Years ago, I stood in my Connecticut kitchen, stirring a pot on the stove while my friends set the table behind me. It was a warm early summer night, and we’d spent the day picking strawberries with my two kids.
In front of me, the rice plumped and creaminess emerged as Arborio rice combined with wine, onions and stock to make risotto. My friends plucked fresh herbs from a pot on my porch, and I chopped them to add to the dish. In summer, fresh herbs brighten risotto. In winter, rich ingredients make it hearty.
When my friends tasted that herb-laced risotto, they declared it a masterpiece. These are people who endured my college cooking years when every soup tasted the same and I sometimes used raw garlic in the abundance of a vampire slayer. In other words, these are women who know that I learned to cook the hard-way — through a lot of trial, error and failure.
That’s what’s led me to be fearless in the kitchen. By trying to make seemingly-intimidating dishes, I have grown and developed as a cook and a recipe developer.
I want you to be fearless too. Risotto on its own might seem daunting. But I have faith that you can do this. Just give yourself time and be patient. Those are the two most important skills needed to create a perfect risotto. Well, that and a good stirring arm.
Traditional risotto is an Italian rice dish made by slowly cooking the rice with small additions of wine and warm stock until it plumps and becomes a creamy, dreamy dish. The slow process of adding the liquid to the rice is what gives it that special consistency. It requires great patience, and a bit of time.
But risotto can be made with grains other than rice as well. In fact, barley and farro both can make delicious risotto-like dishes by applying the same method of cooking used in traditional risottos to the non-traditional grains.
This recipe uses barley, an inexpensive whole grain with a nutty flavor and firmer texture. Slowly cooking it in the style of risotto renders it creamy. The caramelized onions melt into the creamy sauce that’s dotted with meaty sauteed mushrooms and sweet roasted red peppers.
It’s a hearty, heavenly dish.
I first began using alternative grains to make risotto while I was developing recipes for my new cookbook “Grains as Mains: Modern Recipes Using Ancient Grains” (DK Publishing/$25), just released on March 3. Though I’ve long loved creamy risottos, I hadn’t ever imagined making one with anything other than the arborio rice. However, I found that other grains work well too. Barley, a whole grain rich in fiber, is a great rice alternative.
- 2 tbsp olive oil, divided
- 1 Vidalia onion, halved and thinly sliced
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 cup pearl barley
- ½ cup dry white wine
- 4-6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
- 1 8-oz. package raw sliced mushrooms
- 1 cup freshly grated Romano cheese
- ⅔ cup diced roasted red peppers
- Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a Dutch oven set over medium heat. Add the onions, salt well and cook, stirring occasionally, until just beginning to brown -- about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook for 10-15 minutes until golden and soft.
- Push the onions to one side of the pot and add the barley. Increase heat to medium and toast for 1 minute. Add the white wine and stir well to combine. Cook until all the liquid has been absorbed. Add the stock a little at a time, allowing it to fully absorb before adding more. Continue until the barley is plump and chewy, and sauce is creamy.
- While the risotto is cooking, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet set over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tender and browned -- about 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Stir the Romano cheese into the barley mixture. Add the mushrooms and roasted red peppers. Stir well. Taste, and season as desired with salt and pepper.