"Like pasta, farro absorbs and unifies with whatever flavors you add to it."
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.
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.
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)
- Yield:about 5 to 6 quarts of soup
- 2 cups farro
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium clove of garlic, peeled and smashed
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 2 ounces pancetta or guanciale, diced
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme or 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 or 3 crumbled sage leaves
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 cup canned plum tomatoes, crushed and chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 6 to 8 cups of good-quality beef stock
- Torn parlsey leaves, Extra-Virgin Olive Oil and grated Parmigano-Reggiano or Grana Padano for garnish
Place the farro in a large bowl and cover it with one quart of cold water. Let the farro soak for two hours, then drain it, discarding the water.
Heat the oil in a large stockpot and add the garlic clove. Let the garlic sizzle and cook in the oil until it begins to turn golden brown, then remove it. Add the diced onion and pancetta to the oil, stirring it well. Season this mixture with a pinch of salt and stir, sautéing on low heat until the onions and pancetta soften and turn translucent at the edges. Stir in the herbs and sauté for another minute. Do not allow the mixture to brown.
Add the tomatoes to the pot and stir, then add the farro, 4 cups of the stock, and 1 cup of water. Bring the mixture to a gentle simmer, then cover the soup and lower the heat. Simmer the soup covered for 45 minutes, stirring every 10 to 15 minutes. As the moisture absorbs, add more stock to the pot, a cup or so at a time, keeping the grains loose and suspended in liquid.
When the farro is tender, the soup is done. Allow it to cool for about 30 minutes in the pot. Remove about 2 cups of the soup to a blender container and puree it smooth. Stir the pureed mixture into the soup, and add more stock if necessary. The soup should not be thick or gloppy, but loose and liquid.
Return the soup to the heat before serving; garnish with parsley, a dribble of olive oil and a grating of cheese.
Leftovers advice: Store extra soup for up to three days. The soup will continue to absorb moisture as it sits, so you may have to thin it to the proper consistency with water or additional stock before reheating.