Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Everything but the turkey: Farro with butternut squash & cranberries

It's day #2 of "Everything but the turkey" week around here, and boy, have I got a doozy of a recipe for you.  The bread basket is taken care of, thanks to the fluffiest sweet potato biscuits I shared with you on Monday.

Today's recipe is a true side dish that's got a little something to please everybody.  It's packed with as many mouth-watering flavors as it is healthy ingredients.  The name is a bit of a mouthful, but you won't be able to stop talking about it once you try it: warm farro salad with butternut squash & hazelnuts! 


Farro is a grain that's slightly bigger than rice and looks a bit like very plump oats.  It has a nutty flavor and firm but chewy texture.  Nutritionally, farro is similar to quinoa but has less calories and fat and more protein.  There are many varieties, but semi-pearled is the most common.  Pearling just refers to how it's processed; the same idea goes for oats, such as steel-cut vs. old-fashioned vs. quick-cooking.

Farro is readily available in most grocery stores these days.  If your store has a bulk foods section, forego the pre-packaged stuff and buy exactly the quantity you need.

Okay, now that the food science lesson is in the books, let's get to the eating, shall we?

I've had farro at quite a few restaurants over the last year or so.  I enjoy it so much that if I spot it on a menu you can bet that's what I'll order.  Like so many folks, I typically save my favorite part of the meal to enjoy last.  One particular farro dish was so good that I polished off the salmon first and saved the delicious farro and tomato salad to savor last.  You know how much I love salmon, so that should clue you in to how good that farro was.

I'm glad I finally bit the bullet and decided to experiment with farro so I could enjoy it at home.  Since farro is cooked in a liquid, it soaks up whatever delicious flavors surround it, making it ideal for multi-ingredient salads and pilaf-style dishes.  Basically, whatever you're craving can be added to farro for the ultimate in personalized dishes.  Have it your way!

(Speaking of, if you'd rather use rice or quinoa or even a small pasta shape in lieu of farro, go for it!)

My way turned out to be a gorgeous rainbow salad chock full of seasonal flavors and textures that tasted so fresh thanks to the apple cider vinegar.  Crunchy toasted hazelnuts, tender butternut squash, sweet cranberries, and bright spinach all tossed with the chewy farro.

The farro was extra fabulous once it absorbed the flavors of the sauteed butter and onion.  Because butter and onions make e'erything better, right?

Stomach space is at a premium on Thanksgiving, so I propose that only dishes that pack a major punch should receive the privilege of being present at the table.  I think you'll agree that this warm farro salad is at the top of that list!

One year ago: Caramelized onion & mushroom galette
Four years ago: Classic vanilla buttercream

Warm Farro Salad with Butternut Squash & Hazelnuts
(adapted from Williams-Sonoma's recipe)
-makes 6-8 servings

A few notes: As I mentioned, feel free to add and subtract ingredients to suit you and your guests' tastes.  Sweet potatoes, golden raisins, shredded Brussels sprouts, pecans, and even bacon would be delicious alternatives.  And, if farro isn't in the cards for whatever reason, an equal amount of rice, quinoa, or small-shaped pasta would be fabulous, too.  Cook those grains according to package instructions.

6 cups water
1 1/2 cups pearled farro, rinsed
1/2 cup hazelnuts
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1 yellow onion, diced
3 cups diced & peeled butternut squash (about 1 lb)
Ground black pepper
2 teaspoons dried thyme
2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 cup dried cranberries
2 handfuls baby spinach, torn

In a large saucepan over high heat, bring salted water to a boil.  Add farro, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 45 minutes.  Drain off and reserve the excess water.

Meanwhile, in a large saute pan over medium heat, toast the hazelnuts until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Coarsely chop the nuts.  In the same pan over medium heat, melt the butter until foaming.  Add the onion and cook until just tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the squash, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, 8 to 10 minutes.

Add the thyme and cook for 30 seconds.  Stir in the vinegar and cranberries until combined.  Fold in the farro, hazelnuts and spinach.  Add more cooking water if needed.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Serve warm and enjoy!

Make-ahead tip: This is one of those multi-faceted dishes whose flavors only improve over time, so you can prepare this in a few ways to save time on the day you'll serve it.  1. Cook the farro up to 2 days prior and cover and refrigerate.  Follow remaining instructions to assemble dish.  2. Prepare the entire salad up to 1 day ahead of time and cover and refrigerate in oven-safe dish until using.  Cover dish with foil and pop into a preheated oven (350-400 degrees is fine) for 20 to 30 minutes or until warmed through.

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