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The healthy plate: Recipe for mushroom farro risotto

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Many people like the idea of cooking with whole grains — They are so healthful! — but refrain from actually plunging in because so many of them are unfamiliar.

What is the ratio of liquid to grain? Don't you need to rinse them, soak them or toast them first? How long do you cook them? Don't they take forever to cook?

For too long, I shied away from whole grains, too, especially because nobody seemed to agree on the answers to these questions. Then I did something really smart. I read the back of the package. And, duh! It's all right there. After all, who knows better how to prepare these products than the company that did the harvesting?

Product by product, and brand by brand, the instructions on the packages set me free to start cooking with many new whole grains.

One of my first and most gratifying discoveries was that most of these grains are pretty durable. You can boil up a huge batch during the weekend, then freeze them in 1-, 2- or 3-cup containers. All you need to do is reheat them with a bit of liquid or steam them over simmering water. And they are versatile, too. You can use them in any recipe that calls for cooked rice.

Which brings me to this recipe. My family loves regular risotto made with arborio or carnaroli rice. I was hopeful that I could prepare the same kind of recipe using farro.

A kind of hulled wheat, farro was first cultivated in the ancient Near East some 10,000 years ago. After a while, it started showing up in ancient Egypt and Israel. Today, it's grown in Morocco, Spain, Albania, Turkey, Switzerland and Italy. Recently, it's been gaining popularity right here in America because it's so nutritious.

Happily, farro also happens to be delicious. It has a full-bodied taste and a pleasant, slightly chewy texture. It's less starchy than short grain rice, which means that this risotto is not as creamy as rice-based versions. But it still gets plenty creamy, especially with the addition of a little freshly-grated Parmesan.

I simmered the farro first to give it a jump start because it takes 50 to 60 minutes to get tender, and who wants to be stirring all that time? Traditionalists making the standard risotto contend that you're supposed to add the liquid in numerous small increments, which can get pretty tedious.

But I was liberated several years ago by Andrew Carmellini, who adds liquid to his risotto fewer times in larger amounts. I figured if it was all right for this celebrated Italian restaurant chef, I could get away with it, too.

I finish off my farro risotto with sauteed mushrooms, but you're welcome to substitute any kind of cooked vegetable — carrots, peas, eggplant or chunks of butternut squash. And adding a little cooked protein to it, such as shrimp, for example, or chicken, or Canadian bacon, easily turns this dish into an entree. It is the perfect base for repurposed leftovers, but your family also will love it straight up.

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MUSHROOM FARRO "RISOTTO"

If you can only find parcooked farro (partially cooked), skip the initial step of the recipe (which calls for boiling the farro for 25 minutes). Instead, proceed to the next step. When the recipe directs you to simmer the broth and reserved farro cooking liquid, instead bring 2 1/2 cups of broth to a simmer, then proceed with the recipe and add the parcooked farro when it calls for drained farro.

If you grate the cheese on a wand-style grater, you will get about 3/4 cup. If you use the fine side of a box grater, you will get about half as much volume, or about 3/8 cup.

Start to finish: 50 to 60 minutes (25 minutes active)

Servings: 8

1 1/2 cups farro

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)

1 large clove garlic, finely chopped

2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves

1 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable broth

4 ounces fresh mushrooms (white button, cremini, shiitake, oyster or a mix)

1/2 cup dry red wine

1 ounce freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Kosher salt and ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the farro and simmer for 25 minutes. Drain the farro, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid.

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan over medium, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, then add the onion and cook for 5 minutes, or until it has softened. Add the garlic and the thyme and cook for 1 minute more.

In a medium skillet over medium, heat the remaining tablespoon of oil until hot. Reduce the heat to medium-low, then add the mushrooms and saute for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the liquid they give off has evaporated. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, combine the broth and the reserved farro cooking liquid. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Turn down the heat to low. Add the drained farro to the onion; cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Add the wine to the farro and simmer 1 to 2 minutes, until it is absorbed.

Add the hot stock mixture to the farro in 3 increments, letting it simmer until almost all the liquid has been absorbed before adding each new batch of stock. This should take about 25 minutes. When the farro is tender, stir in the mushroom mixture along with the cheese, then season with salt and pepper.

Nutrition information per serving: 230 calories; 60 calories from fat (26 per cent of total calories); 7 g fat (1 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 5 mg cholesterol; 32 g carbohydrate; 5 g fiber; 1 g sugar; 8 g protein; 290 mg sodium.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."

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