It's an unexpected connection, the notion that whole grains are responsible for Monet and Mozart.
But when you chat with cookbook author Mark Scarbrough, the synapses fire, the metaphors fly and the quips come fast and furious.
He has a point about whole grains, though. These "founder crops" don't just date back to the beginnings of civilization - they're the reason for it. Communities formed around those early grain stores, and from those earliest societies came civilization and culture.
When you delve into topics such as farro, the earthy, nutty grain that's popping up on menus around the Bay Area, the conversation inevitably turns to history. Legions of ancient Romans, Greeks and Mesopotamians dined on farro, and it's long been a staple in many parts of the world.
We may be johnny-come-latelies to the farro party, but we've fully embraced the possibilities, the glorious side dishes, salads and mains designed by creative chefs who appreciate the gourmet factor as well as the nutrition value of this healthy, hearty grain.
Scarbrough calls farro a "gourmet ingredient hiding in plain sight," and one that complements so many things. Salute the waning days of Indian summer by combining cooked farro with fresh nectarines, basil, toasted pine nuts and crumbled ricotta salata. Embrace the grain's earthy side by pairing it with creamy potatoes or smoked chicken and chutney.
Farro comes in several forms, and it's important to know the difference. Scarbrough and Bruce Weinstein - his partner on more than 20 cookbooks - prefer the whole grain, as opposed to the semi-pearled or semi-perlato version, in which the bran has been scored but not removed. (Pearled means the bran has been completely removed.) Semi-pearled is the easiest variety to find and the type most frequently called for in cookbooks written by people other than Scarbrough and Weinstein. The duo's new "Main Grains" (Rodale, $24.99, 232 pages) uses whole-grain farro.
"It has earthy tones much like mushrooms, a toasted walnut overtone to it that is just missing from pearled," Scarbrough says. "Bruce's mother just made the whole grain and nectarine salad. She called up raving about it."
(The whole-grain version is carried by some Whole Foods stores, but Scarbrough's mother-in-law, who lives in San Carlos, found it at Williams-Sonoma.)
Even the semi-pearled variety is "whole" enough to make your doctor happy, especially when you use it to give a classic salad a twist. Weinstein does a Nicoise-inspired farro salad, for example. Mindy Fox uses panzanella, the traditional Tuscan bread salad, as an inspiration for a farro salad that is so loaded with tomatoes, basil, corn, green beans and garlic, your taste buds may swoon.
"It's so good for you and so satisfying. You can riff and riff and riff to your heart's content," says Fox, the food editor for La Cucina Italiana magazine and author of "Salads: Beyond the Salad Bowl" (Kyle, $19.95, 176 pages).
At Berkeley's Cafe Rouge, farro is so beloved, it received a starring course of its own during a recent dinner devoted to Sicilian foods and wines. The grain was tossed with a champagne vinaigrette, fresh arugula and generous chunks of avocado for a salad course so memorable, it nearly upstaged the rest of the dinner.
That's the beauty of the grain, food writer Diane Morgan says. It's so eminently satisfying, it can make omnivores forget there's a turkey on the Thanksgiving table.
The Portland, Ore.-based writer's newest book, "Roots" (Chronicle, $40, 432 pages), explores the panoply of possibilities in the root cellar - from Andean tubers to beets, galangal and wasabi - then pairs those hearty tubers in winning ways. Pair rutabaga or carrots with farro, she says, and "it wins on so many levels." Add sauteed pearl onions, red grapes and fresh herbs to the mix for a dish so nutrient-rich, texturally interesting and flavor-packed that it can steal the limelight on any holiday buffet - but remains simple enough for a "Meatless Monday" or Sunday supper.
But consider yourself warned if you're going to venture down the farro highway. Farro is kind of the gateway drug of whole grains.
Just ask Scarbrough, who brought a simple whole-grain salad to a book club meeting recently.
"I thought," he says, "they were going to beat each other senseless trying to get to it."
Note: Omit the soaking time and reduce the cooking time by a quarter if you are using semi-pearled farro.
1 cup whole-grain farro
6 tablespoons pine nuts
2 nectarines, chopped
4 ounces ricotta salata, finely crumbled
16 basil leaves, minced
2 tablespoons almond oil or olive oil
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1. Soak the farro in cool water for 8 to 16 hours.
2. Drain the farro in a fine-mesh sieve set in a sink. Pour the farro into a large saucepan, cover with water by several inches, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer until tender, about 1 hour. Drain again in the sieve, then run under cool water to stop the cooking. Drain thoroughly.
3. Scatter the pine nuts in a dry skillet and set it over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until lightly toasted and fragrant, about 4 minutes.
4. Pour the pine nuts into a large serving bowl. Add the cooked farro. Stir in everything else and serve. This salad can be stored, covered, in the fridge for up to 4 days.
- Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough,
"Grain Mains" (Rodale, $24.99, 232 pages)
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
Fine sea salt
1 large ear of corn
1/2 pound green beans
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 1/4 cups farro
1 large garlic clove
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Finely ground black pepper
1 small cucumber, peeled, sliced into half-moons
1 cup packed basil leaves, large leaves torn
4 medium radishes, halved and very thinly sliced
3 scallions, thinly sliced
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
2. In a large serving bowl, toss together the tomatoes and 1/2 teaspoon salt.
3. Cook corn and green beans together in the boiling water. After 3 minutes, remove corn. Cook the beans until crisp-tender, 1-2 minutes more. Using tongs, transfer them to a colander to drain, pat dry, and place in a medium bowl. Toss with 1 tablespoon oil.
4. Cook farro in the same boiling water, stirring occasionally, until tender but firm to the bite, 18-20 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, heat a grill pan over medium-high heat. Grill green beans until golden on both sides, 4-5 minutes. Season with a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Let cool, then cut into 1-inch lengths. Cut the corn off the cob.
6. On a cutting board, slice the garlic, then mound it together with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Using both the blade and flat side of a chef's knife, chop and scrape the mixture into a paste. In a bowl, combine 5 tablespoons oil and the vinegar. Whisk in the garlic paste and 1 4 teaspoon pepper.
7. Drain the farro, then spread it on a baking sheet to cool for 5-10 minutes.
8. Whisk together the dressing, and toss it with the tomatoes, farro, green beans, corn, cucumber, basil, radishes, scallions, 3/4 teaspoon pepper and 1/4 teaspoon salt.
- Mindy Fox,
"Salads: Beyond the Bowl" (Kyle Books, $19.95, 176 pages)