Serious Eats: Recipes

Seriously Italian: Zuppa di Farro

"Like pasta, farro absorbs and unifies with whatever flavors you add to it."

[Photographs: Gina DePalma, unless otherwise noted.]

The onset of chilly, blustery days is the perfect occasion to simmer up a pot of hearty soup, and one of my favorite bone-warmers is zuppa di farro, or farro soup. But before I begin the soup talk, I have to clear something up. Farro is not spelt or barley. It is a relative of wheat, but absolutely not the same thing as a wheatberry.

Farro is uh, farro, and if it is from Italy, where labeling laws are stringent—it will say farro on the bag, clear and simple.

The confusion among these noble grains is partly due to the fact that for many years, chefs outside of Italy had to substitute spelt or barley for farro in favorite recipes, because the real thing was almost impossible to find. But farro is riding that wave of Italian popularity these days, and while you won't find it on supermarket shelves (yet), it is becoming easier to get at Italian specialty shops or online.

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The plains of Casteluccio where farro is grown in Umbria. [Flickr: pizzodisevo]

I purchased mine at Di Palo's in Manhattan, which is way more convenient than smuggling it back from Italy in my suitcase.

On a trip to Umbria a few years ago, I encountered farro in various formats at every single restaurant I walked into. The experience that stands out the most was the deceptively basic bowl of farro soup from a tiny trattoria in the mountain town of Norcia, a place made famous by its expert butchers.

It was a cold day. Our fingers were numb from the chilling breeze that had sunk into our bones. We were destined to order a bowl of either the farro or lentil soup, both of which are all over are Umbrian menus. The two crops are grown on the sloping plains of Castelluccio and considered prized Umbrian ingredients.

We warmed our tummies with a glass of Sagrantino and waited for our simple lunch, looking out at the snowy peaks of Monti Sibillini. All bets were off when the steaming bowl was placed in front of us. Fragrant with local black truffles, substantial but not gloppy, it beat out every other farro experience I'd had to date. We slurped in silence, marveling at the layers of flavor: the subtle sweetness of the grain and vegetables, the beefy notes from the broth, the earthiness of the truffle and the swath of oil and cheese running throughout.

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One thing that made this particular soup so special was its texture. Some of the farro was pureed silky smooth while the rest of the grains were intact, providing that characteristically tender chewiness. It took me some time to develop my own duplicated rendition, and this is the result. I just love it for fall. If I can find a black truffle to chop up and toss in just before serving, it's even more the treat.

Farro is typically a low-yield crop, which explains why it is more expensive than other grains. Don't let the price tag deter you. It is super versatile because like pasta, farro absorbs and unifies with whatever flavors you add to it. It doubles in volume when cooked, so a small bag can be stretched to serve a crowd. When combined with beans, it forms a complete protein, so let your imagination guide you. Chickpeas and small Italian beans are a good place to start.

Be sure to get farro perlato, which means the tough hull has been removed and the farro will cook to a tender softness. Soaking the farro for a few hours beforehand shortens the cooking time, so a big pot of soup doesn't have to take all day. You can soak the farro, drain and store it a day in advance. It is important to use a high-quality stock made with aromatics like celery, onion, and carrot. Homemade beef stock is my choice, but chicken or a roasted vegetable stock works too. And of course, if you can get your hands on a black truffle, go for it.

Zuppa di Farro (Farro Soup)

About the author: Gina DePalma is the pastry chef at Mario Batali's Babbo restaurant in New York City and the author of Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen. After a stint in Rome, she's back in the States, channeling her inner Italian spirit via recipes and intel on delicious Italian eats.

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