Monday, January 23, 2012

Maria Speck: Going with the Grains

Every year over the last decade, I’ve compiled a list of cookbooks or food-focused books for holiday gift-giving. This past holiday season, ‘Ancient Grains for Modern Meals’ by Maria Speck was one of my favorites (subsequently listed as the Washington Post’s 2011 Top Ten, as well as the New York Times’ 2011 notable cookbooks) – a real gem of a cookbook. While many might think of cooking with grains as a healthful focus, Speck tempts us to try her rustic and creative recipes because of exquisite flavor and taste.

Those in the upstate New York region are lucky to be able to meet Speck in person and take a cooking class with her on Saturday, January 28th at the Battenkill Kitchen in Salem, New York. Speck will teach a hands-on cooking class inspired by her best-selling cookbook (for further information visit or call 518.854.3032; email at

Already a great fan of grains, I’ve sampled many of Speck’s recipes (now included in a regular repertoire of my go-to recipes) and recently prepared the M Mussels with Farro and White Wine. (Farro consists of the whole grains of certain wheat species; you should be able to find this in many larger grocery or health food stores, alternatively online at In the recipe below, I substituted leeks (one large leek, using white and light green section, sliced thinly) for the celery, but stayed with all of the remaining recipe ingredients and instructions. While we don’t typically think of mussels as a local product, they are fairly easy to acquire, as many grocery stores source mussels from Prince Edward Island.

Preparing this light, yet satisfying dish during the winter is great in that it’s an easy one-pot meal – and it almost makes me feel as if beach weather isn’t far away. Really.

Mediterranean Mussels with Farro and White Wine*
by Maria Speck
(photos by Sara Remington: Ten Speed Press, 240 pages, $29.99 Photos: 44
Recipes: 96)

Serves 3 or 4 as a light main course, or 4 to 6 as a starter

Pleasingly chewy farro and tender-sweet mussles are culinary siblings of sorts. Both share a rewarding lip-smacking plumpness, which makes them a perfect match in this easy one-pot stew. Don’t let the length of the ingredients list keep you from giving it a try – this straightforward preparation is on the table fast. Serve with a crusty baguette to mop up the intensely flavorful, wine-infused mussel juices and extra olive oil to drizzle on top.

The wine you use does not have to be expensive. Even a downright basic bottle can result in a fruity and aromatic sauce. Smaller, wild-caught mussels, typically cook in just under 3 minutes; cultivated mussels might take 5 to 8 minutes.

1 ½ cups water
¾ cup farro
1 small bay leaf
2 whole peppercorns
Pinch of fine sea salt

2 pounds fresh mussels in their shells
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cup finely chopped yellow onion (about 1 small)
1 cup thinly sliced carrots (about 2 small)
1 cup thinly sliced celery stalks (1 to 2 pieces)
2 to 3 cloves garlic, lightly crushed
2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary
2 bay leaves
1 dried red chile
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
1 ½ cups dry white wine
1 ½ cups chopped fresh or diced canned tomatoes with their juices (one 14-ounce can)
1 ½ cups water
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus lemon wedges to serve
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

To prepare the farro, bring the water, farro, bay leaf, peppercorns, and salt to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan. Decrease the heat to maintain a simmer, cover, and cook until the grain is tender but still slightly chewy, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the bay leaf, drain any remaining liquid and set aside.

While the farro simmers, rinse the mussels under cold running water, brushing to remove sand and residue on the shells. Remove the beards (hairy clumps around the shell) with tweezers or a sharp knife. Discard chipped mussels. Tap any open mussels and discard if they don’t close. Set the cleaned mussles aside.

To make the stew, heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion, carrots, celery, garlic, 1 teaspoon of the rosemary, the bay leaves, chile and ¼ teaspoon of the salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables soften, 3 to 5 minutes. Increase the heat to medium-high, add ¼ cup of the white wine, and cook until syrupy and the liquid is almost gone, about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, the water, the remaining 1 ¼ cups white wine, the pepper, and the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt; bring to a boil. Cook, uncovered, at a lively simmer until the carrots are crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the sugar.

Add the mussels and farro together with the remaining 1 teaspoon rosemary to the pot and bring to a boil. Cover and steam over medium to medium-high heat, shaking the pot once or twice in between, until the mussels open, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat, and discard any unopened mussels.

To finish, add the lemon juice. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust. Drizzle the mussels with the olive oil and serve right away in deep plates, garnished with parsley and with lemon wedges on the side.

TO VARY IT: Easily available and affordable pearl barley plumps up nicely to compete with farro in this dish, or simply use leftover brown rice. You will need about 2 cups cooked grain.

*Reprinted with permission from Ancient Grains for Modern Meals by Maria Speck, copyright © 2011. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

Annette Nielsen is a food writer, editor, community organizer and activist on behalf of regional agriculture. She recently edited Northern Comfort and Northern Bounty, two seasonally-based cookbooks for Adirondack Life Magazine. A native of Northville, she lives in Salem, New York with her husband and son.

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Annette Nielsen is a noted local food writer, editor, community organizer and activist on behalf of regional agriculture. She recently edited Northern Comfort and Northern Bounty, two seasonally-based cookbooks for Adirondack Life. A native of Northville, (she now lives in Salem, Washington County with her husband and son), Nielsen writes about Adirondack foodie culture with an eye toward locally sourced foods from forest, orchard, and farm. Annette Nielsen can be reached on Twitter and Facebook.

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