There is something ridiculously comforting about risotto. Like snuggling under a softly plump duvet on the sofa while rain spatters the window panes outside or coming home and peeling off your work clothes before climbing with utter gratitude into your sweats and slippers, the concept, creation & consumption of this dish is one of the most soothing, reassuring & satisfying things you can do in the comfort of your own kitchen.
Granted it’s not the fastest dinner you can throw on the table and you do need to devote more time to it than you might do to say, cheesey spaghetti hoops on toast – one of the greatest meals of all time in case you were wondering – but the end results are so worth it.
This particular version of the dish whose life began in northern Italy several hundred years ago does stray a little of the well-trodden path of classic cookery but I hope the forgiveness of the Italians might be bestowed upon me as they recognise a twist on tradition as nothing more than the truest form of flattery and appreciation.
Pearl barley is a fully fledged and paid up member of the refined grain family that I have come to love. Healthy, filling & pretty with a nutty flavour and chewy-bouncy texture, it’s cheaper than many of its wholegrain shelf buddies and in possession of so many health benefits that you’ll wonder why you haven’t tried it sooner.
Low in fat, free of cholesterol, high in fibre and rich in vitamins & minerals like selenium, magnesium and iron, these beautiful, polished pebbles of barley have had their outer bran shells removed and are so perfect for bulking up soups and absorbing the flavours of whatever you pair them with. Today we’re bringing them together in holy matrimony with the sweet, earthy flavours of beetroot and the sharp, tang of goats cheese. The Italians use pearl barley in a dish called ‘orzotto’ and it’s simply a fantastic alternative to arborio rice which I find can sometimes end up delivering a risotto that’s stodgy rather than silky.
So tie those apron strings, uncork a crisp bottle of white – easy on the ahem, ‘quality control’ you’re selflessly considering though as we do need some for the cooking lark we’re about to embark upon – and let’s fill your kitchen with the fragrance of sauteed garlic & simmering stock.
INGREDIENTS (for 2 people)
- 120g pearl barley
- generous glug of olive oil
- 1/2 a red onion, finely chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic, finely diced
- a generous glug of white wine
- 500ml of vegetable stock
- 80g broken walnut pieces plus extra to go on top at the end
- 2 whole beetroot cooked in natural juices, not vinegar
- 100g soft rindless goats cheese, crumbled into small marble sized pieces
- In a medium sized pan, saute the chopped onion & diced garlic in a little olive oil – a good glug should be enough to coat all the pieces drowning in oil.
- Once they’ve started to turn golden – be careful as garlic burns extremely quickly – add the pearl barley and white wine, ensuring that every grain is glazed in the liquid; take a moment to savour the sizzle & fragrance of that white wine hitting the pan!
- Once the alcohol has been absorbed by the barley, you would normally add your hot stock one ladleful at a time until each is greedily drunk up by the grains; the beauty of this dish is that you can add all your stock in one go now, stirring everything together well before bringing to the boil and then reducing to a simmer.
- You will need to keep one eye on the pan to make sure it doesn’t burn dry but honestly, in all the times I’ve cooked this, that has never happened – the temperature doesn’t get to the heights of an agitated boil and as such, the liquid is absorbed steadily rather than frantically.
- A gentle stir every now and then will stop the barley from sticking together and will guarantee that each tiny pearl cooks evenly. I’ve used vegetable stock here but you can absolutely use chicken, beef or veal if you plan on adding meat or just want some added flavour and aren’t concerned with keeping this vegetarian.
- While your risotto is quietly & happily murmuring away to itself in the pan, chop your walnut pieces if they are quite chunky (you don’t want them bludgeoned into dust but you want them smaller than the halves you may have bought them in) and slice your beetroot into cubes, approximately 1cm squared. Larger than this won’t be the end of the world but may overwhelm your plate a little – this dish is prettiest when all the ingredients are roughly the same size.
- When the barley is close to being done – edible but still a touch harder than you like your grains to be – which will take between 25-35 minutes, you’re going to add the walnuts and the beetroot.
- About 5 minutes after that when the barley is tip-top Poppins perfect, add half the goat’s cheese and give everything another gentle stir to combine; try not to mash everything – you want to retain the shape & texture of the different ingredients.
- When the cheese has started to melt into what will now be a glorious, elegant, pale pink dish, spoon it into bowls, top with the remaining goat’s cheese and a few additional walnut pieces if you like and serve immediately.
The flavours in this dish are mellow and every forkful is oozy & velvety which is exactly how a risotto should be. The texture of the grains have a definite spring to them which means they don’t get lost in the ‘rice-pudding’ consistency of a bad risotto which often puts a lot of people off it. The beetroot has a natural simplicity that works beautifully with the walnuts which add a lovely crunch to balance out the softness of everything else and the goat’s cheese delivers a creamy, zesty hit that stops everything sinking into the same flavour & texture.
This is a dish that’s easy so although it’s not something that’ll be ready in 10 minutes, it’s also not something that requires complicated technique. It’s also amazing value for money and if you double up on the ingredients, you’ll have leftovers which will taste even better the next day and inspire sideways looks of envy from your sad-sandwich-eating colleagues and it tastes wonderful so you can devour it, one greedy, lazy spoonful at a time, knowing that you’re putting all manner of good things into your body.
Walnuts are superhero high in the form of vitamin E that’s been proven to protect from heart problems and they also have significant cancer fighting properties. Beetroot helps keep blood pressure low and increases blood flow to the brain and goat’s cheese is easier to digest than many of its cow counterparts and lower in salt than an average cheddar.
So next time you’re looking for something warm and velvety to enjoy at the end of a long day, take a step away from the classic arborio rice, grab that bag of pearl barley that’s been sitting hopefully, patiently & wistfully at the back of your cupboard and try something a little different. Throw in some simply roasted butternut squash or red onion, add some curls of Parmesan cheese at the end or swap the goats for a pungent blue…just experiment, make it your own and make it delicious.