Archive for the ‘Grain’ Category

good, solid food

My long blogging hiatus has been filled with the flow of undocumented life: all of the usual everyday events and the everlasting universe of things. But rather than attempt a “Mont Blanc,” I’d like to be able to write a simple post in my spare moments. We have had many a good meal over the past few months, but blogging has flagged because now I have two children and two jobs. With the end of the academic semester, though, time is easing up on me, and the weather is warming up, putting me in the mood for salads. One salad in particular has caught my attention recently—a farro salad with lemon—not only because of the perfect combination of flavors—nuttiness and zest—but also because it’s linked to memories of Rome.

I’ve been thinking about Rome a lot recently because I’ve been talking with two couples who will be at the American Academy starting this fall. (And on my bus ride to work, I’ve been reading Franco Mormando’s biography of Bernini, a rich and well-written book about that incredible genius who was seemingly capable of transforming marble into flesh.) I check in with Elizabeth Minchilli’s blog when an ingredient catches my eye, and this week she caught me with her minty farro salad. I made it last night, taking out the feta and serving fresh mozzarella with cherry tomatoes, generously doused in olive oil, on the side. It was a good, simple meal on a humid night. 

Other recent, undocumented meals have had as their inspiration sources my new slow cooker and Clancey’s Meats and Fish. I’ve sung the praises of Clancey’s before, and I’m sure that I will continue to do so. They recently started selling mixed greens from Philadelphia Community Farm in Osceola, Wisconsin. These greens are the zingiest, most flavor-packed greens I’ve ever tasted. Every time I serve them, someone says the same thing. They’ve formed the center of meals. When we want something light and fresh, we’ll buy a bag of greens and a few other items from Clancey’s: a hunk of local cheese, a fillet of their house-smoked trout, a few local eggs, or a pint of pickled herring, add a baguette with olive oil and some wine, and enjoy a perfect meal.

With my slow cooker, I’ve done pulled pork soft tacos with fresh slaw, braised lamb shanks, sesame chicken thighs served with rice and seaweed, Bolognese sauce, meatballs, and a bunch of soups. Another new easy favorite: this big potato pancake from one of the best books I’ve read lately, Maman’s Homsick Pie by chef Donia Bijan.

Meanwhile, Lizzie has started eating solid food! She has tried four foods to date: rice cereal, fine-milled oatmeal, carrots, and peas.

 One thing is clear: this girl loves to eat!

Tonight, her daddy and I go on a date to the Dakota. Yippee!


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In my last post, I attempted both to recommend Food Inc., and to criticize what I saw as the overly facile closing message (“vote with your fork”).  There was more to the event, here at the American Academy in Rome, and there is a positive alternative to the dark suggestion of the film that Monsanto may well take over the world.  Briefly, these follow-ups/upsides have to do with braised pork and grass-roots.

Let’s start with grass-roots.  Since the screening, I’ve talked with a lot of people about how depressing the film is.  It seems to offer only the meager solutions of “voting with your fork” and waiting for policy change to adjust the prices of food.  Obviously, more needs to be done and can be done.  One of the people I’ve talked with a lot about these issues is Mona Talbott, the executive chef here.  She is passionate not only about great cooking but also about reforming American food culture through cooking education.  An over-reliance on convenient but unhealthy fast-food is in part a consequence of a general lack of cooking skills and knowledge.  Another part of the problem is the misconception that fast food is cheaper than home-cooked food.  This doesn’t have to be the case.  The Rome Sustainable Food Project works on a tight budget to provide nutritious, delicious, and sufficient food for all of us.  Mona points out that the world’s oldest traditional diets, like that in Italy, have had such long histories of sustaining people in part because they can sustain—with complete nutrition—the most people.  In other words, traditional diets are complete, and they are poor people’s diets.  The basis of the Italian diet is the lowly triumvirate of beans, grains, and greens.  These are affordable. Pasta is cheap.  The cheapest cuts of meat are delicious when cooked slowly.

But cooking, which often isn’t learned in the family anymore, needs to be learned if families are to be fed on these inexpensive foods rather than on fast food.  Actually, many people don’t know anything about food anymore, much less cooking!  If you take a look at my friend Sharyn’s comment on my last post, you’ll see what I’m talking about. She teaches in a university, and her students don’t know about the seasonality of any foods.

Several things need to, and can, happen, with a grass-roots effort. More communities can take on the reform of school lunch on their own, and even put in edible schoolyards (playground gardens) and teaching kitchens.  Children, then, can teach their parents about seasonality and cooking.  Or they can learn about food and cooking by asking their grandparents, as their doing with the help of Bioversity’s campaign Diversity for Life.  Cooking schools can teach home cooking.  Institutional kitchens—like the one here, with its unpaid interns—can double as educational kitchens.   Old routines, like canning parties, can be revived.  (Mona mentioned this today, and you might recall one of my recent posts about the biodiversity scientist I met recently, Stephan, who has fond memories of tomato-canning parties in a neighbor’s garage.)  Children can be taught the basics of cooking, and along with those, the comforts and thrills of cooking, by being included in the process of growing and making food.  With the encouragement of children and community-based campaigns, working parents can be convinced to plan ahead and find the time to put together a healthy meal—even if it’s just rice, beans, and something green.

Mona, who has cooked for the best restaurants and wealthiest people, wants to devote herself to this grass-roots cooking re-education effort when her tenure as the head of the Rome Sustainable Food Project ends.  She’s a real inspiration.

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Immediately after the film screening on Saturday, we participated in a panel discussion with two of the farmers who sell their organic foods to the Rome Sustainable Food Project: Enzo Foi, who came with Filippo da Sole, from the farm and agriturismo destination Lo Spicchio; and Giuseppe Brandizzi, from the organic dairy Biola.  The audience had many questions about organic agriculture (agricoltura biologica) in Italy, food politics in Italy, and the differences between the U.S. and Italy on these matters. Enzo told us, without the wish to romanticize Italy for the mostly American audience, that the main difference between the U.S. and Italy, in terms of industrial agriculture, is scale.  Here, as in the U.S., there is a large industrial-farm lobby that shapes the politics; synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are used (although the European Union has outlawed GMOs and rBST); small-scale farmers are going out of business.  But, also as in the U.S., there is a movement to expand sustainable agriculture, and to encourage buying locally produced food, and some politicians are helping to promote these causes.  (There are, of course, differences.  Italians know how to eat and have a culture of food, for one!)

More important than the help of politicians, though, is the grass-roots movement exemplified by these men and their families, who are educators and cooks as much as they are farmers.  They farm and cook and eat the way they do because they want to preserve the land, foods, and traditions that have sustained people for centuries and that could—if not cared for—be lost to oblivion.  If you’ve seen Food Inc., consider the proud strut of this rooster compared to the falling-down factory chickens:

Lo Spicchio gallo

After the film and discussion—and in spite of the revolting images of factory farming we’d just seen—we all eagerly went upstairs to the dining room to eat a meal prepared with the ingredients from Enzo’s and Giuseppe’s (and a few others’) farms.  We ate Lo Spicchio pork braised in Biola’s whole raw milk; cardoons roasted with lemon and buttery breadcrumbs; polenta; local red wine; and the most flavorful “blondies” I can imagine. (We eat a lot of braised meat here, in part because Mona and Chris like to cook the whole, traditional, foods of everyday Italians.  The braising cuts are the cheapest cuts.  The other night, Chris and the interns cooked up an amazing meal of braised lamb with harissa, chickpeas with greens, and cous cous.  Simple. Complete. Delicious.)

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IMG_2239 Italy’s Parliament voted unanimously this summer to recommend that UNESCO list the Mediterranean diet as endangered, so that it might be protected and preserved as a part of cultural heritage.IMG_2499

I’m interested in this public declaration, in part, for its semantic implications.  Can a diet be treated as an aesthetic or religious object, or as a plant or animal species?  In fact, the Mediterranean diet is all of these things.  Italians are rightly proud of their food, and of their heritage. Diet here is interwoven with cultural practice, with religious ritual, with craft and design, and with plant and animal species that have an intimate connection with both the geography and the history of Italy’s distinct regions.


Of course, the natives of this boot-shaped land could describe the complex set of cultural practices that is the Mediterranean diet better than I, an outsider, and a barbarian American, could.  But I’ll offer a few arguments, anyway, in favor of designating this diet an endangered piece of cultural heritage.

The Mediterranean diet is interwoven with national and regional identity.  This goes deeper than the kind of identity declared by small towns with billboards at their borders declaring them the pistachio capital of the world.  It’s an identity that has less to do with marketing, and more to do with the deep emotional ties of childhood memories, in which food and family are tightly woven together.  Particular foods and foodways are tied to family traditions, religious rituals, and to regionally specific cooking styles.

When I was at the Bioversity offices yesterday, I met one of the senior scientists there, a man named Stefano, whose work as a scientist and educator about agricultural biodiversity perfectly aligns with his passion for food and food memories.  In our brief conversation, he gave me many examples of the Mediterranean diet as cultural heritage and as endangered.  When he was a child, he said, the whole neighborhood would get together in someone’s garage to peel, cook, and bottle tomatoes for use as sauce.  While he was living in Africa, his homesickness took the form of a craving for the comforts of pasta. His mother and sister write down the recipes and menus of family meals; these recipes are their family scrapbooks and triggers to memory.  One of these recipes is for a stew containing 57 varieties of wild leafy green.  (Surely this recipe and the knowledge of how to find, much less cook, 57 varieties of wild green are endangered!)  Another recipe is for quince jelly.  How many quince orchards have you seen lately?

These foods and practices—this cultural heritage—is endangered for several related reasons: the globalization of simplified diets based on cheap, and less nutritious, commodity crops; the lure, or necessity, of convenience foods for working mothers who don’t have the time or inclination to hunt out 57 varieties of wild green; the encroachment of fast food into the diets of children; the loss of food and cooking knowledge through the generations.  One of the terrible consequences of the loss of food practices is that the actual foods can be lost as well.  Many of the crops that have sustained peoples all over the world for millenia fall under the new designation of “neglected and underutilized species.”   This is how food as a cultural and aesthetic practice shades into an endangered species.

Another, no less important, reason to preserve the Mediterranean diet is that it works.  People have thrived, and not been prone to cardiovascular disease or obesity and its consequences, on this diet for many generations.  This is because of the intrinsic nutritional value of the foods themselves, and it is also because of the set of cultural rules that guide eating.  The people here eat small portions, a variety of vegetables, whole grains, fish, and cheese, meat, and wine in moderation.  No cappuccino after lunch, no hard liquor before dinner or gelato in the morning… the list goes on.  And dessert is often fresh fruit.

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Farro.  It is one of the oldest domesticated crops.  One of its varieties, emmer wheat, has been found in archeological sites dating back 15,000 years.  For millenia, farro fed the peoples of the Mediterranean and the Near East as a daily staple.

What is it?  The short answer is that farro is a variety of wheat.  The long answer is botanical and semantic.  Farro’s difference from modern, commonly grown wheat, is that it has a strong hull that doesn’t just fall off during threshing.  This makes farro require extra work in processing, but it also relates to farro’s hardiness.  Farro has survived so long, and continues to be cultivated, because of its reliable yields in the mountainous regions of Italy.  The name farro is translated variously into English as einkor, emmer, or spelt because it generally signifies all of these varieties of hulled wheat.

The Italians use the dried, oblong, amber-brown grains in a variety of food preparations—from minestrone, to cold grain salads, or breads and pastas after the grains have been ground into flour.  When eaten whole, in soups or salads, farro is cooked al dente, so that it has a toothsome springiness.

This springiness is one of the reasons I love it.  I love it for its versatility, its deep nutty, wheaty flavor, and its incredible nutritional punch (it has more than twice the protein and fiber of the most common wheat, which loses even more in refinement).  I love farro, too, for the role it could play in a future of sustainable agriculture.  It is a low-yielding crop that likes craggy hillsides, and arid spots, in addition to sun-and-rain-drenched fields.  That first characteristic is why it is virtually unknown in factory-farm-happy places like the Midwest U.S., where high yielding crops rule (but not for long, we fear, because of their reliance on costly inputs and/or bioengineering).  These latter characteristics, and its nutritional content, are what have made it a staple crop in the past and what may make it a necessary crop in the future, when climate change forces us to use these hardy ancient crops that can survive where g.m.o.s can’t.

I’m going to quote a long Wikipedia paragraph, because I like the description.  Even more, though, I love the vocabulary lesson:

Like einkorn and spelt wheats, emmer is a hulled wheat. In other words, it has strong glumes (husks) that enclose the grains, and a semi-brittle rachis. On threshing, a hulled wheat spike breaks up into spikelets. These require milling or pounding to release the grains from the glumes.

Wild emmer wheat spikelets effectively self-cultivate by propelling themselves mechanically into soils with their awns. During a period of increased humidity during the night, the awns of the spikelet become erect and draw together, and in the process push the grain into the soil. During the daytime the humidity drops and the awns slacken back again; however fine silica hairs on the awns act as hooks in the soil and prevent the spikelets from reversing back out again. During the course of alternating stages of daytime and nighttime humidity, the awns’ pumping movements, which resemble a swimming frog kick, will drill the spikelet as much as an inch or more into the soil.

Fascinating.  But what’s to be done with this clever grain?  Tonight I cooked some soup, the basis of which was farro mixed with green and red lentils.  I especially love a lentil soup jazzed up with lemon, sweetened with carrots, and spiced with cumin.  Mona and Chris and their crew in the Rome Sustainable Food Project kitchen have been making some amazing salads with farro.  My favorite, so far, included fennel roasted with chopped whole lemons (rind and all) and tossed with some chopped bitter green, farro, salt and pepper, and plenty of flavorful olive oil.  At a potluck at one of Jack’s school friend’s apartments, I tasted a warm farro salad featuring roasted, nicely caramelized chunks of zucca, the ubiquitous big orange squash in the Roman markets all fall.  This cool Halloween weekend calls for farro with something orange….


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Maybe it’s the weather.  (This morning, when Jack and I walked to the bus stop next to the Aurelian Wall, it was 41 degrees (F).)

It’s also the food.  The (nice) problem is that the food at the Academy is too good.  Sometimes, I just want to hole up in the apartment and eat a humble dinner that a kid can like.  I’m lucky enough to have a kid who likes some interesting foods, though he also loves pasta with olive oil, parmesan, and nothing else.


One thing I’ve learned from Mona is that the traditional Italian diet is a peasant diet, and is based on the lowly triumvirate of greens, grains, and beans.  My soup takes two of those categories, in the form of farro, red lentils, and split peas, and swaps the greens for carrots and onions.  I also threw in some chunks of fatty pork belly (i.e. bacon) for flavor.  This is the easiest comfort food to make, and is good for locavores in the winter (I’m jumping the gun, here) because it involves dry and long-lived root ingredients.

Start by sauteing bacon, carrots, shallots or onions, and garlic.  Bring broth to a simmer, and pour in a cup of farro combined with split peas and red lentils.  Dump in the veggies, after they caramelize, and simmer until it’s all tooth-tender.  You can add more water or broth if it gets too low.  And you can season to your pleasure.  Tonight, because it was mainly for Jack, I just used a parmesan rind, salt, and pepper.  Other nights, I might have used a combination of lemon and marjoram or thyme; or cumin, cayenne, and coriander.  In any case, it will benefit from a drizzle of flavorful olive oil (my bottle says “gusto forte”) and a sprinkling of grated cheese.  Yum.

A chunk of bread and a glass of hearty red helps too.

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Prettiest when raw, these swirly colored pink and white beans are a satisfying bite-size.  I bought a large handful at a market stand the other day, and Jack helped me shell them yesterday afternoon.


My idea was to mix up a nice cold bean and grain salad.  In some chicken stock, I simmered the beans until al dente, not mushy, and in another pot simmered a friendly blend of whole grains: farro, brown rice, orzo, and some others.  When these were done, I tossed them together with minced fresh herbs, cherry tomatoes and red pepper.  Whatever you have on hand would be good.  For lunch today, I dressed it with vinaigrette, and put a big spoonful of it on top of a mache and treviso salad.

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Do you make your own granola?  There are plenty of reasons to do so, and plenty of reasons not to buy it pre-made.

Why do it?   Your home will smell like cinnamon. You can control what kinds of nuts, grains, oil, and sweetener go in it. It’s easy. It’s delicious.

Why not buy pre-made?  Needless packaging.  Extra $$.  Take-what-you-get ingredients. A texture which to me says “stale.”

I’ve been making granola since I was old enough to hold a big wooden spoon.  Well, at least, my mom has always made her own granola, and I started doing so for myself as soon as I left the nest.  (Am I corny enough for you today?  I’m trying to be crunchy.)  When I first met Peter, he mocked me for being a twig eater and still calls me granola-girl when he smells it cooking.  Food trafficking goes both ways in a relationship, though, and now he eats more twigs while I eat more flesh (after a vegetarian hiatus in my teens).

Anyway, back to the granola.  It takes 2 hours and 10 minutes to make, 2 hours of which are unattended.  I buy all of the ingredients in bulk, and get organic when it’s available.  They all store well in the freezer.


mmm... can you smell it?


3 c. rolled oats
1 c. each: cashew pieces, peanuts, chopped walnuts, soy nuts, pepitas, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, wheat germ, unsweetened coconut, sliced almonds
1/4 c. freshly ground golden flax seeds
1-2 tbs. cinnamon

1/3 c. canola oil mixed with 2/3 c. maple syrup and 1 tsp. vanilla

Pre-heat oven to 225.  Stir together all dry ingredients and cinnamon.  Douse with the wet ingredients and stir thoroughly.  Spread on two cookie sheets and bake for 2 hours.

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We’re moving out in a few days, and have no more dinners at home, thanks to friends.  Peter and I packed all day, off and on, while listening to a random college-vintage shuffle.  All but the dinner dishes, cereal bowls, silverware, and a few other things from the kitchen were packed by 5.  And yet.  We had one last dinner party at 220 Cove Court!  Chantel brought the salad, but it was an impressive performance, I have to say.

I went to the meats lab soon after opening time, at 2 p.m., and it was really difficult not to stock up.  I knew I only needed two steaks at most, to supplement the ones Reuben was bringing.  But the eggs were so cheap and abundant!  The pork sausage so spicy! The steaks so beautifully thick and red.  I held back though, and went on to Kroger, where I got olives, some Toad Hollow Paso Robles “proprietary”—i.e. mystery—blend, which turned out to be delicious (I’m still sipping it now), some Terrapin India-style brown ale, a shallot, and pistachios.

Earlier in the day, I’d contemplated the pantry.  What would I do with these random bulk baggies?  The answer came in with style.  Arborio rice, dried porcinis, just a few sundried tomatoes.  Risotto.  Midway through the day, I threw together some brownies.  The menu was set: steaks—both rib eye and strip, which Reuben and I rubbed enthusiastically while in enthusiastic conversation about meat, with crushed garlic cloves—a little dried out—freshly snipped rosemary, olive oil, salt, and pepper; porcini-spiked risotto (as if it weren’t hot enough already); Chantel’s green bean salad; brownies; red wine, after a thirst quenching beer.

The occasion originated with the grill giveaway.  There’s no way that gas grill, which I bought on special last fall at K-mart for $65 and Peter assembled, was going to fit into our storage unit.  So we called Reuben, who said he’d take it, but only after bringing over some steaks to throw on it.  It was also a great pantry- and freezer-emptying event. (We gave Reuben the frozen ground beef.) Most of the time, my pantry is so full of stuff, it doesn’t set off any sparks in my mind.  So there’s something nice about thinning, weeding, giving away.  I haven’t made risotto for ages, and have had those porcinis for just as long.  There’s also something nice about uncomplicated cooking.  The only things I used for cooking were a knife for the shallot, a little bamboo cheese board, a wooden spoon (for both brownies and rice), a pot, a glass baking dish, tongs, and the tea kettle.  And, of course, the grill. Simplicity.  The pleasure of a pantry.

Porcini Risotto

Soak porcini in a bowl of hot hot water until they soften.  Slice porcini into bits and save water to use in risotto.

Pour 1 c. Arborio rice into a moderately hot saucepan with a melted nob of butter in it.  Stir the rice until it gains translucence around the edges of the grains.  Reduce heat to medium low.  Gradually stir in 1/2 c. white wine until absorbed.  Pour in mushroom soaking liquid. Add a bit of minced fresh thyme. Keep stirring as you gradually pour in about 3 cups of warm stock, over the course of 25 minutes or so.  Keep stirring and pouring until it has that silky soft risotto feel in your mouth.  Add 2 more tbs. or so of butter and 1/2 c. grated parmesan.  Serve immediately.

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