Some folks back in India may think of risotto as a riff on the several versions of rice pulaos or kichris that are so popular and an integral part of the Indian cuisine. A hearty meal in itself, warm, comforting and complete.
For me, the risotto is a dish that can be both comforting and yet elegant. Elegant probably because of the memory it evokes from my youth.
Over twenty years ago, after grad school, I gifted myself a solo trip to California. As I fell in love with the cities and vistas I also explored the foods. Sampling my way across San Francisco’s Chinatown to breakfast burritos in San Diego, the risotto dinner at an elegant Monterey Bay restaurant made me feel more grown up than the cap and gown ceremony I’d just had in Boston.
This risotto took on a mythic form over the years, in some versions the sun was setting over the bay when I took my first bite, and in some the Riesling was the best part of the meal. All in all it was a meal I’d not forget soon.
I’ve of course made risotto several times since then, paired it with a crisp white wine and experimented with the veggies that stud the creamy comfort like gems.
Recently my husband started working really hard to lose weight or face health consequences, and that impelled me to experiment with our favorite recipes and yet keep them delicious.
So here’s my riff on the risotto using pearl barley instead of the traditional Arborio. I apologize to the purists in advance for committing any sacrilege.
This switch seemed simple and obvious to help us keep the carbs down and provide the nutritional boost we needed.
Like you know, I always have prepped veggies each week shared in my Confessions of a Prepoholic, so making this risotto is pretty quick on a cold weeknight during our long New England winters.
1 cup pearl barley
4-6 cups of vegetable stock heated (also made on Sundays when I prep the veggies)
1 cup of chopped roasted peppers and mushrooms (made ahead)
1 small onion or 2 shallots diced
2 small cloves of garlic minced
½ cup white wine (anything you’d drink with dinner, I prefer a chardonnay instead of Riesling since it’s less sweet)
2 tbs. olive oil
2 tbs. of flat leaf parsley and basil chopped for garnish
½ cup of grated Parmesan/Romano (reserve about 4 tsp for garnish)
1 tsp. of red pepper flakes
salt and pepper to taste
- Start the stock on low heat in a separate pot as you start cooking the risotto.
- Wash and rinse the barley only twice and keep ready, leave some of the starch for the characteristic creaminess. I learnt this trick from The Food Lab, a book that really breaks down the why behind the how for a food nerd like me.
- Stir and fry the onion/shallots and garlic in olive oil for a few minutes until they are translucent with a pinch of the red pepper flakes.
- Stir in the barley until the grain feels glossy and starts to become a little translucent, takes a few minutes.
- Add in the white wine and stir until the alcohol burns off.
- By this time the grain will start sticking to the pan, start adding in the stock about 1 cup at a time and keep stirring the barley. Keep doing this until the grain grows plump and loses its hard kernel but still retains some chew to taste. This step will take about 25 minutes. Use more stock if needed, barley doubles in size when cooked. Taste and salt as you go along.
- As the barley starts to look about ready, stir in the grated cheese and chopped roasted veggies.
- Take the pan off the heat as the grain keeps cooking and ladle portions into a bowl, garnish with remaining cheese and chopped herbs and a dash of some extra virgin olive oil.
Enjoy with a glass of the same wine you used in the risotto.
Small tip, if using fresh veggies quickly stir fry them separately and set aside so that any water content has been reduced since the veggies do not have time to cook in the last step of the cooking process.
If I ever have leftovers, I turn them into risotto cakes the next day for a lunchtime carb compliment with my salad.