The simplicity of this recipe as seen served on the plate is just the tip of the very complex iceberg hiding underneath. Both terms are elaborate in itself: barley, the oh-so-major cereal grain member of the grass family, and risotto, the single most common way of cooking rice in Italy. Sadly, there’s no way to make a conversation about barley & risotto interesting, but there are some interesting facts about both that are good to learn about.
Historically speaking, barley was one of the first domesticated grains in the Fertile Crescent (an area of abundant water in Western Asia) and near the Nile in Africa – marking its way throughout time as many a product: as animal feed, as a key ingredient for making bread & beer, as a trading good & unit of measurement, and today as a component of various health foods. Considered a whole grain, dehulled barley that has been steamed and polished is known as ‘pearl barley’, which can be processed into a variety of products, including flour, flakes, & grits.
Pearl barley’s flavor & pleasing chewy bite make it especially welcome as a side dish or in salads, but combined with the concept of risotto, which is usually served as the primo (first) course, this recipe can be either, or! Filling & healthy, it’s just another addition from the collection of my (seemingly) on-going detox diet.
A little more on risotto now: it’s basically a very delicious Italian rice dish cooked in broth to a creamy consistency. The broth is usually derived from meat, fish, or vegetables. There are many different recipes for risotto, but they are all based on rice cooked in a standard procedure. Of course, this recipe is a major variation using pearl barley, but following the procedure to the dot allows me to call it what I have!
For the Risotto
- 3 tablespoons of olive oil
- 1 shallot, finely chopped
- 1/2 onion, finely chopped
- 1 cup (75g) of coarsely chopped fresh mushrooms
- 1 cup (200g) of pearl barley
- 1 tablespoon of white vinegar, or 1/2 cup of white wine
- 1/2 teaspoon of oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon of dried thyme
- Salt & pepper
- 4-6 cups (1200L) of vegetable broth, hot
- Fresh parsley
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the oil with the shallot, onion and mushrooms, and cook, stirring frequently until softened. Add the pearl barley and stir until glazed with oil – this process of coating each grain in a film of fat is called the tostatura. Lower the heat immediately to medium and add the vinegar (or 1/2 cup of white wine) and 1 cup of the vegetable broth. Cook at a moderate to brisk simmer, stirring occasionally, until the broth is almost absorbed. This is where the magic of making risotto begins. After the first addition of broth is consumed, the barley is not yet quite tender. Now we begin to add the remaining broth 1/2 cup at a time, stirring after each addition, every few minutes. i recommend that you can check out some useful YouTube videos on how to properly stir risotto, it’s such an art!
So, hopefully it all looks good at this point. When the stock has been almost completely absorbed after each addition, keep adding more, so the mixture isn’t quite soup but stays very moist. Stirring loosens the starch molecules from the outside of the grains into the surrounding liquid, creating a smooth creamy-textured liquid. Keep doing this until barley is tender and has beautifully puffed up. Add any other vegetable ingredient, like herbs, artichoke hearts, or olives at the last few minutes of cooking and taste for texture. Season with salt & pepper and garnish with fresh parsley & grated Parmesan. Serve warm. Note to everyone…it’s an art, and I don’t know if anyone really gets it on the first try, but the results of the hard work are definitely worth it when mastering it!