Farro, Barley and Amaranth, Risotto-Style

Photo by Lorelle Del Matto

Ancient Grains Risotto 

 I’ll never give up traditional risotto, made with Italian Arborio or Carnaroli varieties of refined rice, but sometimes I want something with a little more heft and chew, like this version I cooked up with old-world grains, farro, pearl barley and amaranth.  Barley and amaranth gives the dish a creamy starchiness as expected from a traditional risotto, and farro contributes a nutty flavor and texture. 

 My first taste of farro was eleven years ago in Umbria, Italy, at the restaurant of an argritourismo, where we rented a farmhouse for a week with our two young children.  The restaurant made superb food with local products, including minestra di fagioli e farro (bean and farro soup).  Not new to the Italians, farro was a staple of the ancient Romans and is still used in Italy as a grain and ground into flour for pasta and other recipes.  Today farro is much more available and affordable than when I first discovered it – it’s even grown locally at Bluebird Grain Farms in Winthrop Washington. 

There is some confusion over whether farro is actually emmer or spelt. I like the Wikipedia explanation: “there are three species of hulled wheat grown in Italy and eaten as farro: einkorn, emmer, and spelt. Regional differences in what is locally grown and eaten as farro, as well as similarities between the three grains may explain the confusion.”  Farro is a good source of protein, dietary fiber and minerals including iron, zinc and magnesium. Look for whole farro not that labeled “pearled farro” which cooks quicker but is not a whole grain. 

Barley is truly an ancient food – evidence of its cultivation were found in sites dating back to 10,000 BC in Syria and it was a food source for ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Chinese, according to the cookbook, King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking.  Barley is a rich source of both insoluble fiber and a type of soluble fiber, beta-glucan, which helps lower blood cholesterol and promotes healthy blood sugar by slowing glucose absorption.  Pearled barley has been polished to remove the inedible hull and most of the bran layer but it still provides more fiber than other grains because there is fiber throughout the kernel, not just in the bran layer as in other grains.  

Amaranth is actually a seed of a leafy plant, not a grain.  It is considered a native plant in Peru and its cultivation goes back some 7,000 years.  Amaranth was a major food crop of the Aztecs in Mexico, who also used it in their religious practices, which led Cortez to try to ban it when he came from Spain in the 16th century to take over the Aztecs and convert the population to Christianity.  The seeds can be toasted or popped in a dry skillet to make a crunchy topping.  Amaranth is also highly nutritious, touted for it protein, fiber and minerals. 

 Serve this robust risotto as a side dish or make it a complete meal as I did recently by adding chunks of browned lean ham and roasted cubes of roasted winter squash. 

 For more information on these grains:

The Whole Grains Council

National Barley Foods Council 

Photo by Lorelle Del Matto

Ancient Grains Risotto 

Allow 40 to 50 minutes for the grains to cook.  You may need a little more or less liquid (add water if needed).     

11/2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups chopped yellow onion

1 clove garlic, minced or pressed

3/4 cup farro

3/4 cup pearl barley

1 cup white wine

4 cups sodium-reduced chicken broth

1/2 cup amaranth

1/4 cup chopped fresh sage or marjoram

1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, optional

Freshly shredded parmesan cheese

Heat large deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium-low to medium heat.  Swirl in olive oil.  Add onion.  Sauté, stirring often, until onion is soft.  Add garlic and stir for a few seconds, until fragrant.  Add farro and barley and sauté for about 30 seconds.  Add wine.  Simmer, stirring often, until wine is almost completely absorbed.  Add 1 cup broth and simmer for 12 minutes, stirring a few times and adding more broth as needed.  Add amaranth.   Continue to simmer gently for 30 to 35 minutes or until grains are tender and liquid is absorbed, stirring occasionally and adding 1 cup portions of broth at a time, just enough to keep grains covered.  Remove from heat and stir in sage and parsley.  Ass salt and pepper to taste, if desired.  Pass parmesan cheese for topping.  Makes 6 to 8 side-dish servings.


Ancient Grains Risotto with Ham and Roasted Squash

Spread 4 cups cubed kabocha or other winter squash on oiled baking sheet; spray with olive oil, salt and ground black pepper.  Convection bake at 375 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes or until tender.  While the risotto is cooking, in a nonstick skillet, cook 1/2 pound cubed lean nitrate/nitrite-free ham in 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat, turning occasionally, until brown.  Stir squash and ham into risotto during the last couple of minutes of cooking to warm.  Serves 4 as an entrée.

Copyright © Lorelle S Del Matto 2011

lorelle About lorelle

Crazy about cooking, eating and sharing good food – my work and leisure revolve around the kitchen. As a culinary dietitian my professional life encompasses nutrition counseling and education, recipe development, product development, food and nutrition writing, marketing communications, corporate test kitchen and consumer affairs management, food styling and work as a product spokesperson.


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