It’s midnight at the oasis.
For Brian’s birthday this year we went to dinner at Perilla, the new-ish restaurant in the West Village opened by Top Chef season 1 winner Harold Dieterle. I could easily wax rhapsodic about the crispy pork belly with pea shoots, trumpets, and banyuls-vanilla gastrique, which I ate entirely with my eyes closed so that other forms of sensory input would not interfere with the experience. But I won’t because I have opted not to try and re-create the pork belly; it would be too dangerous. We consume enough pork products around these here parts.
Instead, I’ve been thinking about the side dish of farro risotto with artichoke heart confit, parmesan and chili-grape salad we shared alongside the main course. It was wonderfully creamy, and the farro grains had a bite and nuttiness not found in arborio rice, the traditional risotto base. The grapes were strangely wonderful, and provided one of the perfect moments when you eat a combination of foods you would have never put together and find a whole new flavor you never knew you loved.
I decided to try a pared-down version that could become a go-to weeknight dinner. Render some bacon, toss in some onion. Throw in the grains, add the wine, simmer and add stock. Artichoke heart confit becomes jarred artichoke hearts, a pantry staple, and parmesan is whatever hard Italian grating cheese we have on hand that week. Grapes are omitted, because I don’t quite trust myself to do the chili-grape/risotto thing. I wanted to toss in some peas for extra color and to go with the springy-ness of the artichoke hearts, but found that we were unexpectedly out following the weekend’s unusually large chicken pot pie.
At this point, contemplating a farro risotto that was a bit runnier that I’d like, I understood what separates me from a restaurant chef, other than years of training, an impeccable palate and those tapered houndstooth pants they all wear (I don’t mind not having the pants): I am unwilling to knowingly douse foods with the amounts of cream and butter required to achieve restaurant-level dreamy creaminess. Okay, I don’t mind doing it once in a while, but not a regular basis. And what makes Perilla’s so deliciously creamy and viscous? Cream, and possibly some mascarpone; farro doesn’t release starch the way arborio rice does, which is what usually makes risotto so creamy without the cream.
So I decided to go in the opposite direction and hit it with some lemon juice and zest for perkiness. Then I put it in a bowl, sauteed up some shrimp in olive oil and garlic, dumped ’em on top, and sucked that shit down before I realized I’d forgotten to photograph the final product – it was revelatory. Comforting and a bit creamy, good for a chilly evening, but with a freshness that invigorates – not things that usually go together. The hearty grains and sauce fortified with parmeggiano pared with the artichoke and lemon are winter and spring in a bowl. So: not identical at all despite using many of the same ingredients, but pretty darn tasty. Leftovers await me tomorrow.
Farro is a whole grain that comes from mainly from Italy; regular grocery stores probably won’t carry it, but specialty shops or places like Whole Foods do. It cooks up very much like rice, although it remains toothsome even when overcooked, and can be used in a hundred different ways: in soups, as a salad with some diced veggies, herbs and cheese, in place of rice, as risotto, whatever. You can eat it hot or cold, and it’s super fiberlicious. The recipe below could easily be made with lots of different veggies, depending on what you have and what you like.
Farro risotto with artichoke and lemon (makes a lot, because I needed leftover risotto)
2 tbsp butter, olive oil, or rendered bacon fat
1 medium onion
2 cloves garlic
1 1/3 cups farro
1/2 bottle white wine of your choosing
4 cups chicken stock (mine came from a carton)
2 jars artichoke hearts
pile of grated cheese like parm or romano
juice of one lemon, along with some zest
Put the stock into a saucepan or teapot and heat it up; keep it hot on a low burner.
Put a deep pot over medium heat and throw in the fat; while it heats, finely dice the onion and garlic. Saute the onion for 5-6 minutes until it becomes translucent; do not let it brown, that means your heat is too high. Throw in the garlic for the last 1-2 minutes.
Add the farro and toss it around with the onions and to distribute the fat, then turn the heat up a bit and pour in the wine. Stir frequently, until most of the wine is absorbed. At this point, begin pouring in the hot stock a little bit at a time (from 1/2 to 1 cup per addition); keep stirring, and add more stock when the farro seems to have absorbed most of the liquid. After 20-30 minutes, start tasting the farro to see how it’s doing (but you can overcook the hell out of it and it will still be both tasty and chewy).
When the farro is done to your liking (there will still be some liquid remaining, which is your sauce), throw in the artichoke and stir to combine and heat through. Add the cheese and lemon to taste, along with salt and pepper.