's rich in fiber and many nutrients—vitamin B and magnesium in particular—making it extremely popular with both nutritionists and modern chefs. Farro comes in perlato and semi-perlato, or whole grain. I prefer using semi-perlato as it retains more of the bran and nutrients, but cooks up fairly quickly and does not require soaking. Farro can be found in many organic groceries, Italian specialty shops, as well as most nutrition stores. If it's unavailable, you can substitute spelt or barley, although cooking times may change, so be sure to read the package instructions.
The combination of farro and garden vegetables by themselves creates a hearty, delicious salad, but because I like to serve this salad as a main course, I also include some lentils and small white Umbrian beans, called Risena di Spello. You can adjust the proportions according to your personal preference, just make sure you end up with 12 cups of grains and/or beans. In my neck of the woods, we like to use the small beige lentils from Castelluccio, but when in the US I prefer the small green or beige lentils. I find that orange lentils can become too mushy for salads when cooked. If including beans, I'd suggest using a can of cannellini, or Northern white beans, drained and rinsed.
For my roasted vegetable selection, I use zucchini, eggplant, and sweet peppers from my garden, along with sweet onions and garlic. When I toss the completed salad, I usually toss in some fresh chopped celery leaves for color and an extra burst of fresh flavor, but you could use some chopped arugula, baby spinach, or parsley instead. Other additions to this salad might include fresh fennel, flavorful black olives, and capers.
About the Author: Deborah Mele is the owner of Italian Food Forever, an Italian recipe blog, as well as Recipe Rebuild, a healthy recipe blog she shares with her daughter Christy, an RD. Deborah lives 6 months a year in Umbria, Italy where she oversees her guest house Il Casale di Mele.