About a year and a half ago I read a book called Food Matters by Mark Bittman. Mark Bittman is a food writer for the New York Times, a cook book author and a regular on the Today show. His book is about the dire condition of today’s food industry from the inhumane conditions that livestock are raised in, to the complete change in our eating habits that were ushered in after WWII, to the number two biggest climate change contributor: livestock (cue clip at 1:10 and watch until 2:10). That’s right, “cow farts”, as Mark calls it. Next to energy production, “cow farts” or methane, is the second largest contributor to our climate changing. That’s even more than transportation! In short, the more meat we eat, the more livestock these industrial farms raise, the more farts and manure pigs, cows and chickens produce, the more methane is released into the atmosphere – which according to Mark is twenty times more toxic than carbon dioxide. It’s a very compelling argument and one – among many others – that caused me to question the way I eat on a daily basis.
I know you’re probably thinking, “Animal flatulence is exactly what I want to think of as I read this food blog.” And I’m sure there’s a lot of people who don’t want to hear about it at all, but prefer to live in blissful ignorance. And that’s ok because it is hard to take and old habits are hard to change; but Food Matters (along with Eating Animals, by Jonathon Safran Foer, to which another posting will have to be dedicated to at a later date) opened my eyes to how much meat my husband and I really ate in a day, week, or month. Let’s just say I wasn’t proud of our tally. We were eating way too much. Thus, with this rather shocking realization, I accepted the challenge that Bittman suggests in his book.
Bittman challenges his readers to start cutting out meat by having one meat-less meal a week – we are at two meat-less meals and Fish on Friday’s – and only one meal a day that includes meat. If you normally have meat for supper, pass the bacon at breakfast and hold the salami in your sandwich for lunch. During this time, I also removed all processed foods from my meal making; so I make all my meals from scratch – no canned soups to flavour casseroles or processed sauces for my spaghetti and meatballs. I also drastically cutback on the amount of processed snacks I purchased. I still buy granola bars, yogurt and healthy snacks, but I’m mindful of choosing the products with the right ingredients. These changes, at first, seemed a little scary. Did I want to give up my plain Ruffles chips? No. But I did. Of course I would be lying to you if I said that I never eat chips or never eat meat more than once a day, but what I can tell you is that I make a serious effort to stick to the plan.
The recipe I have for you today is one that you can add to your “Meat-less Monday” repertoire. Farro is my new favourite grain. If you’ve never tried it before it’s similar to barley but has a chewier texture and nuttier flavour. It is often confused with spelt, but farro is a totally different bird. I haven’t cooked with spelt yet, but from what I read, it takes hours to cook and has lack lustre flavour. Farro on the other hand can be cooked into a rich and creamy risotto, boiled until al dente and sprinkled on salads or added to soups. It’s very versatile. It’s loaded with fibre, has a low glycemic index so it’s digested slowly, doesn’t cause your glucose levels to spike and keeps you full longer. You can also find pasta made from farro flour, for great pasta without all of that carbohydrate guilt.
Farro and Shiitake Mushroom Risotto with Spinach and Pine Nuts
If you have ever made risotto you can make farro risotto. You employ the same technique of slowly adding stock to the pan, allowing the farro to absorb most of the stock before adding more. Because farro lacks the sticky starch that traditional arborio rice has, you don’t have to babysit it quite as much. Just stir occasionally to ensure it doesn’t stick and add more stock when needed. If you can’t find farro, substitute with barley instead.
I used shiitake mushrooms in this recipe, but you can use any kind you like. If you’re using shiitakes, the stems are not edible but you can add them to your stock and they will steep in the hot broth, ultimately giving your risotto even more mushroom-y flavour. Also, feel free to use any type of greens you like. Swiss chard, kale or rapini would all be fabulous.
Finally, the toasted pine nuts complement the natural nuttiness of farro and adds an interesting texture contrast to the dish.
Serves 2 as a main course or 4 as a side dish
4 Tbsp butter
2 shallots, diced
1 1/2 cups shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and sliced
1 1/2 cups farro
1 cup dry white wine
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Salt and Pepper
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
pinch red pepper flakes
1 large bunch of fresh baby spinach, trimmed of stems and dried thoroughly
Salt and pepper
1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
In a dry sauté pan, toast pine nuts over medium heat. Once you can smell their aroma, toss the pine nuts in the pan. Toast until they are lightly browned and fragrant.
In a sauce pan, heat up the stock and mushroom stems. In a shallow sauce pan with a wide opening, heat up 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat. Sauté the shallots until translucent and add the mushrooms. Cook until all of the liquid from the mushrooms has evaporated. Add the farro, coating the grains with the butter, shallots and mushrooms. Toast for 2 minutes. Pour in the wine and cook until almost all of the liquid has been absorbed.
Now it’s time to add your stock. Begin adding one ladle-full of stock at time to the pan. Stir thoroughly and simmer over medium heat until most of the stock is absorbed. Continue with this process. Once you’re about half way through the stock, you can add two ladle-fulls at a time. The idea is that you want to coax the starch out of the grains slowly to make it creamy and silky.
When you have about a third of the stock left, taste the farro for doneness. It should be tender but still a bite to it. If you feel it is al dente, add one more ladle of stock, cook for another thirty seconds or so and remove from heat. Add the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, butter and check for seasoning. Cover with a lid and set aside while you prepare your spinach.
In a sauté pan, over medium heat add olive oil, garlic and cred pepper flakes. Sauté the garlic until it is golden on all sides and the oil is fragrant. Remove the garlic. Add the spinach and toss frequently until wilted. Season with salt and pepper.
To serve, plate the risotto in shallow bowls topped with the spinach and toasted pines nuts. You can also fold the spinach into the risotto, top with the pine nuts and serve family style. Drizzle with good extra virgin olive oil and serve with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggianno at the table.