I’ve always appreciated a well-made risotto, but I’ve never been able to produce a good one, myself, and this drives me around the bend. The method appears simple and straightforward enough and the ingredients usually aren’t terribly exotic or prone to sudden destabilisation, so I don’t understand why my every foray into this arena of cookery results in gluey, stodgy messes that even the dog turns his nose up at. I’m not talking about a finicky, pampered, handbag-dweller of a dog either – you wouldn’t believe some of the corruption that the Schnub has willingly wolfed down, usually just after rolling in it.
It’s been a source of some angst for me. One of my mothers-in-law gave me a recipe for a risotto, and, sheepishly, I had to explain that I probably wouldn’t be able to do it justice. She looked at me uncomprehendingly for a few moments and then smiled in that “Ahh-you-almost-had-me-there-you-old-joker-you” fashion when one is convinced that one is being teased, but a look of concern quickly replaced her smile when it dawned on her that I was being earnest. Bless her, she regained her composure, but I knew what that look meant. “How on earth,” the unspoken text in the chat bubble which floated above her head read, “can Nin manage to keep my son sustained and properly nourished when she can’t even manage to churn out a simple risotto?” She continues to offer advice on the subject and I continue to regard the veritable smorgasbords of Him Indoors’ favourite foods which suddenly grace the table for even the shortest of our visits as purely coincidental!
With enough time having passed since my last attempt (they say the memory is the first thing to go) and my tastebuds still ringing from the most delicious pumpkin risotto I had at one of Ramsay’s Plane Food restaurants, I decided to have another crack at it. I selected a victim from my files and then promptly discovered I lacked a particular ingredient. Nothing major, really, surely I could make a sneaky substitution and no one would be any the wiser!…Okay, fine. It was the star of the show, the arborio rice, that I didn’t have in the pantry. Deflated, but not enough to run to the shops to get a packet of the rice, I began sifting through files and clippings again, hoping to find something else to pique my interest. A clipping from the Times waved shyly at me, so I tugged it out of the stack. Hello, what have we here? A risotto made from barley, you say? I cook with barley all the time! It’s a cheerful, forgiving little grain, happily absorbing any flavours and liquids thrown at it, and, best of all, it’s never transformed itself into gluey sludge in my presence. This was the one for me! Quickly scanning the lines of the recipe, I noticed that the method was certainly different; I wasn’t required to hover over the steaming pot constantly stirring and spoonfeeding it ladles of stock. Favourable grain + low maintenance method = Triumph!
Despite the early signs being auspicious, I ensured that there was a Plan B meal waiting in the wings as a form of disaster recovery before cracking on with the recipe. Having learnt from bitter experience, I would never dare offer up just a plate of risotto for dinner. No. In that direction, madness – with its disagreeable companion, hunger – lies. And good, bloody luck that I had, as it turns out. You guessed it, sports fans. My incredible losing streak remains unbroken. In my own defense, though, I don’t think that this should be considered a risotto, not only in terms of the featured grain but in method. If anything, it was more of a pilaf than a risotto, so this dish, this barleyotto – barlotto? – will not be included on my Roster of Risible Risottos. In my opinion, which was echoed by H.I., the dish wasn’t unpleasant or inedible – it was simply a bit bland and not robust enough to stand on its own, but it might make a nice accompaniment or side dish for a winter roast dinner. In all likelihood, I won’t be making this one again, but I pass the baton to my brother Bud, who has a magical way with barley. If anyone can transform this dish into a beautiful butterfly, it will be him.
5 cups pumpkin, peeled and cubed (800g by weight)
2 tbsp vegetable or olive oil, divided
1 large red onion, finely chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
2/3 cup white wine (you could also use more stock or a little lemon juice diluted with water)
1 heaping cup pearl barley
3 cups stock, vegetable or chicken
Salt and black pepper to taste
1/4 – 1/2 cup hard cheese, like parmesan or Grano Padano, grated – a little reserved for sprinkling atop
3 tbsp flatleaf parsley, chopped (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. In a fairly deep roasting tin, toss the pumpkin with a tablespoon of the oil, coating it thoroughly. (I splashed a bit more oil on the pumpkin at this step as I felt that 1 tbsp didn’t provide much coverage, but this is up to you.) Pop the tin into the oven and roast the pumpkin for at least 20 minutes, until the flesh is softened and starting to brown. Mine took a bit longer than the requisite 20 minutes, so just watch yours and remove from the oven when you deem it ready. Set it aside.
2. Rinse the barley and leave it to drain in a sieve.
3. In a medium to large saucepan, gently fry the onion and celery in the oil, cooking for about 5 minutes or until the onions begin to soften. Turn up the heat, add the white wine and let it boil vigorously for a couple of minutes, which will evaporate the alcohol. Stir in the barley, then pour the stock over it. Give it a stir and then reduce to heat, bringing the liquid to a simmer. The barley can now be left to its own devices for about 20 minutes, but do check on it occasionally to give it a stir to prevent any sticking at the bottom. The barley should need a further 10 to 15 minutes of cooking to soften up completely. From this point onwards, you will need to check the liquid levels quite frequently. If the barley is starting to get dry, add some splashes of boiling water to the pot. If, on the other hand, you’re left with a surplus of stock at the end of your final 15, simply boil the pot a bit harder until it’s gone.
4. Stir in the roasted pumpkin and grated cheese. Check the seasonings and add salt and pepper to taste. To serve, sprinkle with a little of the reserved cheese, and the parsley if you’re using it.