Jan 22

Fennel with Pearled Barley Risotto

I posted a photo of my dinner to Twitter last night, and enough people asked about it that I thought I’d post a formula.

My dear husband is a scientist at heart. He does not understand how I can bear to cook without thoroughly documenting results, but I often do. It’s not that I set out to intentionally leave no trace of my exploits, but that I’m so immersed in the experience I don’t want to pull back and analyze the components.

I don’t ever measure anything but the grains and liquid when making risotto, pearled barley or otherwise. I usually use a 1:4 ratio between grain and liquid, because it gives the rice or barley more time to realize its creamiest potential. I use about 1/4 cup of grains per person I’m feeding, and 1/3 cup for folks who don’t eat many vegetables. Everything else is subject to the contents in my pantry, the people who are going to eat it and my mood.

I’m also a risotto heretic: I’m one of those people who will employ a rice cooker if I’m not thrilled by the idea of stirring a pot continuously for 20 minutes or more.  You can even soften onions and garlic in the bottom of a rice cooker,  then steam vegetables or meat on top if you have a steamer insert. Fortune favors the bold.

Use olive oil, butter or your favorite fat to coat the pan’s bottom.

Add a handful of finely chopped aromatics (onions, shallots, leeks, spicy seeds,  garlic) and let them fizzle in the oil until soft. Add barley and stir.

Let the mixture toast for a minute or two, because it imparts a subtle flavor to the dish.

Add your liquid. You can add a little wine to your stock if you like. Some are sticklers and insist you have to be a slave to the pot, adding liquid as it goes. If I want a moving meditation, I do that, but if I’m just damned hungry and want some creamy grains, I just pour all the liquid into the rice cooker and walk away to work on the accompaniments.

I chopped a large fennel bulb into small pleasing shapes and sauteed it with just a scant bit of olive oil. Toward the end, I added fennel seed to toast in the pan. You can do this with any vegetable, though: I love pumpkin or a similar squash, carmelized with sage. Shredded Brussels Sprouts in bacon grease would be an excellent choice as well.

Your grains will be ready for plating when they’re tender and resemble a thick porridge. It’s best not to rely on the rice cooker (because it will try and cook away all the liquid), but if you lose track of time, you can just add a bit more stock and keep an eye on it. If you like your risotto extra creamy, you can stir in a little cream, sour cream, creme fraiche, ricotta  or yogurt at this point.

Finishing elements are important, and transform risotto from a gruel-like deceiver to a elegant dinner party. I commonly stir in nutmeg, cracked pepper and parmesan cheese, though I’ll often use brewer’s yeast as a parm replacement if I have a vegan guest. Lemon zest is a gorgeous topper, as well. If I’m feeling very lazy, I stir in spinach or arugula so I don’t have to fuss with a salad.

I make a bed of vegetables for the risotto, then pile it on.  I’ll often top with toasted nuts, more cheese and nutmeg. Last night, I chopped fennel fronds to feather across the top, providing beauty and an anise bite.

There are One Response

  1. I’m so making this this week!!! Thanks.

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