The theme of this salad is contrast: earthy, nutty farro, sweet but singed citrus, and briny and creamy feta, with pops of tart pomegranate thrown in for good measure. It’s flavourfully dynamic and visually impressive, not to mention packed with fibre, antioxidants, and an alphabet’s worth of vitamins.
Farro is the new darling of chefs and foodies like quinoa was in the early 2000’s. Farro is a word used to describe one of the oldest cultivated groups of wheat grain cereals, a term used to refer to spelt, emmer or einkorn, originally native to the Fertile Crescent. It’s higher in fibre than typical wheat and has an abundance of magnesium and B vitamins. It savours nutty and toasty, but its texture is satisfyingly chewy; imagine, if you will, a quinoa and barley hybrid. Its hardiness in both texture and taste gives it a backbone strong enough to stand up to strong, heavy, or sharp flavours.
This recipe pays homage to the abundance of winter citrus and does double duty, using available produce and warding off those winter blues with bright flavours. In this particular iteration, Meyer lemons and blood oranges were used, but consider this recipe a skeleton, as you can sub in any citrus you fancy. Grapefruit, Mineola oranges, clementines, or key limes would all work equally well – just try to pair a sweet and tart citrus for maximum appeal.
The use of blood oranges and Meyer lemons was particularly intentional. Meyer lemons are thin-skinned and have a sweet, herbaceous quality – almost minty – that acts as the acidic lightning rod for this taste pairing. Blood oranges, on the other hand, are deep and caramel-like, with hints of blackberry, a sweet counterbalance to the astringent lemon. The citrus is charred, either by using a hand-held torch or a hot grill. The scorching carries out a trifecta of results: it caramelizes the fruit, rendering deep toffee flavours; it provides a sticky, candy-like texture to the fruit; and it enhances visual appeal.
When working with such bombastic flavours, it’s important to think about balance. You want to awe your dinner guests, not affront them. The farro works as a neutral balance for the peaks of flavours. With the sweet and acidic, salt and umami are a needed counterbalance, and that’s where the Macedonian feta comes in. Creamier and more velvety than its Greek counterpart, it helps to contradict, yet compliment, the sweet fruit flavours, making this dish an ostensibly savoury one. But again, take this only as a suggestion; regular feta or goat’s cheese could easily be substitutes to achieve the same complementary polarity. A bitter parity is achieved by using a generous handful of watercress, but any delicate bitter green would do, such as baby arugula.
A secondary feature of this recipe: It works at being nutritious without being tiresomely so. It’s flavoursome, hearty, unexpected, and bright – perfect for ensuring those health-conscious new year’s promises.
(Makes a side dish for four, or a main for two.)
1 cup of farro, well rinsed and drained
½ cup of fennel, chopped and fronds reserved
2 tablespoons, plus 1 teaspoon of olive oil
2 citrus fruits of your choice, here we used a blood orange and Meyer lemon
1 teaspoon of white sugar
¼ cup of Macedonian feta
1 cup of watercress
2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons of fresh mint leaves, torn
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400F
On a parchment-lined baking sheet, combine the chopped fennel and 1 teaspoon of olive oil and a pinch of salt.
Roast until fennel is softened, about 15 minutes.
In a medium saucepan, place the farro and enough water to just cover the grains, set over high heat, and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat to low and allow to cook until farro is softened, about 30 minutes.
Remove from heat and let cool.
Remove arils from the pomegranate. To effectively release the arils cut the fruit in half and smack the skin of the fruit with the back of a wooden spoon.
The citrus can be charred either by using a hand-held kitchen torch or by grilling. Here we used an at-home kitchen butane torch, which can be found at any quality kitchen store. If using this method, cut the fruit into small wedges, remove the flesh from the rind, and discard the seeds. Cut each wedge in half, leaving you with two fat little jewels of citrus per wedge.
Place the citrus pieces on a glass or metal heat-resistant sheet. Sprinkle with the sugar and, using the torch, char the fruit until some of the peaks of the wedges turn black. The level of char here is up to you; if you like the singed citrus flavours, blacken more, or just gently kiss with the flame.
If you don’t have access to a kitchen torch, you can achieve the charred effect by grilling the fruit on an indoor grill or cast iron pan. In this instance, do not remove the rind from the wedges, as it will help you to have something to grab onto with tongs during the cooking process. Heat the grill or pan to high and sear the fruit on both sides of the wedge. Remove from the pan and let cool, and then remove the flesh from the rind.
In a large glass bowl, combine the apple cider vinegar, remaining olive oil, and salt and pepper and stir.
Next add the farro, roasted fennel, watercress, mint leaves, and pomegranate arils. Toss to evenly coat with the dressing.
Add in the charred citrus and break up the feta onto the salad.
Serve garnished with the reserved fennel fronds.