Whole wheat berries are used in Southern Italian cooking to make all sort of salads and for cuccia, a mix of wheat berries, ricotta, and a sweetener such as sugar or cocoa. I love serving wheat berries warm, tossed with seasonal vegetables almost the way you might compose a pasta dish. Make sure to buy hard wheat berries (usually label “hard spring wheat”). The soft winter wheat cooks up a little too mushy. You’ll most easily find wheat berries at health food stores and Middle Eastern markets.Zucchini blossoms should be very fresh and unwilted when you buy them. They are quite perishable and will keep for only about a day, so plan to use them right away. Sticking their stems in a small glass of water in the refrigerator can prolong their freshness for perhaps one additional day. To clean the blossoms for this recipe, open each one and pinch off its stamen, checking while you do this for any dirt that might be trapped inside (just wipe it off with a damp paper towel). Cut off the stem and quarter the blossom lengthwise. I try not to wash zucchini blossoms (they easily become waterlogged). If they are really dirty, dunk them very briefly in cool water, lift them out right away, and drain them on paper towels. But I usually find that wiping the surface with damp paper towels cleans them well enough.
(Serves 4 as a first course or side dish)
1 1/2 cups hard wheat berries
1 bay leaf, fresh if possible
Extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
3 thin slices of pancetta
4 or 5 scallions, thinly sliced, using some of the tender green part
5 tiny young zucchini, cut into small cubes
About 6 zucchini blossoms (cleaned, see note below)
A splash of white wine
The zest from 1 lemon
A handful of pine nuts, lightly toasted
A handful of basil leaves, cut into thin strips
1 cup fresh ricotta
Place the wheat berries in a large pot and cover them with about 4 inches of cold water. Add the bay leaf and bring the water to a boil. Adjust the heat to medium-low and cook the wheat, uncovered, at a low boil (a bit more vigorous than a simmer but not a rolling boil), for about 45 minutes to an hour. Add hot water if the water level shrinks to less than an inch above the wheat. When done, the grains will have swelled to about twice their size and will be tender to the bite with just a bit of resistance. Some of the grains will have started to burst. Drain well and pour the wheat berries into a large serving bowl. Drizzle with a few tablespoons of olive oil and season lightly with salt and black pepper. Gently mix.
In a large skillet, heat about 3 tablespoons of olive oil over a medium flame. Add the pancetta and sauté until crisp, about 4 minutes. Add the scallions and the zucchini and sauté until the zucchini is just tender, about 5 minutes (really young, tender zucchini will cook especially quickly). Season with salt and black pepper. Add the sliced zucchini blossoms and sauté very quickly, just until they wilt, about a minute. Add the white wine and let it bubble for a few seconds (the wine will loosen up juices on the bottom of the skillet so they can be incorporated into the wheat, adding a lot of flavor). Add the zucchini mixture, with all the skillet juices, to the wheat berries. Add the pine nuts, lemon zest, and basil. Add a drizzle of fresh olive oil, and toss everything gently. Taste for seasoning. You might want to add a little fresh lemon juice to pick up the flavors.
Serve warm in a small pasta bowl with a dollop of ricotta on top of each serving.