A minor miracle happened in our house last night. No, it wasn’t the second coming, or the first, depending on where you stand on these matters. Instead, my entire family ate whole wheat fettuccini without uttering a word about its whole “wheatiness.”
This has never happened before, despite the dozens of dinners I have made featuring whole grain pasta in every iteration. They know better than to complain, but at the very least I usually get a suspicious, “is this whole wheat?” out of at least one of them.
Perhaps the months (years?) of whole grain indoctrination is finally paying off. Or perhaps robust tomato sauce with bits of braised pork disguised said whole wheat pasta.
This brings me to the topic of whole grains, which seems to have become as much a part of our 21st century lexicon as “fat free” was in the 90′s. It’s a catch-all phrase for grains that haven’t been heavily processed: Wheat before it’s stripped of its bran and germ, rice before its processed into pearly white, though nutritionally inferior, grains.
Opting for whole grains instead of processed ones, whether in bread, or oatmeal or rice, is smart from a health standpoint because they have more fiber, which means they digest more slowly so they sustain you longer. They pack in more vitamins and minerals, can help keep cholesterol in check, and a whole bunch of other good things. Later in the week I will be posting about some of my favorite whole grains. In the meantime, I’ll share this recipe.
I got the idea for this dish from my friend Suzanne, who raved about a baked risotto she cooked recently. While the original was made with arborio rice, the fat little Italian variety, I thought I’d use farro instead, a grain that also hails from Italy but is less processed and more nutritious. Farro is reminiscent of barley.
The recipe has extra mom appeal because unlike classic risotto that requires constant stirring, this version requires no fuss once it goes into the oven. The dish relies on onions, bacon and lemon to get the flavors going as it cooks. If you are vegetarian, or vegan, or kosher, or halal, or if there’s any other reason you don’t each pork, just leave out the bacon. I’m personally fond of a hit of bacon in my cooking, along with its fancy Italian cousin, pancetta. Although both are notoriously fatty, they pack in loads of flavor so you can get away with just using a small amount to season an entire recipe.
The asparagus and peas, which are excellent this time of year, go in at the very end and cook until just until tender. Yes, shelling peas takes time, but it’s the perfect sort of chore to pass onto your staff (that’s code for children). Mine don’t seem to mind it. Just be sure the peas make it into the measuring cup, not their wee mouths. Fresh chopped mint and Parmesan finish the dish. If you are lucky enough to have leftovers, the farro is great in a lunchbox the next day.
OVEN RISOTTO WITH ASPARAGUS AND PEAS
This recipe calls for semipearled farro. If your market only sells pearled farro, scale back the broth to 2 1/2 cups and add more as needed. Also, keep any eye on the clock, pearled farro will cook more quickly than semipearled.
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 large yellow onion, chopped
- 2 strips bacon (nitrate-free if you’ve got it), chopped*
- 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (1 juicy lemon)
- 1 cup semipearled farro
- 3 cups low-sodium chicken broth or vegetable broth
- 1 cup shelled English peas (3/4 of a pound in the shell)
- 1 bunch asparagus, stems snapped off, cut into 1-inch long pieces
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped mint
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Heat the oil in a large pot with an oven-proof lid over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté for 2 minutes. Turn the heat to medium and add the bacon. Continue to sauté until the onion is translucent and the bacon is cooked (though it won’t be crispy).
Add the farro and the lemon juice and turn the heat to high. Cook until the farro absorbs the juice. Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil. As soon as it boils, set the lid on the pot and put it into the oven.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes until the farro is just tender, with no crunch to it (al dente). Remove from the oven and add the peas and asparagus. If the farro looks dry, add 1/4 cup of water or broth. Give it all a good stir and put it back into the oven for another 7 to 8 minutes until the vegetables are just tender (keeping in mind they will continue to cook a little once out of the oven).
Remove from the oven, add mint, salt, and Parmesan. Serve immediately.
Makes 4 to 5 servings
* For a vegetarian version, leave out the bacon and use vegetable broth instead of chicken broth.