My grandmother was way too busy to cook. After she came to live with us in L.A. in the seventies, she was always going to the dim sum parlor to yum cha with her friends. Or, she could frequently be found riding the bus around the brown, smoggy city with my brother, Simon, making him hand out to unsuspecting passengers tracts and flyers about Jesus and the Second Coming, two things in which she staunchly believed.
Growing up, nearly all the food we ate was Chinese, of the Cantonese variety. We lived in Chinatown and our mother did most of her shopping there, with eggs and freshly killed chicken from the place on Broadway, staples from the shop still at the corner of Hill and Alpine, slippery rice noodles from Bicycle Lee, who pedaled around the neighborhood hawking the most delicious wares from a metal box attached to the back of his two-wheel vehicle.
The furthest afield we might have gone was downtown, such as the time when Granny (as we Americanized Chinese kids called her) purchased an enormous watermelon from the Grand Central Market, brought it home on the bus, and carried it up to the front steps of our house, shouting, "Ayyyaaaa, help!" because she was about to drop it.
There is really only one dish I ever remember Granny cooking, though: Oatmeal and ground beef porridge.
I know. Sounds a little strange, but it's what she came up with after my sister, Marilyn, learned how to make meatloaf in her seventh grade Home Economics class. The binder in the meatloaf? Not breadcrumbs or milk-soaked pieces of bread, but oatmeal. My grandmother seemed to think this combination genius. Soon after Marilyn made the Luther Burbank Jr. High School Home Ec special for us, Granny began whipping up her deconstructed version, complete with a soy sauce drizzle.
When I came across a number of recipes recently substituting grains (farro, amaranth, etc.) in dishes where rice might more normally be used, I immediately recalled Granny's porridge. I imagined a pot of it simmering on our avocado green stove, the rich meaty smell floating through the rest of the house. Was her dish such a far cry from other savory grain dishes now in vogue? Maybe hers was a bit more rustic, but it was still filling, warming and worth eating on a cool, end-of-winter day.
When I began to think about it more, it occurred to me that what Granny was doing back then continues to occur today. People travelling across worlds to start over or just to visit briefly inevitably fold into their lives new ways of eating and seeing, thinking and being.
The oatmeal and beef porridge which we ABC (American Born Chinese) kids found to be such a strange combination had been created in the same spirit as that. Granny was taking the old Chinese technique of long-simmering rice and liquid (into jook, a savory porridge), and applying it to what for her was a new-world grain. In the end, she made a dish that was all her own.
Isn't that what the best of any kind of cooking, whether in a humble home kitchen or a critically-acclaimed restaurant is ultimately about -- being creative and using the best of what you have in a way that means something to you?
That's what I strive for, at least, with the hope that it will also taste good.
Speaking of which, this carrot and kale farrotto is something that falls squarely in that category, the tastes-so-good-I-can't-stop-eating-it one, that is. Cooked just like a risotto, using cracked farro instead of rice, this dish is filled with sweet, caramelized carrots and silky ribbons of kale, bits of parmesan that melt into the tender, nourishing grain.
Cheesy, sweet, nutty. This farrotto is something I can staunchly believe in. And, I am willing to bet my Granny would have loved it too.
Hope you like it!
Roasted Carrot and Kale Farrotto
Inspired by the many cooks and chefs exploring the beauty and flavors of grains. And by my Granny too, of course.
1 1/2 lbs. carrots, chopped (about 1/2")
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 small yellow onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 cup cracked farro*
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 quarts chicken or vegetable stock, heated to a simmer
1 bunch kale, stems removed, leaves cut into thin ribbons
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup finely chopped parsley
salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Toss carrots with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Spread in a single layer on a greased or lined baking sheet and roast for 20 minutes, stirring at least once. The carrots should look like they are beginning to caramelize, with dark edges.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil and the butter over medium heat in a large saucepan or Dutch oven. Add the onion, garlic and a generous pinch of salt. Cook until onion is softened (do not allow to brown), about 7 minutes. Add farro and stir to coat with the oil mixture. Cook for an additional 2 minutes.
Add the wine and cook until almost completely absorbed, about 5 minutes. Add 1/4 cup of the hot broth and cook, stirring occasionally, until the broth is almost completely absorbed (there should be very little liquid when you scrape the bottom of the pan, but the farro should not be sticking). Reduce the heat if necessary. Continue to add broth in 1/4 cup increments, stirring occasionally and allowing the farro to absorb the liquid almost completely with each addition. Cook until farro is tender but still has some bite. (This should take about 30 minutes.) Add roasted carrots. Add kale and stir until wilted. Cover and let sit for 5 minutes.
Stir in cheese and an additional tablespoon of butter. Add 1/3 cup to 1/2 cup broth to moisten the farrotto. Add salt and pepper to taste. Spoon into shallow bowls. Sprinkle with additional cheese and drizzle with additional olive oil, if desired.
*A Note: I used cracked farro, but you may substitute whole farro if you wish. Please keep in mind that you'll need to cook the whole farro for much longer.