Last week, while I was fretting about what to throw together for dinner, I found myself starring down nothing more than a forgotten head of cauliflower, a pint of slightly shriveled tomatoes, an orphaned orange and a waning bouquet of cilantro. Turning my quartet of disparate produce items into a hearty weeknight main dish was surely going to require a more than a little kitchen creativity so I turned to my pantry. After a few minutes of searching, I unearthed a handful of cashews and a can of chickpeas before grabbing a bag of farro — the perfect ingredient to round out my makeshift meal.
Wholesome farro tastes like it’s good for you, but not in that cardboard box kind of way. The nutrient-dense whole grain is often compared to barley and prized for its toothsome texture and nutty flavor. The miniature bullet-shaped grain packs some powerful heat in the form of B vitamins and is a fine source for antioxidants known for protecting the body from free radicals. The grain appeals to health conscious cooks, but farro lends itself to a variety of dishes and cooking methods making it attractive to gourmands as well.
When selecting farro I rely on reputable Italian markets to carry quality grains and carefully follow the cooking instructions on the packages; farro comes in whole grain, pearled and semi-pearled varieties and each one has unique cooking times. Like pasta, cooked farro can range from hard and under cooked or overcooked and lackluster. Look for properly cooked farro be firm to the bite or “al dente.”
The first time I enjoyed farro it was incorporated into a robust entrée salad brimming with roasted squash, hazelnuts and savory ricotta cheese. Looking back at that Italian restaurant lunch inspired my Refrigerator Search Farro Salad.
Roasting the cauliflower and tomatoes deepened their flavor and helped them stand up to a healthy portion of sturdy farro. Using the cilantro and cashews to create a quick pesto served as a healthy alternative to high calorie salad dressings and pan-roasted chickpeas gave my vegetarian meal a powerful protein punch.
In the end, I presented my family with a thoughtfully composed, nutritious, meatless meal that came from little more than a few scraps from my refrigerator and farro, an ancient grain that should be a pantry staple for every creative home cook.
Refrigerator Search Farro Salad
For the Beans:
1 15-ounce can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Heat the olive oil in a large high sided skillet over high heat. Add the chickpeas and pepper flakes and toss to coat with the oil and spices. Allow the chickpeas to cook until lightly golden and crispy. Transfer the chickpeas to a large mixing bowl.
For the Grain:
1 cup of farro
3 Tablespoons of olive oil
1 teaspoon of salt
4 cups of water
Add the olive oil to the same skillet used for cooking the beans and heat over medium-high heat. Add the farro and cook, stirring constantly until lightly toasted (about 3 minutes). Add the salt and water to the pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally for 35 minutes. Drain and rinse the cooked farro and add to the bowl holding the chickpeas.
For the Cauliflower:
1 head of cauliflower, separated into florets
1 teaspoon cumin
Salt and pepper
2 Tablespoons of olive oil
While the farro is cooking, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Arrange the cauliflower on a parchment lined rimmed baking sheet and season with the cumin, salt and pepper. Drizzle the cauliflower with the olive oil and roast until golden brown and tender (about 20 minutes). Allow the cauliflower to cool slightly before adding to the bowl holding the farro mixture.
For the Tomatoes:
1 pint of grape tomatoes, halved
2 teaspoons of honey
2 teaspoons of olive oil
Salt and pepper
Place the grape tomatoes, cut side up in a pie plate and drizzle with the honey and olive oil. Season the tomatoes with salt and pepper and roast in the same oven with the cauliflower for 20 minutes. Allow to cool slightly before adding the tomatoes to the mixing bow holding the farro mixture.
For the pesto dressing:
1 bunch of cilantro
1/2 cup of cashews
3 garlic cloves
1/3 cup of olive oil
While the cauliflower and tomatoes are roasting, place the cilantro, cashews and garlic into the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Pulse to coarsely chop the mixture. With the machine running add the olive oil in a slow stream until combined. Season with salt and pepper to taste. You should have about 1 cup of pesto. Fold half of the pesto mixture into the salad and stir to combine. Add more pesto according to your personal taste (I used about 3/4 cup.)
2-3 Tablespoons high quality balsamic vinegar
1 orange, peeled and cut up
Additional cashews for garnish
Stir the balsamic vinegar into the finished salad, adjust the seasoning and garnish with orange, scallions and cashews.