Farro and Broccoli Rabe Gratin

This meatless main gets its savory backbone from an everyday Japanese ingredient.

Published Aug. 5, 2020.

Many gratins trade almost entirely on the richness of heavy cream and cheese, but there is room to modernize—and lighten up—the concept to create a satisfying meatless main course. My plan was to keep the usual crunchy topping but pack the filling with substantial, boldly flavored ingredients. And just because the dish would be vegetarian didn’t mean it would have to lack depth.

I took inspiration from the classic Tuscan dish of beans and greens, a union of white beans and escarole or Swiss chard seasoned with onion, garlic, and red pepper flakes. To turn the dish into a hearty main, it seemed fitting to add another Tuscan staple—farro—to the mix. The tender chew and robust nuttiness of the hulled whole-wheat kernels would round out the gratin.

To start, I sautéed a chopped onion in olive oil to the point of caramelized sweetness and then added the farro to bring forth its earthy taste. Once the grains were lightly toasted, I poured in more water than was needed to hydrate the grains and let the mixture simmer until they were just tender. By that point, the liquid had thickened to a lush, silky consistency, thanks to the starch that had escaped from the grains.

Next up, the greens. Instead of the usual escarole or chard, I chose broccoli rabe for its sturdier structure, vivid hue, and pungent taste. And yet, when the rabe was simply sautéed, its bitterness overtook the dish. For the next batch, I briefly blanched the rabe to soften its sharp edge. Now it still offered personality without outshining the farro.

The Magic of Miso

When we wanted to bolster our gratin with savory depth, we turned to an essential ingredient in the Japanese kitchen: white miso. The fermented soybean paste delivers salty, sweet, and umami flavors, all while keeping the dish vegetarian. The thick paste also adds body to the filling.

I quickly sautéed the blanched rabe with the garlic and red pepper flakes and then stirred in a can of drained white beans and a good amount of sweet-tart, umami-packed sun-dried tomatoes, whose concentrated pops of flavor and tender chew were brilliant counterpoints to the creamy beans and peppery rabe.

The dish was coming together nicely, but the farro itself still tasted a little plain. Subbing vegetable broth for some of the water used to simmer the grains helped a little—but not enough. Umami-rich anchovies are frequently used in Italian cooking to build flavor, but I gave them a pass so that I could keep the meal vegetarian. Instead, I took a cross‑cultural assist from a Japanese ingredient: miso. Just 2 tablespoons of white miso stirred into the farro cooking liquid infused the grains with an underlying savoriness and contributed a bit of body that helped bind the filling into a cohesive whole.

All that was left was to transfer the mixture to a gratin dish, sprinkle on a combo of microwave-toasted panko bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese, and slide my revamped gratin under the broiler to brown.

Panko and grated Parmesan, toasted in the microwave, make a crunchy, salty-savory topping.

Farro and Broccoli Rabe Gratin

This meatless main gets its savory backbone from an everyday Japanese ingredient.
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