This was my lunch last week. I know that it may look less like lunch and more like penance, some apology for eating too many squares of salted-caramel-glazed fanned-apples-atop-1000-layers-of-buttery-pastry. I realize that most people think that when you start serving them bowls hearty grains and roasted squash that you might have an ulterior motive, like their thighs. I understand that most people don’t believe me when I say this, but it doesn’t make it any less true: I don’t eat food because it’s good for me; I eat it because I like it. And this was one of the most delicious lunch salads I’ve ever made.
Herein lies my approach to grain salads: I like whatever vegetables I’m using in the salad to be the bulk of it, and the grains to be the accent, like a crouton. When you make grain salad this way, you get to appreciate the texture, and not just lament that it’s not plush as a mound of fine couscous, something you’d hardly notice eating. This, however, does not mean that they’re to be crouton-free; all salads need punch and crunch, and here, it comes from toasted, salted pepitas (though any nut will do), crumbled ricotta salata (though any salty, crumbly cheese will do) and minced red onion that I pickled at the last minute in sherry vinegar.
The salad is not a miracle worker. It did not convince a picky toddler who likes roasted squash and farro separately to eat them together. It did not photograph particularly sharply in the scrap of remaining daylight I had left at 5 pm. And it didn’t make this nagging cough I have disappear, or save me from a diagnosis of bronchitis, something I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest is not really something anyone hopes to hear a week before their book comes out. But not a single one of these things will matter when you’re eating it because it’s like dividing a big bowl of fall weekend bliss — all pumpkin patch orange, golden hay and waning green flecks. You will want it to last and last.
The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook: Comes out ONE WEEK FROM TODAY. I am so excited that I keep spelling “book” with an extra-dramatic string of Os, booooook, which seems fitting for its pre-Halloween release. You can preorder the book from these stores. The book tour listings are here. And if you can’t make it to an event, here’s another way to get a signed book. And next Tuesday, we’re all making candy.
Two years ago: Spiced Applesauce Cake
Three years ago: Cauliflower with Almonds, Raisins and Capers
Four years ago: Cranberry Walnut Chicken Salad and Pumpkin Swirl Brownies
Five years ago: Gluten Free Chocolate Financiers, Pumpkin Butter and Pepita Granola
Six years ago: Spinach Quiche and Pumpkin Muffins
Butternut Salad with Farro, Pepitas and Ricotta Salata
Serves 4 to 6, generously
Like most salads, this recipe works well as a template, meaning that many of the ingredients can be replaced with likeminded ones with little trouble. You can use other winter squashes in the place of the butternut (or even sweet potatoes), the farro could be replaced with barley, freekeh or another grain of your choice. The red onion could be shallots. The pepitas could be another toasted nut, roughly chopped and the ricotta salata could be feta or soft bits of goat cheese. The sherry vinegar could be a white wine vinegar.
The pearling process removes the inedible hull that surrounds the wheat, and farro is generally sold either pearled, semi-pearled or regular. The pearled will take the shortest time to cook. If you’re not sure what you have, just use the cooking directions on the package. Below, I have the cooking times/process for semi-pearled.
1 medium butternut squash (about 2 pounds)
5 to 6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup semi-pearled farro (see Note up top)
1/3 cup toasted pepitas (I used, and love, the salted ones)
3 ounces ricotta salata or another salty cheese, crumbled or coarsely grated (about 3/4 cup)(omit to make vegan)
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon water
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/2 small red onion, finely chopped
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Peel squash, then halve lengthwise and scoop out seeds. Cut squash into approximately 3/4-inch chunks. Coat one large or two small baking sheets with 2 tablespoons oil total. Spread squash out in single layer on sheet. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Roast until pieces are tender, about 30 to 40 minutes, turning them over halfway through the cooking time. Set aside to cool slightly.
While squash is roasting, cook farro in a large pot of simmering salted water until the grains are tender but chewy, about 30 minutes. (Since there are so many varieties of farro, however, if your package suggests otherwise, it’s best to defer to its cooking suggestion.) Drain and cool slightly.
While squash is roasting and farro is simmering, in a small bowl, whisk together sherry vinegar, water, 1/2 teaspoon table salt and granulated sugar until sugar and salt dissolve. Stir in onion; it will barely be covered by vinegar mixture but don’t worry. Cover and set in fridge until needed; 30 minutes is ideal but less time will still make a lovely, lightly pickled onion.
In a large bowl, mix together butternut squash, farro, red onion and its vinegar brine, the crumbled cheese and pepitas. Toss with 3 tablespoons of the remaining olive oil, use the 4th one only if needed. Taste and adjust seasonings. Eat now or later. Salad keeps in the fridge for up to a week.