This is a risotto that cooks itself – and technically, it is called farrotto. Farro is spelt, a wonderful grain that goes well with dried wild mushrooms in this recipe.
Risotto is an awful lot of hassle, an involved dish of stirring and stirring, ladling and ladling, and it ends up at least a million, albeit delicious, calories on your plate. Right?
Wrong! Not so if you swap rice for another grain. And my firm preference is spelt.
What is spelt?
Spelt (also known as farro, which is its Italian name) is a type of wheat and one of the ‘ancient grains’ together with freekeh, buckwheat, quinoa, millet, teff and amaranth (most of those not so much my favourites).
‘Ancient’ means not changed by human meddling for centuries, though as I find out, it originated from crossing Emmer grain with wild grasses. Whether it was a natural process or not, that I don’t know, but at least it has been spared modern agricultural crossing and gen mods.
It is now as it was cultivated in ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Rome. It is popular knowledge that Romans grew and used spelt, even calling it ‘Marching Grain’ in appreciation of its high protein and energy content.
It fell from grace in the 19th century in the western world on arrival of modern agricultural developments; wheat was much easier to harvest mechanically and at the same time considered a better grain.
Pearl spelt and hulled spelt
Spelt comes in a wholegrain, hulled form or ‘pearled’, where the outer husk is removed making it easier to cook and digest but of course divested of the wholegrain fibre goodness.
Still, it’s probably nutritionally much better than refined white wheat flour or white rice.
Spelt flour is used in baking though it does alter the texture of the bread or cake, making it ‘short’: more brittle and crumblier than in wheat products. Spelt is also very much not gluten free, being a type of wheat, so not recommended for intolerance sufferers.
But it’s great as a risotto material. Pearled spelt is best to use in this dish, as it’s more easily available and simply nicer to eat, with a still high fibre content even lacking the husks.
When is a risotto not risotto?
It’s only one of the grains cooks use to make risotto: pearl barley is arguably more popular but I hate it with a vengeance, ever since being frequently served a gloop of tasteless grey to go with my meatballs in school dinners (barley was big in Poland).
Apparently you can also use quinoa to make a risotto-style dish, but honestly, I don’t know who would want to (quinoa is the vilest thing on Earth IMHO).
And millet, but as much as I like it in porridge, I think it is a grain a bit on the small side for such use.
But hang on a sec – you surely cannot still call it ‘risotto’ if there’s no ‘riso’ in it? Surely it should be called ‘speltotto’ and, respectively, ‘barleotto’ and ‘quinotto’?
Of the three only ‘speltotto’ sounds blatantly wrong, but surprise – it is the only one of the three that actually has its own legit name as a dish. Except it is ‘farrotto’, in Italian and from the Italian word for spelt.
I think I’ll continue to call mine ‘risotto’ though for its Google-friendly factor.
How to cook spelt risotto?
I have cooked many a rice risotto and it is a chore. This – is a doddle. To give him his due credit, the Weather Man first made it in our house and enjoyed cooking it immensely.
You see, there’s no stirring and stirring involved – you give the thing one good stir and leave it to its own devices, to happily get creamy and tender in the stock.
It tastes absolutely wonderful with dried mushrooms – spelt has an earthy flavour which is doubled up in the company of those fragrant fungi. And it’s really easy to prepare, since the mushrooms soak in the water that next serves as the flavouring stock for the dish.
Soffritto celery hack
Soffritto is the mix of finely diced vegetables that make the base for Italian sauces and risottos (and farrottos). It is traditionally the trio of carrot, onion and celery.
And it is the cursed occasion where you need to buy a whole stalk of celery, to use one rib and to have the rest of the bunch live forever in the vegetable drawer of your fridge.
Sure, you can eat them raw but who really likes celery? And there’s only so much celery salad you can serve.
My hack: I replace celery with broccoli stalk, a perfectly nice piece of the vegetable always stupidly discarded once you cut off the florets. Diced finely, it is as good as celery and I can bet even an Italian chef would not tell the difference. Plus, it eliminates waste.
Incidentally, broccoli stalk or stem is also fantastic in stir fries, chopped into thick matchsticks.
What does spelt risotto taste like?
It is earthier and more wholesome tasting than rice. It gets reasonably creamy at the end of cooking but I would not add the tonne of butter and Parmesan that is customary to do with rice risotto – it won’t go as well with the flavour, it will make the dish overly rich and you’re cutting a lot of calories from your plate.
More whole grain recipes
Bulgur wheat is a little too hard to use in risootos but it can easily be made into a pilaf, with red peppers and raisins.
Another less usual grain (which is not even really a grain) is giant couscous. It makes a lovely vegetarian salad with tomatoes and peppers.
Spelt features also in a salad with courgette ribbons.