So here’s a little eating-out confession: When we go out to restaurants, no matter how old-school posh or hot-new-It-chef-on-a-grungy-block, I rarely find myself moved to exclamation points over a piece of steak or a pasta dish; instead, it most of my ooh-ing and aah-ing is formed over the earnest piles of beans and grains and greens that form a bed for the main attraction. I’m always applauding the way a chef managed to get such flavorful beans, grains and even unloved greens, cooked so perfectly that I clean them out long before I stick my fork into the duck breast. I guess what I am trying to say is: A lot of people cook steak well. Making kale and wheat germ taste like nirvana itself is what really blows my mind.
It’s also, sadly, the place where the gap between what I pay others to cook and what I whip up at home is the greatest. I miss those sauces — those puddles of concentrated buttery rich brothy flavor! I want to splash in them! — I miss all of the in between spaces on my plate. I vow to conquer that this year. Bring on the puddles!
With this dish, I’m proud to say I’m getting there. I’ve been wanted to make a loose barley risotto for months, the kind that would invite other ingredients and interpretations in, but only now that’s it so cold and uninviting out that I’ve slowed down enough to get to some good old-fashioned pot-stirring. Barley doesn’t get as creamy as short-grained rice does when you cook it risotto-style, but seeing as I find a lot of risottos overly heavy and creamy, for me, this is a plus. Monkeying around (ahem!) by adding “stuff” to it was fun, and really, could be anything you had on hand, in my case, some beans I’d auditioned in the slow-cooker, and some escarole, because it had been a while since I’d had any.
What we ended up was the kind of sauced-up treat I adore, and I won’t lie, the best part was that we didn’t have to
leave Jacob to fend for himself in front of the TV with a can of formula again arrange childcare + get gussied + brave this arctic January just shell out generously for it.
Barley, previously: Mushroom and Barley Pie, Barley, Corn and Haricot Vert Salad, Beef, Leek and Barley Soup and my absolute favorite of the lot, Mediterranean Eggplant and Barley Salad
Thank you. I’ve really had my head in the sand the last few months and while I blinked, won some awards — including Blogger You Would Most Like To Cook A Meal For You (aww) in the FoodBuzz Awards and just today, Best Home Cooking Blog in Apartment Therapy’s Homies awards — and did not have the good manners to thank you for cheering me on. This would be no fun at all without you, and I’m honored daily that you welcome my dreary speckled countertop and craftily-grammared ramblings into your kitchens. Thank you!
One year ago: Fig and Walnut Biscotti
Two years ago: Goulash
Three years ago: Balthzar’s Cream of Mushroom Soup
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.
Bean cooking wonder! Cooked my beans in the slow-cooker — they were perfect. No presoaking, just put them in covered with 2 to 3 inches of water for 3 hours on high. (You may need up to 4 hours with larger beans.) I let them cool in their cooking water, which was by then quite flavorful. They were dreamy.