Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Barley "Risotto"

Whole grain police, here, checking in to tell you that you can bump up your nutritional profile by swapping pearled barley for arborio rice in your next risotto recipe. Great news!

Wait, what's that? You don't make risotto on a regular basis? You don't feel like standing over the stove, numbing your dominant arm by repetitive stirring for a solid hour? You think it's too much trouble for an average weekday night? You think it's too fancy?

Ok, fair enough. This Italian specialty has earned its reputation as a high maintenance dish because, in order to create its signature creamy consistency, you have to add liquid to the cooking rice just a little bit at a time and lock yourself in a perma-stir so the grains don't stick to the bottom. The timing allows the super saturated rice (or in this case, barley) to release its starch into the water (or in this case, broth) for a velvety result. If you're willing to commit 30 minutes to the stove, I think it's worth it.

One of the lovely things about risotto is that it can take on the flavor of whatever you put into it. Want mushroom risotto? Use mushroom broth and drop some chopped fungi into the pot while you're stirring. Want a green risotto? Use rich vegetable broth and toss in some chard and parsley. It's actually pretty forgiving. [NOTE: I used grated beets in this version, hence the jewel-tone of our dinner.]

The basic ratio is thus: 1 part grain to 3+ parts broth. You always want white wine (about 1/4 part, if we're using that ratio) and Parmesan cheese; shallots or onions definitely help. Whatever add-ins you want to use, just add them to the mixture at an appropriate stage in the cooking process. For example, if you're using squash, add it early because it takes a while to cook. If you're using green peas, add them at the end, because they cook in a flash. This picture was taken early on in the process; I had just dumped in some beets and kale with the first dousing of broth. See instructions below.
Basic Barley Risotto
serves 1-2; takes about 40 minutes

2 cups broth of your choice
1 Tbsp butter
1/4 cup chopped onion or shallots
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup pearled barley
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 parmesan cheese, grated
  1. Start by putting your broth in a small pot on the stovetop and warm it up. This may seem fussy, but it's necessary. If you're constantly stirring cold broth into your risotto, you will be there all night.
  2. Next, in another, medium pot over medium heat, melt the butter and cook the shallots/onions with a little salt until translucent, 3-5 minutes. Add the garlic and barley and stir to coat; cook 1 more minute. Dump in the white wine and simmer until completely absorbed. Now add 1/2 cup of the broth, cover and let boil until absorbed, about 10 minutes (check occasionally). This is a good time to add long-cooking vegetables like roots, tubers, heartier greens (kale, chard, mustard, collard), dried mushrooms, to name a few.
  3. Now, remove the lid and start adding broth 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly until completely absorbed. Then do it again. When you have 1/2 cup left, add quick cooking vegetables like peas, corn, lighter greens (like spinach), fresh mushrooms, fresh herbs etc. Stop cooking while you still have some creaminess. Off heat, stir in parmesan and season with salt a pepper. Serve sprinkled with more cheese and fresh herbs.

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