rant: barley obsessed

lately, i've been drawn to recipes with barley. maybe it is because of the recent cold snap and my desires to make/eat soups.  i will say i have always liked eating barley, but never have i cooked with it till recently. not sure why.  so last week after making mushroom barley soup i started searching for other recipes. and there are lots out there.  i usually associate barley with beef and mushroom soups.  but i found other soups, salads, and even breakfast dishes.  but the most intriguing one i ran across was barley risotto with beans and greens on smittenkitchen.com (one of favorite food blogs!) risotto...made with barley...instead of arborio rice?  i love risotto. i always order it if it's on the menu. so i was very intrigued.  so last night when b had to work late i decided to make some. (not serving him any kind of dead animal would create a grumpy and hungry hubby. so only on night where i'm cooking for myself can i get away with a veggie and carb only meal.)

side note: i also learned there are many health benefits to eating barley.  it is good for:
Barley's Fiber for Regularity, Lower Cholesterol, & Intestinal Protection
Protection Against Atherosclerosis
Significant Cardiovascular Benefits for Postmenopausal Women
Prevent Heart Failure with a Whole Grains Breakfast
Barley and Other Whole Grains Substantially Lower Risk of Type 2 Diabetes
Cereal and Fruit Fiber Protective against Postmenopausal Breast Cancer
Can Help Prevent Gallstones
Whole Grains and Fish Highly Protective against Childhood Asthma
Promote Optimal Health with Barley's Fiber and Selenium
Barley's Copper Can Benefit Arthritis Sufferers
Development and Repair of Body Tissue

in theory, i figured the barley would be a great arborio rice sub based just on texture.  but i was worried that the creamy, starchy goodness would be missing. well, i was wrong.  it was so good!  (so yummy i just had some leftovers for lunch too.) not overly starchy and creamy but still very rich.  the barley provided an al dente bite that i miss from some rice-based risottos. should have known better than to doubt deb about her recipe.  i followed her recipe exactly except that i added mushrooms with the onions since they were needing to be consumed and i had to use kale instead of escarole because that is what i had.  i will be making this again and maybe even fidgeting with the ingredients some...

Barley Risotto with Beans and Greens

Adapted generously from Food and Wine

Be sure to use a low or no sodium broth; as the broth reduces and concentrates in flavor, a regular broth will yield a too-salty dish. I’ve learned the hard way many times! Only have a full salt broth or bouillon around? Swap some of the volume with water.

And do play around with this dish — try different broths, such as beef or mushroom. Skip the beans, swap a cooked vegetable. Use your favorite greens and adjust the cooking time accordingly. Add a clove of garlic, use shallots or leeks instead of onion. Use romano instead of parmesan, dollop in some crème fraîche at the end; use red wine or skip the wine. I know it can sometimes be overwhelming to have too many options but the possibilities here are really endless, and a little extra tinkering could make a staple out of this dish for you.

Serves 3 to 4 (most recipes would say 4; maybe we were just really hungry?)

5 cups low-sodium vegetable or chicken stock
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1/2 cup white wine (optional)
1 cup pearled barley (7 ounces)
1 cup beans, canned or precooked (white would be great; I used some Red Nightfall Beans mostly because they were languishing in my cabinet)
3 cups chopped escarole
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
Salt and freshly ground pepper

In a medium saucepan, bring the chicken stock to a simmer over moderately high heat. Reduce the heat to low and keep warm.

In a large, deep skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the onion and thyme and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is softened, about 6 minutes. Add the barley and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the wine if using and cook, stirring until absorbed, about one minute. Add 1 cup of the warm stock and cook, stirring, until nearly absorbed. Continue adding the stock 1/2 cup at a time in six additions — you’ll have a cup of stock left in the pot — stirring until it is nearly absorbed between additions. Most barley risottos are done when the barley is al dente and suspended in a thick, creamy sauce, about 35 minutes, however, I like to take this one a little “soupier” adding another half to one cup of stock. (This gives the beans something to drink up, and you a margin of error if you grains continue to absorb the stock once you think they are done.) Stir it in until the risotto is on the loose side, then add the beans and let them cook for a minute. Add the escarole and let it wilt and then cook for an additional minute. Stir in the 1/2 cup of Parmigiano-Reggiano and the butter and season with salt and pepper. Serve at once, passing more cheese at the table.

Do ahead: Although it’s not generally ideal to reheat rice risottos, I actually enjoyed this barley one reheated. Keep the flame low, splash in some more broth if it seems thick and slowly warm the dish, stirring. Top with extra cheese.


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