Poor Man’s Soup: A Farro Stew

The sky outside is a low ceiling of hammered grey tin.

I’ve spent most of the day tucked indoors, new French scarf wrapped around my neck, a birthday present from my beloved, writing at the small table beside the front windows. Occasionally I look up from my scribbling work and glance out at The Grandmother, the venerable, windswept Monterey cypress that presides gracefully over the small front yard of this cottage. I’ve been steadily writing for hours. My legs are stiff, my back beginning to ache, and my hand is so cramped from holding the fountain pen that I can barely open my ink-stained fingers.

Thoughts turn to dinner but I know that there is little in the house in way of tasty provisions. The cupboards are well-filled with glass jars that hold my culinary staples—grains, seeds, pulses and legumes—but the fridge is largely bare. I’ve been here before, of course. Really, it’s an easy enough problem to remedy but I do not want to get in the car. It is a ‘no drive day’—good for the planet, good for the soul—tucked contentedly and quietly at home. Since arriving at the cottage I’ve spent the last two days without going anywhere in the car, and I certainly don’t want to venture out now as evening falls. It’s cold and grey in Carmel-by-the-Sea, mists trailing over the rooftops and through the dark trees, and I’m comfortably ensconced in ‘recluse mode’.

Given the coastal weather, I’m in the mood for some spicy black bean soup. There are some dried, organic black turtle beans in one of my jars but I’ve not had the foresight to soak them, so I strike that as an option for this evening. Standing in the kitchen, I take inventory of cupboards and fridge, looking for a bit of inspiration. There isn’t much. For a brief moment I consider walking down to Bruno’s Market at 6th and Junipero, a ten-minute stroll each way; certainly after writing all day I could use the exercise, but really I just don’t wish to leave the house.

Ordinarily in a meagre food scenario like this, I would fall back on a simple risotto. Alas that I made that two nights ago––quite delicious with slow roasted organic beets and garlic—and much as I love the comforting rice-dish, I’m just not keen on having another version again so soon.

Oddly, what strikes me from seemingly nowhere is… farro. Why not a simple farro soup?

There’s a bit of confusion around farro. It tends to be an Italian catch-all term for a family of hulled (non-threshed) wheat that includes spelt, emmer, and einkorn—which are all slightly different in their genetics and gluten than standard, commercial wheat; each with a different number of chromosomes [48, 24, or 12 respectively]—and depending on where it’s grown in Italy, ‘farro’ can be any of the three. Spelt is the closest to commercial wheat, with einkorn being the most distant and ancient. Some people (myself included) who do not tolerate our modern, highly hybridized wheat, find that they manage quite well with these older, less-modified, lower chromosome-count relatives. The organic, tan-colored grains that fill one of those jars in my cupboard are emmer, the middle cousin, which works brilliantly in soups and risotto-like dishes.

A brief scan of the fridge drawers reveals that I’ve got the rudimentary basics: 1/2 an onion, a small bunch of heirloom carrots of varying hues, a few stalks of aging celery. With a bit of vegetable stock and the farro, well, we’re pleasantly on our way to an Old World-style ‘peasant soup’.

In the cheese and olive drawer, also distressingly bare, I’ve got the remnants of a roll of pancetta, the Italian, dry-cured version of bacon, which does nicely to add a bit of fat and flavor. Bless that dear little pig, I hope it lived a decent life and died swiftly when the time came.

From the spice cupboard, I pull out the slim, round jar from Italy that I’ve carried around the globe since it was gifted to oliveoilme by my mate. When I received the jar in England, it held a wonderful Italian olive oil infused with rosemary. Since then, on both sides of the Atlantic as our painted gypsy wagon has rolled ever onward, I’ve made my own versions—the latest batch containing rosemary snipped clandestinely from a neighbor’s giant shrub under the light of a luminous pearl of moon. I drizzle a bit into a heavy, enameled cast iron pot set over medium heat, the resinous aroma of the herb rising to greet me as it warms. Then I toss in the roughly chopped onion, carrots and celery—a classic mirepoix, the base of so many stocks, soups, stews, and braised dishes.

When I tip the diced pancetta into the mix, the familiar, warming smell of these ingredients in harmony suddenly transports me back to cooking school in Paris years ago, my first adventures in learning to really cook. I can’t help but smile. Whenever I’m blue, I simply need to step into the kitchen and throw some onion, carrots and celery together in a pot with a glug of heated olive oil or a fat wodge of butter, and voilà! Mood uplifted.

As the mirepoix ‘sweats’ and softens, the crimson-skinned carrots begin to bleed a bit of their color into the mix. I used the last liter of homemade chicken stock in the freezer the other night with the beet risotto, so I’ve whipped up a vegetable stock on a back burner using a couple of organic bouillon cubes. For a trained cook, it’s cheating, I know, but it is only me I’m feeding tonight and it’s much too late in the afternoon to stand on ceremony—never mind that it is exactly for moments like this that I keep those handy little cubes on hand. (As I’ve written before, only the organic veggie ones are any good; the others often have MSG, taste artificial, and impart an unwelcome, cloying flavor to any dish. Please don’t bother with them.)

I drop a California bay leaf (much more assertive then common bay) into the pot, pour in the warm stock with a sizzling hiss as it meets the hot pan, throw in a good pinch of the fleur de sel de Camargue (the French salt I’ve recently brought back from Provence), and add the farro that I’ve placed in a small bowl (roughly 175g/6 oz, if I had to guess) on the counter.

This is going to be a modest, simple soup—that’s sort of the whole point of it, really—but I still would like it to have a bit of flavorful depth. I open the spice cupboard again and survey the small, select array of contenders. (I have never been one to have a cluttered spice cabinet with dozens of choices, the vast majority of them old, musty, and useless. Do yourself a favor and just throw them all away.) Weighing each in my mind, tasting mentally, none of them seem quite right, though my hand lingers briefly over the small tin of Iranian saffron, and again over the perennial favorite herbes de Provence. No, I decide.

I stir the pot, considering its mélange of ingredients, inhaling the rising aroma, and then I turn and cross to the fridge, withdrawing the small glass jar of chipotles en adobo. The point isn’t really to make the soup spicy (though I’m generally fond of heat) but rather to add a bit of depth and intrigue. I drop one dark red, sauce covered chile into the pot and mix it in. Will it be enough? Too much?

Next to the wooden, free-form bowl on the counter that holds my lemons, limes, apples and an avocado, sit some little red gems of cherry tomatoes. I consider them for a minute, wondering if they would be a misstep, but as the pot comes to a boil on the stove, decide that I’ll throw them in.

Now, it’s enough. There isn’t much else in the kitchen that I could add even if I wanted to get fancy, which I don’t. It’s an Italian-style ‘poor man’s soup’—though arguably the addition of pancetta makes it slightly more than a pauper’s pot. I turn down the heat to a gentle simmer, set the heavy lid in place, and decide that as it cooks I will begin typing in some of the longhand pages I have written today.

30 minutes later, the front windows of the cottage have steamed over and the sky has darkened. Called from the computer farroby the savory aroma wafting from the kitchen, I return to the stove where, lifting the lid in a fragrant cloud, I discover that the farro has impressively swollen into plump little morsels, the broth thickened to an unctuous, pinkish-hued sauce. What greets me is not a soup but a stew. I dip in a spoon to taste, blowing on it to cool, and slurp it down. The emmer is soft and just a bit toothy to the bite. Delicious! The single chipotle en adobo has added exactly right amount of heat for my taste, and the little tomato jewels have proven to not be a misstep after all, but have added a nice complexity.

Even after all these years of preparing and eating rustic cuisine, it never fails to amaze (and delight) me how something so deceptively simple can be so utterly delicious. Of course, the right ingredients matter: good salt; freshly ground pepper (added only at the end, otherwise it turns bitter); flavorful olive oil or good organic butter; ground spices not older than a few months; fresh, best quality ingredients, ideally that are local and in-season. Seasoning is everything, but a sense of taste is a very difficult thing to teach. As cooking school affirms, two cooks following the same recipe with the same ingredients, cooking side by side in the same location, will have very different results.

My supper is almost too homely and modest to be worth writing about, such easy fare that it can hardly be called a recipe or deserve to be passed on to others. And yet here I am prattling on, once again, about the humblest sort of cuisine—a peasant soup so delicious that I wish my beloved was present to share it with me (along with a luscious 2010 Rioja Reserva singing from the cupboard with a raspy, gypsy voice, ¡Venga, venga, venga!).

How do we feed the soul? Most of us tend to view preparing a meal as a necessary task rather than a creative ritual, or wish that someone else would do it for us, especially when we are tired and uninspired—or when the cupboards are bare. And yet with just a bit of inspiration, we can manage remarkably well with very little.

I say that when the world disappoints, when we feel troubled and blue, when the day has been long or when the body aches, there is still the comfort of the table to turn to. True, it is best when there is someone beside us to share it with, but even alone we might take the time to sit, light a candle, and savor a bit of goodness we’ve created with nature’s bounty. Even if it is only a poor man’s stew. Sometimes the simplest things are the most beautiful… or savory.

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