I haven't used Arborio or Carnaroli rice in my risotto endeavors in a long, long time. I've been using pearl barley instead - and I love it. I know this is going to be a hard sell to some of you purists, but in an effort to incorporate a wider variety of grains into my day to day cooking, I started experimenting with pearl barley and other grains in place of the rice I was using in traditional Italian risottos. Haven't looked back since.
I'm using the name 'risotto' for context more than anything else - this is really a risotto-style barley. If you've made a risotto in the past, the idea here is similar. This version isn't as delicate as many of the rice-based risottos I've cooked over the years, but I actually prefer the toothsome bite and overall heartiness of the barley grains during risotto season, which for me is winter. That's not to say you couldn't do a delicious variation of this any time of year, I just like to fill up with a creamy, warm bowl of cheese-dusted risotto when it is cold out. Like right now.
Here's the one-paragraph on the range of barleys available and their overall whole grain-ness - this could easily grown to a page or more, but I'm going to try to keep it concise. You can find a range of barley in stores - hulled barley, pot/Scotch barley, pearl barley, barley flakes, and more. Compared to pearl barley, hulled and pot/Scotch barley are more nutritious because they aren't polished (in the case of hulled barley), or they are polished minimally (in the case of pot/Scotch barley). I use pearl barley for this recipe because it lends some of the starchy-creaminess characteristic to risotto, something you can't achieve with hulled barley. Barley labeled "pearl" or "pearled" is typically polished more than pot barley, but I've learned to look at the actual grains instead of the labels as a guide, in part because I've found such a range.
I look for pearl barley that hasn't been polished to death. I look for grains that still have color, the more they are pearled the lighter in color the grains get. Sometimes, I like to do a blend of pearl barley and pearl (also labelled semi-pearl) farro - the farro I buy looks to be barely polished (dusty brown in color and polished just enough to rough up the surface of the grain). It cooks in just about the same amount of time as the barley. Its great, and you get a nice, subtle play of textures.
Generally speaking, the more you mess around with a whole grain the more its nutritional value decreases. White rice has the nutritious bran and germ removed entirely from each grain.
Give this recipe a try or experiment with pearl barley in place of rice in your favorite risotto recipe (it also works with Arborio if you'd like to stick with tradition!). I use a bit of crème fraiche along with a good sprinkling of cheese to finish, necessary for that creaminess that everyone loves. You need to overcompensate a bit at the very end when you are using barley. Let me know what you think - yes, no?
Also, totally unrelated (but I thought you might be interested). I dragged Wayne out of the house two nights ago to stand in the cold on the hill overlooking the San Francisco Bay. The Queen Mary 2 came to San Francisco for one night and I wanted to see it go under the bridge. It is the largest ship ever to enter the bay. Here's the video I shot as it squeaks under the Golden Gate Bridge on its way out to sea - an unbelievable sight. The whole city went gaga over it. You can see it full-size here - much easier on the eyes. Note all the flashes going off on the actual ship. I'm sure we'll see some of those shots eventually on Flickr.
Meyer Lemon Risotto
I used tatsoi, left over from this weekend's market, as the green in this recipe but feel free to experiment with other greens (chopped chard, spinach, arugula, etc). The recipe calls for 6 cups of stock/water. This can vary quite a bit depending on your pot and the grains, but you are likely to need between 4 1/2 - 6 cups. Sometimes I like to throw in a handful of chopped Meyer lemon segments in for added flavor and texture, but be sure to remove all the seeds.
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 shallots, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
2 cups lightly pearled barley or pearled farro
1 cup good quality dry white wine
6 cups light vegetable stock (or water)
Grated zest of 4 Meyer lemons (more to taste if you like)
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup crème fraiche (or sour cream)
3 big handfuls of greens, chopped
Handful of toasted pine nuts, for garnish
Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat, then add the onions, shallots, garlic, and salt and saute, stirring constantly, for about 4 minutes, or until the onion begins to soften.
Add the barley to the pot and stir until coated with a nice sheen, then add the white wine and simmer for 3 or 4 minutes, until the barley has absorbed the liquid a bit. Adjust the heat to maintain a gentle, active simmer.
In increments, add about 6 cups of water or stock, 1 cup at a time, letting the barley absorb most of the liquid between additions; this should take around 40 minutes altogether. Stir regularly so the grains on the bottom of the pan don't scorch. You will know when the barley is cooked because it won't offer up much resistance when chewing (it will, however, be chewier than Arborio rice).
When the barley is tender remove the pot from heat. Stir in the lemon zest, Parmesan, and crème fraiche. Taste and adjust - add more salt if needed, more lemon zest. Then stir in the greens. Garnish with toasted pine nuts and a dusting of extra Parmesan before serving.
Easily serves 4 to 6.