Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Spring Primavera Barley Risotto

Risotto. This Italian soul food dish is one of the easiest things to cook but one of the most difficult to achieve the proper texture. Most cook the risotto too dry, make the rice too mushy or too hard.

By definition, risotto is a rice cooked in a broth to a luscious, creamy consistency. The most common ingredients in risotto is broth, parmesan, butter and onion.  Within Italy, there are numerous variations of risotto: in Milan, risotto alla Milanese is made with beef stock, beef bone marrow, lard, cheese, and saffron similar to a Spanish paella; Piedmont, located in northern Italy by the mountainous Alps region, makes risotto al Barolo using red wine and may include sausage meat and/or Borlotti beans. Venetians cook one of my favorites, risotto al nero di seppia ("black risotto") made with cuttlefish cooked with their ink-sacs intact. Once you leave Italy, variations abound with most bases of the recipe remaining true to those four basic ingredients listed above.

Since I was out of arborio rice in the house, I decided to replace it with the barley and create a risotto using lighter, spring ingredients like sweet green zucchini, cherry tomatoes and plump crimini mushrooms. You can really use whatever you have on hand in your refrigerator and add chicken or shrimp if you desire. I wanted to keep the flavors really pure in this dish and celebrate the vegetables.

I started cooking with barley not for myself, but for my dog Tyler because I had read it was a very high fiber, high protein whole grain. The first few times I made it I didn't understand why he would eat everything except the barley. I was cooking it for 20 minutes which I thought sufficient. I later realized cooking it is similar to how I use the arborio rice for my risotto. The grains of barley need to be toasted on high for a minute to really release the nuttiness. Like arborio rice, cooking barley is a game in patience as it takes almost an hour to fully cook.

My finished barley risotto was perfect. Nutty with the natural chewiness of the barley, there was an earthiness from the mushroom and sweetness from the zucchini, tomatoes and fennel seeds.  I used less stock than usual for this risotto as the mushrooms released water when cooked. The addition of the butter at the end and parmesan added a rich, velvety creaminess to the risotto. I gobbled up every last bite and did not miss my usual proteins of chicken or shrimp.

A great tip I learned somewhere along the way in the early stages of my cooking in my early 20s was to use hot water in replacement of stock if not available.  I have used this tip several times in the past
15 years to no complaints.  I found out I didn't have any stock on hand and actually just used hot water in replacement for this recipe.

Bon appetito!!

Serves 2

1 cup pearl barley, rinsed in cold water a few times to remove starch
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 white onion, diced
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp herbes de Provence
1 cup crisp white wine (I used a viognier, but any crisp white wine will work.)
2 1/2 cups warm vegetable stock or broth
5 whole crimini mushrooms, sliced including stems
1/2 green zucchini, diced
1/2 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan-Reggiano
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter

1. In a large stock pot over high, heat up oil and then add barley and toast for a minute until light golden brown.  Add onion, fennel and herbes de Provence. Sauté for another minute and using a wooden spoon, mix together.

2. Reduce heat to medium low. Add 1/2 cup of wine to pot and stir together, then let reduce until liquid is pretty much gone before adding the next 1/2 cup. Repeat process with stock, pouring 1/2 cup into the pot every time.  Stir occasionally to make sure it does not stick to the bottom of the pot. The whole cooking time for the barley should take between 40-50 minutes total.

3.  Before you add the last cup of stock, add mushrooms, zucchini and tomatoes.  If you add it too early, the vegetables will become too mushy and lose its beautiful colors. Before you add the last 1/2 cup of stock, add Parmesan, salt and pepper to taste. Stir together.

4.  Add the butter to finish when you notice the stock is almost cooked through.  You do not want it dry.  It should be slightly liquidy and fall off your wooden spoon easily with only a slight resistance. The butter will add the rich, creamy texture you are looking for.

5.  Serve immediately and top with more Parmesan. Drink the rest of that white wine you used for the risotto to the last drop.


  1. Mmmmm I want this now! I adore risotto as you know, and I think it's even better with some different, interesting, chewy grains. I made it once with Israeli couscous which was awesome...sure that barley is too!

    1. It adds a really interesting texture. And you know how much I love chewy things (ie bubble tea!).

  2. Bookmarking this! Between the veggies and the barley this is my kind of dish.

    1. Thanks Abby! I'm so glad that you found me and this recipe. :) Please let me know if you do cook it and post a photo on my Facebook page to let me know how it turned out!