I was walking through the bulk section of the Andy’s Market up on Gravenstein Highway in Sebastopol the other day. We were on our way back from Guerneville, where we’d just been house hunting with our realtor on what turned out to be a successful day, because, of all the homes we visited, I could see myself, living in comfortably. I’d fill them with a secret stash of local Sonoma and Napa wines to indulge in, while Jonathan BBQs all day…
I guess you could say I like to fantasize about owning a home on the Russia River. Which would totally make us a gay cliché, and that excites me. I mean can you imagine what that would look like? Two gay men, Jewish bears to be exact, bickering in the doorway of the milk refrigerator at the Safeway in downtown Guerneville on a Friday night before a three-day weekend with other “gays.”
“I made the Meyer Lemon ricotta cake from scratch Jonathan.” Philip says, his Sperry Top-Siders covered with pony fur and his Brooks Brothers shorts embroidered with blue-crabs. They’d been pressed for the occasion—a trip to the grocery store to stock the River house kitchen with the essentials for an over indulgent weekend in the Russian River—the only kind there is.
“We have to start making smarter choices honey,” Jonathan says, “It’s going to taste just as good with the light sour cream.” Jonathan fidgets in his flip-flops. He reaches into his army camouflage cargo shorts pocket to check what time it is on his smart phone. It’s 8 PM and he’s hungry, which means he’s cranky.
“But the recipe doesn’t call for sour cream,” Philip says, insisting on the crème fraiche!”
“But this is healthier.” Jonathan says.
“Then don’t eat it!”
Horrified for yelling in the supermarket, Philip drops his shoulders and leans back into the open fridge door a little. He tries to hide from all the attention he drew to himself for raising his voice, or at least whatever attention hadn’t already been drawn by his teal v-neck fitted-tee that says “Enjoy My Cock” in the Coca-Cola font.
Jonathan seems to pick up on the mood shift and in a gentler tone asks, “now can we get the sour cream?”
Philip pauses a moment, and looks Jonathan square in the eyes. “Just hear me out. The Martha Stewart Baking recipe called for crème fraiche. If they had a low calorie version of crème fraiche then I would get it, but they don’t. So I have to get it.”
“But that’s what’s so infuriating,” Jonathan says, waving his hands around like a mad man. “you don’t have to get anything. We can make it however we want.
“Sorry, I just can’t” Philip says, and then he puts the tub of thickened delicious cholesterol carrying crème fraiche into the cart and starts to push along.
Jonathan shrugs his shoulders, throws his arms, and rolls his eyes so violently that he twists around and collides with an 80-year old handicap woman in one of those motorized wheelchairs.
“I’m so sorry,” he says, petting her poof of white granny curls to both: make sure she’s okay, and; more importantly, to make sure it wasn’t a wig of freshly blown cotton candy. The Grandma looks like she’s committed a giant sin with the touch of an obviously flamboyant homo, and zooms off one her battery-powered steed in fear we’re going to make her wear one of our quintessential pink feather boas, the kind all gay men keep in the glove compartments just for these occasions.
No seriously! How great would it be to fight over ingredients at the grocery store with someone you love, and to chase after old ladies in wheelchairs and try to cheer them up with neon pink feather boas?? Exactly! That’s why we want to buy a home in Guerneville.
So there I was, walking around the bulk food section, and I was like where did all these new grains come from? I’d found myself in the middle of a grain revolution, and I wasn’t fighting on either side. So I jumped in and grabbed something I’d never made before, but love every time I eat it. And that was the farro.
I developed this easy recipe for a farro with mushrooms, leeks, fennel, and toasted hazelnuts salad, because it’s full of flavor, full of fiber, delicious, easy to make, and different. You’re not going to see this on every summer picnic table, but it’s the perfect substitute for a cold couscous or quinoa salad. You can also serve it warm wherever you’d normally use rice, grits, or even potatoes and pureed root vegetables. I recently used it as my bed of rice for a light white fish fillet and roasted vegetable dish that has a nice broth that the farro will slurp up once they mingle on the plate. It’s hearty so you can keeps up with the likes of a rich roasted duck breast or gamey lamb.
I like to toast nuts and add them for their awesome nutty flavor, but also for texture. I got this bag of hazelnuts (filbert nuts) at the local farmers market. They’re from Inzana Ranch & Produce in Hughson, California, which is due east of San Francisco, near Modesto. These were “raw” hazelnuts, and didn’t have much flavor until they were toasted, which is when they were almost impossible to resist.
Farro with Toasted Hazelnuts, Leeks, Mushrooms, and Fennel
- 1 packet farro
- 1 medium fennel bulb
- 1 medium leek
- 2 cups shitake mushrooms
- 2 cups vegetable broth
- 1 tblsp unsalted butter
- ½ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 tblsp olive oil
- 1 tblsp freshly grated Meyer Lemon zest
- ½ cup flat leaf Italian parsley chopped
- 1.5 tsp apple cider vinegar
- 1.5 tsp Worcestershire
- salt & pepper to taste
- grated parmesan cheese (optional)
Toast the hazelnuts at 350° for 10 mins or until toasted and effervescent. Once they’re done, let them cool completely before roughly chopping them (I use the bottom of the skillet). And then set them aside.
In a small to medium saucepot, cook the farro according to the directions on the packet, substituting in the 2 cups of vegetable broth for some of the water. Add a pinch of salt to the water too. When the farro is al dente (you might need to shorten the cooking time by a minute or two), remove it from the heat and strain it, reserving the starchy vegetable broth liquid in a bowl for later or for the halibut en papillote recipe this works really well with.
While the farro is cooking, chop the fennel, leek, and mushrooms into ¼- ½ inch pieces.
In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter and oil with the red pepper flakes. Once the butter is completely melted, add the leeks and fennel to the pan and cook for 3-5 mins to give them a head start. Add salt and pepper to taste, and then add the mushrooms and cook for another 5-8 mins until the vegetables are soft and some bits have browned a little.
If the vegetables are too dry then add a little more olive oil or butter. Then take them off the heat and let them cool.
In a large mixing bowl, mix the cooked farro, the vegetables, parsley, Meyer Lemon zest, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce (and optional parmesan). Taste and check the salad for more salt and pepper. If it’s dry add some of the reserved cooking liquid, and a drizzle of oil. Fold in the toasted hazelnuts just before serving.
- An easy way to chop the toasted hazelnuts is to pile them on a cutting board and then use the bottom of a skillet to crush them. You can also pulse them in a food processor 2 or 3 times, but then you have another piece of equipment to clean.
- If you don’t want to add parmesan cheese, you could always add some goat cheese, or blue cheese.
- If you’re going to serve this dish cold, consider adding dried fruit, fresh figs, grapes, or pears.