I’m a bit slow off the mark when it comes to fad foods. Every year a clutch of new gimmick ingredients and dishes spread through menus and magazines [beetroot and goat-cheese tart anyone?] like some sort of middleclass virus and I usually avoid them with a steely determination.
I’m quite in awe of true innovation in cooking, but, so often the next big thing is just an ironic reworking of a classic [celeriac carpaccio] or the product of a chef’s monstrous ego [the entire molecular gastronomy movement]. So perhaps unsurprisingly, I have ignored Pearl Barley Risotto in all its oh-so-clever forms for several years. Now I like a good risotto, its one my favourite comfort foods, and I like pearl barley too, in hearty, nostalgic winter soups but the idea of bringing method and ingredient together has never sat well with me.
I was wrong.
My mother has been singing the praises of barley lately. It features heavily in the soups and stews she seems to subsist on over winter, so I decided to pick up a packet and finally tackle my hybrid-risotto cringe.
I didn’t bother with a specific barley risotto recipe, assuming the usual method [sauté-stock-wine-stock-stock-butter-cheese…] would translate. For the most part, it did, the only differences were that barley takes quite a bit longer to cook than Arborio rice and it doesn’t require much stirring at all. That last point gets a very big tick from me, as the constant stirring of risotti can be very tedious. I was able to cover the pot [another departure from the norm] and leave it to its own devices for 10 minutes or so at a time. As usual I finished the risotto with a handful of grated Grana Padano and a spoonful of butter.
I was more than a little surprised by how very good it was. The barley has a more interesting mouth-feel than most Italian rice, the grains holding their form well, bursting with an almost audible ‘pop’ when you bite down. Although mild in flavour, barley has a slight sweetness and nuttiness compared to the somewhat chalky Arborio.
The grains also seem less cloyingly starchy than rice, making it easier to maintain that slightly soupy quality that defines a good risotto.
All in all, I liked this dish very much. My best beloved, who has never been much moved by risotto, was very complimentary and even went so far as to say ‘who needs Arborio’?
While I’m not quite ready to reject rice altogether in risotto [for grammatical reasons as much as anything else], I am certainly sold on this most humble of grains and intrigued by its potential.
Reluctant Barley Risotto
As with any risotto, there’s no point going forward without a good stock. So while there are plenty of acceptable options available in various cartons and pouches at the supermarket, I find it’s cheaper and more rewarding to buy a hot chicken ¼ and make my own. It fly’s in the face of my usual free-range only rule but realistically one can only ever be so true to ones ethics…
What goes in it
1litre good quality hot chicken stock
1 cup white wine
1 cup pearl barley
1 onion, finely chopped
Parmigiano or Grana Padano
salt and white pepper
What you doHeat about a tablespoon of butter and a splash of oil in medium-sized, heavy-bottomed pot. Add the onion and reduce heat. Allow the onion to brown. Despite what a lot people will tell you, this takes at least 10-15 minutes. Don’t try to rush it or you will burn the onion and ruin the dish.
Add the barley and stir until well coated in butter. Add about 1/3 of the stock, stir again and cover. Keep at a medium heat and leave for about 5 minutes or so. Keep adding the stock as it’s absorbed and keep testing the barley. At some point add the wine-it doesn’t matter when. This risotto may take 40 minutes plus to cook- so be patient. When it’s nearly done, remove the lid and turn up the heat. It will need more stirring now. You may find you run out of stock before the grains are cooked. Don’t worry, just add a little water or more wine. When you are quite happy with the consistency add the butter and cheese, stir and adjust the seasoning. Cover and allow to stand for 5 minutes or so. The finished risotto should be slightly soupy- in other words it shouldn’t sit on the plate like a mound of mashed potato. You may notice I haven’t added saffron. This is a personal taste thing, I wanted to taste the barley and the stock above all else. If you must have your saffron, be my guest…