Recently I have developed a foodie obsession with a little known variety of Pasta with grano arso - grano arso literally translates as burnt grain, hence the dark color of the pasta. This unusual pasta is made with Farina grano arso which is a type of flour from Puglia in the south of Italy on the Adriatic coast. The two main theories as to the origin of Grano arso are both associated with the so-called cucina povera, or the cuisine of the less fortunate.
One theory with respect to the origin of this pasta claims that in the 18th and mid-19th century landowners permitted poor farmhands struggling to survive and feed themselves and their families, to remove the bits of grain left in the fields following the harvest and subsequent burning of the fields. Back then, landowners would harvest the wheat and then burn off the stubbles that were left in the field, to be plowed under. After the farmers burnt their fields and before the fields were plowed, the less fortunate farmhands would hurry across the field, gathering the burnt remnants of wheat, which they would then grind into what was basically burnt flour.
Another theory suggests that villagers would sweep their communal wood-burning ovens to collect the burnt flour that was left behind after baking bread, then mill it to obtain a flour that was intensely dark, with a bitter taste, to make pasta or more bread.
In either case, the burnt grain couldn’t be used by itself. It was necessary to mix it, at a proportion of one part grano arso to four parts all purpose flour, for it to become palatable.
These days you are unlikely to find people running out to the burnt fields or communal bread ovens anymore to augment their poor diet. Instead I find myself trying to track down this amazing tasting flour and/or the pasta that is made with Grano arso. I learned that a few Italian flour mills have been producing a newer version of Farina grano arso, a type of toasted grano duro (durum wheat) flour that reproduces the nutty, smoky flavor of the original. But being far from Italy these days, although I was unable to track down the flour itself, the Farina grano arso, I found Orechiette con Grano Arso.
When I tasted the Pasta with grano arso for the first time I was immediately intrigued. As a homecook, I’m always looking for new flavors, textures, and interesting ingredients, and Grano arso reminds me of the burned edges of Italian bread such as Ciabatta or pizza that emerged from a wood fired oven, which are flavors I truly treasure.
For starters I tossed the cooked Orechhiette with olive oil, young garlic, chili and shards of Parmigiano Reggiano. Another time I mixed the pasta with with fresh young peas, Pecorino Romano, and prosciutto.
For today´s recipe, I decided to pair the almost black pasta with that noticeable smoky taste with freshly-podded broad beans, grilled slices of aubergine, decidedly peppery watercress and decadently indulgent, creamy Burrata Pugliese. The colors and flavors mix beautifully here. - Perhaps it is noreworthy that three of the components, namely the Orechhiette, the Burrata as well as the Farina grano arso all originate in Puglia.
Orecchiette con Grano Arso with Watercress, Aubergine, Broad Beans & Burrata Pugliese
- 250g Orechiette con grano arso (or use regular orechiette here)
- 500g broad beans in their pods – you will end up with about 125g broads beans once their pods and skins have been removed
- 2 aubergines (M) or one large one
- 2 spring onions, white and green parts, cleaned, dried and sliced thinly
- 3 cloves young garlic, peeled and sliced thinly
- watercress, a whole bunch, washed, dried, stems removed and leaves plucked – keep a few stems with leaves intact for decoration
- freshly ground black pepper and sea salt
- a good quality mild olive oil
- 2 Burrata (approx. 350g), torn into nice chuncks (or leave whole if using small Burrata, also called „Burratina“)
- herbed grilled chicken breasts or salmon (optional)
- Prepare the orechiette: put a large pot of deep water to a boil. Salt it generously, as you do for pasta. Always salt the water and let it come back to the boil again before adding your pasta. Add the orechiette to the boiling water and simmer for about 12 minutes (or follow the package instructions), testing regularly for doneness, until tender but retaining some bite (al dente). Drain thoroughly, tip into a bowl then drizzle a few drops of olive oil over the pasta and toss to coat evenly. This will stop the orechiette from sticking together. Set aside.
- Prepare the broad beans: after you have removed the pods, blanch the broad beans in boiling, salted water for a couple of minutes (about 2 to 3) and then drain. Cool. Remove the tough skins. Set aside.
- Prepare the aubergine slices: heat the oil in a grillpan over medium-high heat. Add the sliced aubergine and salt well. Fry until you see grill marks and the slices are cooked through. Then transfer the aubergine slices to a paper-lined plate to drain off some of the oil. Cut in half or quarters.
- Prepare the spring onions and garlic: warm some more of the oil in a shallow pan, add the sliced spring onions and garlic and fry them gently until fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes.
- Now add the drained orechiette to the pan, together with the grilled aubergine slices and drained broad beans, continue to fry gently until warmed through. Turn off the heat, add the watercress leaves to the pan, season with salt and black pepper to taste, then stir briefly to let it wilt ever so slightly.
- To serve, ladle the orechiette and veg into individual bowls or one large bowl and then serve with sliced, herbed chciken breast, salmon or as it and place burrata on top. Decorate with a few watercress stems.
Buratta pugliese is becoming increasingly popular and is an insanely decadent cheese. It is made in a similar way to mozzarella. It is a cooked curd, and the only real difference is that it is made with cow's milk, not buffalo's milk like the Mozzarella di Bufala. The curd is stretched, and the stringy pieces of curd tucked inside, making little pouches. Some cream, or panna, is then added into the pouch, and a knot is tied at the top before the pouches are placed in brine.
The way to serve burrata is very simple, as it has a peculiarly delicate and special flavor, you can serve it with grilled bread or you could serve it with seasonal tomatoes and basil with a drizzle of olive oil on top. Again, a typical strong-tasting olive oil from Puglia would be most authentic. But it also wonderful when integrated in a pasta dish such as this one.
One of the qualities I love about pasta called Orecchiette is the texture and size. If made correctly, and boiled for the right amount of time, you’ll end up with a lovely, al dente, bite-size pasta morcel that will go brilliantly with a variety of sauces. Orechiette literally translates to "little ears" in Italian. Outside of Italy you can find Orecchiette in specialty Italian food shops or in other grocery stores who stock import foods. The same holds true for Burrata or Burrata Pugliese - chances are you will have to go out there and look for it nnd then order it - but this insanely decadent treat is worth the effort. If you cannot find it, use Mozzarella di Bufala.
You can combine the pasta recipe with grilled herbed chicken breasts or salmon or enjoy on it its own. When you taste this dish, you will notice that the texture of the pasta is slightly grainy, and the flavor is deep and toasty which in turn combines rather well with the creamy broad beans, mild Burrata, slightly smoky aubergine slices and decidedly peppery watercress.
And never underestimate the reaction you will get to the color of this amazing, and yes somewhat elusive, Pasta con grano arso.