Farrotto ai funghi porcini e mirtilli
We’re half way through February and I’m only now forcing myself to finish the Christmas gastronomic marathon. Ashamedly, the new dawn of 2016 didn’t really put a stop to my festive gluttony. Sure, the panettone and amaretti eventually ran out, but super-creamy risottos and carb-loaded pizzas have just kept on coming to my dinner table. In my defence, the bleak winter months have quite an awful effect on my mood and I’m always on a downer during cold and dreary January. This year has been particularly bad with my wearisome chronic pain condition, so I’ve self-medicated myself regularly with food as my form of fast acting pain-killer. However, now that it’s mid February, the side-effects of insatiable eating are increasingly apparent –most obvious is the great swelling lump around my middle. Therefore, it’s probably high time for a little dietary restraint, at least until the rebirth of excess at Easter.
So now I’m officially lent eating*, but this doesn’t necessarily involve abstinence or dietary prohibitions. I’m simply not ready to call time on those late-night intimate moments, with whole tubs of sweet ricotta nestled in my lap. Therefore, ‘lent eating’, at least for this weak-willed geordie, just means turning down the greediness and indulging in fewer midnight cheese binges. However, with this resolution to eat food that’s both healthy and hearty, there come some benefits to be enjoyed in the kitchen; this is because eating in this virtuous way really encourages you to get inventive and rustle up nutritious meals. All it takes to start bending the rules of those well-loved recipes is confidence and practice. And even if the culinary experiments fail epically, then fear not, with the right ingredients in the larder, a satisfying bowl of Rachel Roddy’s cacio e pepe is only ever fifteen minutes away. And so, from consciously trying to cook healthily and creatively, came this recipe for a Farro risotto with mushroom and blueberries. I’m sure you’re familiar with risotto ai fungi porcini, which is one of the quintessential Italian primi piatti. Here, my rendition just takes this time-honoured traditional risotto in a logical direction, using farro instead of rice and throwing some delicious blueberries into the mix.
This is the sort of risotto that Robin Hood might cook for you (if he was real, knew you personally, and could cook Italian food proficiently). By which I mean that this ‘farrotto’ has a gorgeous nuanced ‘woodland’ flavour. It tastes like a walk in the woods, as if the ingredients have been freshly gathered from local forestry that very morning. I know a mix of mushrooms with blueberries may initially sound puzzling, but when you consider that these ingredients grow happily together in wild forests, this affinity of flavours is perfectly natural. And, in actual fact, blueberries and mushrooms get on together quite famously. In many kitchens across Northern Italy, fresh porcini mushrooms are commonly paired with a variety of seasonal berries and fruits. The blueberries added into this ‘farrotto’ punctuate the farro, providing a contrasting sweetness to the assertive meaty flavour of the mushrooms. So, as you suddenly bite into a berry, the tangy fruit flavour bursts in your mouth and mellows out the rich umami flavours, thus preventing the mushrooms from ever becoming too overpowering.
However, the real star of this recipe is the farro – one of those special ingredients that never fails to chirp you up. In this ‘farrotto’ recipe, the underrated farro provides a less fattening and less stodgy alternative to rice. Farro also contains excellent protein and provides a natural insulating warmth that’s so important for surviving the winter months. Though please don’t be put off by it all sounding too super-foody. Farro is genuinely delicious, and if in doubt, you can still melt loads of cheese and butter into it – you devil.
Farro also pre-dates the recent food-fads by a good few thousand years. The Italian word farro comes from the presumed Latin farrum meaning ‘a kind of wheat’, and although the stuff is still scarcely seen outside Italian delis or online grocers’, it has been a beloved staple of central Italian cuisine since ancient Roman times. In fact, farro’s ancient vibe is somehow instantly tangible when you taste it: it has an exquisite nutty aroma, a robust waxy bite and refined flavour that excels when combined with intense flavours. Nowadays, describing food as ‘chewy’ generally connotes something negative. Yet, the simultaneously chewy and tender texture of farro is pleasantly addictive, and makes it such an interesting substitute for the reliable carnaroli rice. And one final bonus: this ‘farrotto’ recipe is less needy than a regular risotto, requiring less frequent stirring, which makes it less labour-intensive and altogether more laid back to cook.
*I’m not at all religious, but having chronic pain does test your atheist faith. I often wish there was some godly being I could give a good praying to. Or at least I could curse the gods, like pure Shakespearean tragedy.
Before you begin:
- There are a few varieties of farro available to buy in delis, online or sometimes in Waitrose – perlato, semiperlato or decoricato. The cooking time will vary, from about 15 to 60 minutes, depending on the variety you cook with, so stay vigilant.
- Fresh porcini are very hard to come by in the U.K, and tend to be ridiculously expensive when they are available. Thankfully then, dried porcini are readily available all year round; they’re easily reconstituted, packed with more protein than most vegetables, and provide a splendid way of getting intense umami flavours into a risotto. They also really enhance the flavour of fresh mushrooms. Needless to say then, they’re a store cupboard faithful that I gladly use here.
- Finally, I confess that I’ve failed the seasonal cooking test with this recipe. The U.K blueberry harvest is cruelly short, from June to August. Nevermind, I still manage to eat them guilt free in February.
A farro ‘risotto’ with mushrooms and blueberries
Serves 4 as a main course
- 25g dried porcini mushrooms, rehydrated in just-boiled water for 25 minutes.
- 1 small garlic clove, minced
- 250g chestnut mushrooms, cleaned and finely sliced
- 2 echalion shallots, finely chopped
- 1, 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped rosemary, sage and thyme leaves
- 380g farro
- 200ml dry white wine
- 1 litre vegetable stock, heated
- 150g blueberries
- 50g unsalted butter, finely cubed and refrigerated
- 50g freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- good sherry vinegar
- extra-virgin olive oil
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a wide sauté pan, heat a glug of olive oil over medium heat. Add the minced garlic and cook attentively for 1-2 minutes. Add the fresh sliced mushrooms with a pinch of salt. Cook until the mushrooms for 5 -10 minutes, until they shrink a little and release their liquid. Remove from the heat.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large pan and add the shallots and herbs. Season and sweat the shallots with herbs patiently, until softened and all melted. Roughly chop the rehydrated mushrooms and stir them into the onions. Add in the farro and fry for 2 minutes, stirring often. Tip in all the wine and let it sizzle away until fully absorbed. Ladle in some the hot stock, so that it just covers the farro and cook away at a lively simmer, adding in more liquid (risotto-style) as the stock is absorbed, stirring occasionally. The moment when the farro is tender, and most the liquid has evaporated, carefully stir in the fresh mushrooms and the blueberries. Remove from the heat.
Just before serving, add the cubed butter and most of the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Stir around and shake it all about. Leave to rest off the heat for 3 minutes, covered with a lid. If it then looks a bit dry, loosen up by stirring in a little stock or water. Check for seasoning – add in a few drops of sherry vinegar to balance the acidity, and add more salt and pepper if needed.
To serve, spoon out the farrotto onto large wide individual plates, and shake each plate gently from side to side to sweep out the wavy farrotto across the plate. Finish topped with sprinkled Parmigiano-Reggiano. Buon appetito.