Cheap, Sustainable, Delicious: Barley Risotto

Forget rice. This rich, creamy risotto gets its irresistibly nutty flavor from barley.

barley risotto
Once you've tried risotto made with barley, you may never go back to the traditional rice version. (Photo: Ian Knauer)
Ian Knauer worked for ‘Gourmet’ and is the author of the IACP Award–nominated cookbook ‘The Farm.’

Years ago, when I was just starting out in the food world, a few people saw promise in this young cook, and took me under their wing. One of those people was chef Peter Berley. Peter, who is now a James Beard and IACP award-winning cookbook author, was a cooking instructor back when I met him, teaching vegetarian-based classes in New York. (Peter now has his own school on Long Island’s North Fork.)

For several years he would hire me to trail him in the kitchen and we became friends. Then, he was given an opportunity to cook at a weeklong food festival in Germany. He asked me to come along as his sous chef. We cooked at various competitions with other international chefs, and we ran a special menu of Peter’s at our “home” restaurant, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Bavaria. It was a great learning experience for me.

Peter is an expert in vegetarian food. The guy knows his grains. One of the courses we served in Germany was a barley risotto. Barley is not as starchy as the rice typically used for the dish and has a nuttier flavor. But here’s the trick: Peter toasts his barley in the pan before adding liquid, just like you would toast (or roast) barley that is used for brewing. I don’t know if he came upon this notion because we were in Germany, surrounded by beer, or because he’s just that good. Doesn’t matter—it makes all the difference.

Barley Risotto

Serves 4

Ingredients:

5 cups vegetable broth or water

1 cup pearl barley

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 carrot, diced

1/2 cup dry white wine

1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus additional for serving.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 (4 ounce) bag mixed spring greens

Directions:

Heat the broth in a small saucepan until hot.

Toast the barley in a medium heavy pot over medium high heat until it is fragrant and a few shades darker, about 5 minutes. Add the oil, garlic, carrot and 1 teaspoon each salt and pepper to the barley and cook, stirring, until garlic is golden, about 2 minutes. Stir in the wine and cook, stirring, until most of the liquid has been absorbed.

Stir in the broth, 1 cup at a time, stirring constantly and adding more broth as needed, until the barley is tender. Stir in the cheese and butter, then stir in the greens and cook until they are wilted, about 1 minute. Serve with additional cheese if desired.

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