Cheap Ass Monday: Brown Paper Packages Tied Up With String

If you’re here looking for a sub-$5 meal idea, I have to be up front with you and say that I actually have no idea how much this dinner costs. Maybe you can do it for $5, maybe it costs $100, I don’t know. I just know that for me, it was cheap as free because it was made entirely of random food items that were sitting around and for which I had no plans.

Food items that, I might add, comprise some of my all-time favorite edibles: farro, winter squash, onions, cheese and hazelnuts. A warm, comforting, filling meal that resulted in enough leftovers to see me through the turmoil of election day. (I have high hopes that this year we’ll actually ELECT someone ON ELECTION DAY but Brian is not similarly convinced.)

Everyone done with dinner? Then let’s get to a-persecuting them Christians!

I *heart* farro. An ancient grain, it fueled the Roman legions until, you know, their empire fell and shit. Today, it’s still grown in Italy and while it can be a little hard to find (though shops like Whole Foods and Zingermans typically carry it) it’s well worth seeking out. It is rice-ish in shape but is much more toothsome and has a pronounced nutty flavor that gets even more intense when the grains are toasted; I also swap it out for barley sometimes, and use it in place of arborio rice for risottos.

I toasted the grains until they started to smell good, then dumped in some chicken stock and left the farro to simmer; unlike real risotto, you don’t have to add the liquid little by little or stand and stir. And stir. And stir.

The source of all goodness.

Onions. Olive oil. Maybe just a touch of bacon fat. I realized too late that I would miss the onions that typically go into a risotto at the start of the cooking process, so I decided to caramelized some up separately and mix them in near the end.

And all the world lamented that the Inter-smell-o-net* has not been invented, while bosses are thrilled because it means they won’t catch you suddenly sitting up straight and pretending that you weren’t huffing your computer screens each time they turn the corner toward your cubicle. Unless you work from home, then you could huff all you wanted. So that sucks for you.

*Potential names: SmellWeb, the Odorweb, Interscent, the Huffington Post

I’ll see your $10, and I raise you $20.

Since I was doing the onions anyway, I figured why not go whole hog and make caramelized balsamic onions?

So I did.


If you live in the northeast and you belong to a CSA, then you most likely currently posses a lot of potatoes and several varieties of squash. (We also have two decorative gourds, about which all I can say is: why? Dear Farmer: When I give you my money at the beginning of the season it’s because I hope you will feed me, not because I need new gourds to dry out for my tribal jam band. Love, Michelle).

We have a two-headed acorn squash that scares me a little, so I decided to use the carnival squash instead. Not to get all Panglossian on you, but it is literally the most fun of all possible squash!*

I googled “carnival squash” to learn a little more about it, and was told that it is a sweet winter squash that can be used in place of both butternuts and sweet potatoes. Which was the exact same thing the internet told me about the buttercup squash I used last week. So either all winter squashes are actually the same and the different names are a marketing ploy, or the internet is not as trustworthy as I thought. Worrisome.

The alleged carnival squash was actually a fairly pale yellow inside and smelled nothing like either a butternut or a sweet potato. I hacked it up and roasted it just the same and then pureed it smooth with a spoonful or so of cream, a little maple syrup to up the sweetness and some salt for balance.

*Unless you’re scared of carnivals, which I would understand, what with the carnies and all. Then it perhaps goes on your “squash to avoid” list.

If I had had a loaf of decent bread for snacking, no cheese would actually have made it into the dish.

I’d found a round of never-unwrapped Boursin shallot and herb cheese in the back of the fridge; I can no longer remember why I’d bought it in the first place and had no other plans with it, so into the cooked farro it went. Since farro cooks up more like regular rice there’s no “sauce” produced the way there is with arborio rice, so you need a little something extra to get that risotto-y texture. In this case, that was the cheese and squash puree.

Why does my cellphone beep every 10 minutes to tell me the battery is running low? Surely, that must drain the battery EVEN FASTER, no? Also? ANNOYING.

I folded the cheese, squash puree and onions into the farro and put the whole pot back over the heat for a few minutes to get things nice and piping hot.

Okay, I GET IT. I will plug you in in a MINUTE, I am BUSY here.

I feel like I don’t really need to tell you what this was like – you know, that whole picture/thousand words thing. The farro had a great chewy texture and was nice and nutty, the squash was just sweet enough, caramelized onions enhance anything they touch, and the cheese added just enough pungency to keep things from getting cloying or one-dimensional. I added a sprinkle of chopped hazelnuts on the finished dish just for crunch, but they weren’t really necessary. And the cheese and squash puree did a fantastic job of mimicking a traditional saucy risotto.

Feedback: A++++. Would definitely eat for dinner again.

PS: Don’t forget, this week is the First Thursday in November. I wanna see all the foods you think you don’t like! Check out the rules and regs.

PPS: Vote.

Creamy Squash & Boursin Farro
1 1/2 c. farro
2 1/2 c. chicken or veg stock (or water)
3 tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 carnival, buttercup or small butternut squash, cut into chunks and seeds scraped out
1 tbsp. heavy cream
2 tbsp. maple syrup (grade B, please)
1/2 round boursin cheese
chopped toasted hazelnuts for garnish (optional)

Pre-heat your oven to 425.

Cook the farro: In a small saucepan, heat the stock. In another, larger pan, toast the farro over medium heat until it starts to smell nutty. Pour in the hot stock – watch out, it might splatter – bring it to a boil, turn it down to a simmer and simmer until the farro is cooked through but still has a little bite, about 25 minutes.

Cook the onions: While the farro simmers, heat one tablespoon of the oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions begin to brown. Add the balsamic – stand back, because you do NOT want a noseful of hot vinegar – and let it reduce to a glaze coating the onions, which will only take a minute or two.

Cook the squash: Toss the squash chunks with the remaining olive oil and salt and pepper. Dump the squash onto a baking sheet and roast in the oven until fork tender, 30-40 minutes. Let the cooked squash cool enough to handle, then scrape the flesh away from the skin and into the bowl of a fo-pro. Add the cream and syrup and process until smooth; adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper if needed.

Add the onions, squash and cheese to the cooked farro; combine thoroughly, re-heating as needed to melt the cheese and get everything up to temperature. Garnish with chopped hazelnuts and a few additional crumbles of boursin, if you’d like.

9 thoughts on “Cheap Ass Monday: Brown Paper Packages Tied Up With String

  1. I have heard good things about farro…but they also included the phrase “ancient grain” and something about that phrase makes me think of scarab beetles…

  2. Also wheatberry. It can be a bit of a pain to prepare – soaking overnight cuts cooking time though. Toasts nicely, holds its texture through a lot of abuse and cooks up without the scum you get from barley. And cheap (-ass) by the pound.

    This would be my kind of meal but not fond of squash.

  3. That looks like comfort food of the highest order. And I HATE the phrase “comfort food,” but that’s what it looks like.

    Also, it looks like fun food. Because Carnival squash! How could it not be fun? And when I say that in my head, I say it like the Brazilian Carnaval, which means I’m imagining half-naked women in huge headdresses shaking their asses all over the place.

    Is that not what it was like in your kitchen?

  4. 1) I’ve never tried farro at home but this makes me want to try.
    2) Same for me, if there’s good bread the cheese doesn’t make it much farther than that
    3) Your cell phone battery runs low? Ever? Because you use it?? This is shocking to me. The phone might have been beeping every so often to let you know it was still there. Since you never answer it. Get it?

  5. kate, i swear, farro looks and tastes nothing like beetles. promise.

    anna, i’m a big wheatberry fan. i like them cold/room temp with some cranberries, oranges and pecans tossed in…yum.

    kristin, that’s exactly what i was thinking of.

    jodi, you should. it’s hard to overcook. and yes, the battery runs low. because i charge it roughly once every three weeks.

    sometimes less.

  6. I know, I am going to get a rant from you and all your other readers for this. and I say screw them! (as that have been my two words for the past 24 hours). but Alaska hasn’t turned in their voter numbers yet. screw them. the surburban soccer moms are frustrated with the president elect. screw them. you get the point.

    the picture of this thing is pretty bad. and i know you’re a great cook but this thing made me nauseus when I first opened your blog today. sorry! a forewarning was needed here.

  7. You’re right — the internet doesn’t have much on the various squashes. I’ve got a roasted buttercup squash right now and have no idea what to do with it. Maybe soup again…
    I’ve gotta get me some farro.

  8. Pingback: Columbus Foodie » Blog Archive » November 2008 Roundup

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