Recipe: Warm Wheat Berries with Shrimp, Peas, and Spring Onion
A culinary trilogy has been running through my head all spring: dishes made from a seafood, a green vegetable, and some form of whole wheat. My recent posting of a recipe for Mussels with Whole Wheat Linguine, Swiss Chard, and Smoked Chili came from this mindset, and I’ve got more brewing in my little Italian-American head.
I really love whole wheat berries. I love the pure wheat aroma that fills my kitchen while they simmer. Their texture and taste is really special to me. I believe I first encountered their taste as a kid when we ate pastiera, the Southern Italian Easter cake filled with wheat berries and ricotta. In Southern Italy, wheat berries are used in all sorts of salads and soups. both hot and cold. Sicily has a filling dish called cuccia in which wheat berries are served warm, mixed with ricotta and usually something sweet like honey or grape must (possibly not a great diet choice). You traditionally eat this on St. Lucy’s feast day, December 13. I often buy big bags of wheat berries for no particular reason, just because I want to have them in my kitchen. I always find something to do with them.
Since spring pod peas have just arrived at my New York Greenmarket, I know I have to cook with them right away. Despite what people always tell me about the virtues of frozen peas, I’m sorry, but they’re just not as fine as fresh, and all the work involved in shucking and blanching just makes the latter more special for me.
Shrimp seemed like a good choice to complete my trilogy here, but clams would have been excellent too (or maybe crawfish). This dish, to my mind, is another complete meal in a bowl. If you like, precede it with a small antipasto of fennel and olives, but maybe skip the bread. As far as wine goes, this is definitely a white wine dish. I opened a pinot grigio that was just so-so, not bad but nothing special; the taste match seemed right and it made me fantasize about how a really good glass of pinot grigio would taste with this. I wished I had on hand a bottle produced by Ronco dei Tassi in Friuli. That one is 100 percent pinot grigio, very fruity, not bone dry. A really lovely wine that can certainly complement the shrimp but also has enough character to stand up to the whole wheat flavor.
A note about wheat berries: You want hard wheat berries for this dish, which are usually labeled “hard winter wheat.” Soft ones cook up a little too mushy. And just to complicate matters even more, try to purchase hard white wheat berries, not red ones; red ones take forever to cook.
Warm Wheat Berries with Shrimp, Peas, and Spring Onion
(Serves 4 as a main course)
1½ cups hard winter wheat berries (see note above)
Extra-virgin olive oil
1½ pounds large shrimp, shelled and deveined, reserving the shells
Several big scrapings of nutmeg
½ cup dry white wine
Freshly ground black pepper
1½ cups freshly shucked spring peas, saving a few of the pods
1 tablespoon butter
1 spring bulb onion, cut into small dice, using some of the tender green part
2 spring garlic cloves, thinly sliced
5 thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
A few large sprigs of flat-leaf parsley, the leaves lightly chopped
Put the wheat berries in a saucepot, and cover them with water by at least two inches. Add a little salt, and bring the water to a boil. Turn the heat down a bit, and cook, uncovered, at a low bubble until the wheat is tender to the bite (by then some of the grains will have burst a bit; that’s natural). This will take about 40 to 45 minutes. Add hot water if the level gets low. Drain the wheat berries, and place them in a serving bowl. Drizzle them with a little olive oil, and give them a toss.
While the wheat berries are cooking, make a simple shrimp broth with the shells. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the shrimp shells, a few pea pods, and the nutmeg, and sauté until the shells turn pink. Add the white wine, and let it boil for a few minutes. Add enough water to just cover the shells. Simmer for about 10 minutes. Strain the broth into a little cup. You should have about 1 cup.
Set up a small pot of water and bring it to a boil. Drop in the peas, and blanch for about 2 minutes. Drain them into a colander, running cold water over them to stop the cooking and to bring up their color. Drain well.
In a large skillet, heat a tablespoon of olive oil and the butter over medium-high heat. Add the onion, garlic, shrimp, and peas all at once, seasoning with salt, black pepper, and the thyme. Sauté quickly, just until the shrimp are tender and the onion and garlic have softened, about 4 minutes. Add the shrimp broth, and simmer about a minute longer. Pour the shrimp and broth over the wheat berries. Add the parsley, and toss gently. You should have just enough broth to make the dish moist but not soupy. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and black pepper if needed. Serve hot or warm.