I’ve been thinking about starch a lot lately. That’s totally normal, right? Anyway, my mother-in-law got me hooked on farro and now that I’ve finally found a local supermarket that carries the darn stuff at a really good price, I’ve been cooking with it a lot. Like, too much. OK, in the interest of full disclosure, I was hoping to post this recipe two weeks ago, but I quickly learned that starch is tricky and I had to make this three different times before I came up with the right method.
Slight segue here…did you know that farro is, in fact, quite starchy? And you know what else is really starchy? Rice…specifically, arborio rice. So, I got to thinking about what would happen if I tried to make risotto, which relies heavily on the starch from the rice to give it that creaminess, using farro instead? What follows is my Goldilocks version of what transpired when I tried to make this sweet potato and black bean farrotto.
Timing was definitely challenging with this little grain. It doesn’t behave like other grains. I had always thought you needed to cook it with water at roughly a 3-to-1 ratio and once all the water’s absorbed, you’re good to go. Oftentimes, however, I found that the grains were tender way before all the water was absorbed. So, I did what you’re not supposed to do: I just drained it, and the result was the same! I threw some farro and deliciously extra fine sel gris (thank you, wonderful coworkers!) into the pot, topped it with water, boiled it for 15 minutes, and then drained it. The farro was tender, not mushy, and even though I was throwing away the liquid, those little grains still had plenty of starch in them to perform more cool tricks down the road. So, after I drained them, I set them out on a small baking sheet, tossed them with olive oil, and let them sit tight until I was good and ready for them.
As an aside, farro has a really interesting history. It’s old…like, ancient old. It can only come from this one region in Italy (has to do with the soil there). And did you know that there are farro impostors???? I can vouch for this first hand. While I was reading up on the little guys, a few articles were saying how farro looks devilishly similar to spelt, and is often mistaken (or sold as) one in the same. It also looks like wheat berries and a few other grains. So, when I was in the store, low and behold I was comparing wheat berries to farro and the stuff is just kith and kin to each other. This is dangerous. Why? Because all of these grains are genetically different and, as such, have very different cooking times and properties. This realization was the culinary equivalent of having my hair blown back in shock. Who knew?
Anyway, getting back to the farrotto, the next tricky phase of things came when I needed get my sweet potato/black bean mixture ready, as well as onions and garlic. If you’re using canned black beans, then just draining and rinsing them and letting them sit in a bowl is not a problem. No, the problem arises when you have to cook off the sweet potatoes. Here’s why:
1) When you cube up the sweet potatoes into a 1/4-inch dice, they cook in no time at all. Literally, 5 minutes. Heck, it takes longer for the darn water to boil that the sweet potatoes will cook in. I’m sure there’s a handy way to microwave these guys and avoid yet another boiling pot of water, but our microwave conveniently broke (you believe, me, right?) and after three tries of making this stuff, I wasn’t about to change this step in the bottom of the 9th, you know?
2) The sweet potatoes and black beans are tossed in lime juice. This helps freshen up the black beans and knock off some of that canned flavor. The lime juice also gets absorbed into the sweet potatoes, because the potatoes are hot and soak up flavor. The problem arises when you add too much lime juice because then the sweet potatoes take on too much liquid. This results in the perfect sweet potato cubes losing their nice sharp edges and turning to mush. So, I finally found that starting out with half a lime worked well. No mushy potatoes and no soggy corners. Win!
Just be gentle with the toss, as those little corners are delicate. Another note about the sweet potato/black bean mixture: this recipe only requires half of what results from using a whole sweet potato and whole 15 oz. can. Sorry, I know that’s so frustrating when you read recipes calling for half a sweet potato. I mean, seriously?? But I tried doubling everything to accommodate the larger amounts of sweet potatoes/black beans and it was just, well…farrotto failed attempt #2. But, fret not! The leftover sweet potato/black bean mix can be used in sweet potato and spinach quesadillas! You’re welcome.
Now, let’s talk about pots, shall we? Use one. Don’t use a saute pan. In farrotto failure #2, I tried such a stunt and found out that the farro grains like being close together when they release their starch. And you don’t have to use anywhere near the amount of liquid you do for risotto. I’ve seen risotto recipes that call for 6 cups of stock. For this, I used 1 cup. To be clear, though, you’ll never get the uber creaminess that short-grain rice will give you, but nonetheless, farro performs a cool trick and satisfies that starchy main-dish craving usually filled by mac and cheese (at least in our house).
This isn’t precious yuppy food, as I’ve once heard such things called. You can’t really overcook it, farro doesn’t disintegrate into starchy mush because it holds its texture really well, and you can throw whatever you’d like into the mix. It’s brown rice’s older, cooler sibling. It’s easily rehydrated and restored to its former semi-creamy glory with some warmed-up stock. It’s….it’s….
…a big ol’ bowl of love.
Much less precious than risotto, this sweet potato and black bean farrotto takes on similar characteristics of a risotto, but without the time commitment and constant need for stirring.
- 1 large sweet potato, cubed into a 1/4-inch dice
- 1 15-oz. can of black beans, drained and rinsed
- Juice of half a large lime (or juice of a whole small lime)
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 of a large yellow onion, chopped
- 5 tbsps olive oil
- 1 1/2 cups of farro
- 2 tsps extra fine sea salt (sel gris)
- Black pepper to taste
- 1-2 cups unsalted chicken stock
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- In a medium sauce pot, add the farro and sel gris. Top the farro with enough water to cover it by about 1 1/2 inches. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and let cook for 15 minutes.
- Drain the farro and spread it out on a quarter sheet pan (or small baking sheet). Toss with 1 tbsp of olive oil and set aside to cool.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the sweet potatoes and cook for 5 minutes.
- In a large bowl, add the black beans and lime juice and toss. There should be a little lime juice still at the bottom of the beans, but no more than a tablespoon or so. When the sweet potatoes are done, drain and add them to the black beans and using a spatula, gently fold them into the beans and lime juice. Once the sweet potatoes are added, you shouldn't see any extra lime juice on the bottom of the bowl and the sweet potatoes should retain their cubed shape (no mushy corners). Set aside.
- Bring the chicken stock to a boil in a small pot and simmer until needed.
- Using the same pot in which the sweet potatoes were cooked, add the rest of the olive oil (4 tbsps) and heat on medium heat until it starts to ripple. Add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes, until soft and translucent.
- Add the farro to the onions and garlic and toss to coat. Add 1 cup of the hot chicken stock to the farro and stir constantly. After about 3 minutes or so of stirring, the stock will start to thicken and slowly get absorbed into the farro. Keep stirring until the farro is tender and you can scrape a wooden spoon on the bottom of the pot and leave an empty trail in the stock.
- Add in half of the sweet potato/black bean mixture and gently toss to combine.
- Add the Parmesan cheese and black pepper at the end and toss to combine.
- Serve immediately, or store in the fridge for up to a week. To rehydrate, add warm stock in 1/4-cup increments into a pot with the farrotto until thick and slightly creamy.
If you can't find sel gris, you can use kosher salt. The measurements won't be exactly the same, though, so start with 1 teaspoon and go from there.