Barley becomes ‘risotto’

A soup with options

January 16, 2013

I started the New Year not with resolutions or a good cupboard cleaning, but by hunkering down to bring Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone up to date. It’s amazing how many good ingredients have become available in the past 15 years since the first edition was published, and I wanted to be able to include them in the revised book — along with some new recipes.

In the process of going over this manuscript, I often just go into the kitchen and make a dish that I haven’t made in a while, usually one that I intend to alter, if only in a minor way. In this case, it was the Barley Soup with Caramelized Onions and Pecorino Cheese.

In the original recipe, I recommend making a mushroom stock, but today we have a pretty good organic mushroom stock available — increasing the likelihood for many that the soup will get made at all. (Of course, you can still make that stock if you want to, and it will be delicious.) Other than the stock, the recipe will essentially remain unchanged, except that its amount is scaled back a bit for practicality. Barley is a thirsty grain and can keep drinking up stock, so why not make it more modest to start with? It’s easy to multiply, and adding more broth will increase the volume without sacrificing much in the way of consistency.

The risotto option.

So I got the soup going to the point where it needed 25 minutes to simmer, then went out to my office. In general, this is not a good idea; I lose track of time. In this case, the barley simmered about 40 minutes before I got back to the kitchen. What I found was a very thick, robust, mushroomy dish that said, “Risotto!”

With more broth or water, it could of course become soup once again, but wouldn’t a dish of warm, thick barley be a satisfying start to dinner on a cold night? I thought so, and so that’s what happened. To finish it, I sautéed some baby bella mushrooms, stirred in some half-and-half, and ended with truffle salt, another ingredient we didn’t have 15 years ago.

It was good. Satisfying. Tender, but with a little tooth to it. And filling, even though the portions were small.

And the good news? There’s some left over! What do with it? Add liquid and return it to its risotto form? Add even more liquid and return it to its soup form? Or shape it into a little cake, cover with breadcrumbs, brown it in a skillet, and serve it topped with more mushrooms? I could also use it to stuff a Savoy cabbage leaf, come to think of it. Obviously, this is the perfect dish for a double Gemini.

I might add, you don’t have to worry about the stirring much here — not like real risotto. Barley makes its own creamy medium pretty much by itself.

So if you’re busy this month fulfilling resolutions and doing other attention-grabbing things, consider this very flexible soup-risotto-croquette filling. However you make it, it’s a good option.

Barley Soup with Caramelized Onions and Pecorino Cheese
Serves 4

2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, diced into ½-inch squares
1 qt. commercial mushroom stock or water
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
1 heaping tsp. minced rosemary
½ cup barley, rinsed
½ cup diced celery root or celery
2 carrots, diced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
½ cup grated or shaved pecorino cheese

Warm the oil in a heavy soup pot. Add the onions, cover, and cook over low heat for 20 to 30 minutes until golden. The lid will create steam so that you don’t have to stir the onions constantly, but do check them a few times as they cook.

Add the tomato paste and rosemary and cook for a minute more, working the paste into the onions. Add the vegetables, barley, and stock, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, until the barley and vegetables are done, about 25 minutes. Taste for salt, season with freshly ground pepper, and serve with cheese grated over the top.

And now here’s the risotto option.

Barley ‘Risotto’ with Sautéed Mushrooms and Truffle Salt
Serves 4

1 recipe Barley Soup with Caramelized Onions and Pecorino Cheese (see above)
2 Tbsp. olive oil
4 baby bella mushrooms, sliced about ⅜-inch thick
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
½ cup half-and-half or cream
Finely chopped parsley
Truffle salt

Make the soup as suggested. You won’t need the cheese, but keep it if you like. While it’s simmering, prepare the mushrooms. Heat the oil in a skillet and, when hot, add the mushrooms, sprinkle with salt, and sauté over fairly high heat until seared and golden brown. Remove from the heat.

When the soup vegetables are tender, turn up the heat and cook, stirring, until the broth has cooked away, leaving a risotto-like dish. Stir in the cream and half the mushrooms and cook to heat through. Season with pepper.

Serve in four bowls with the remaining mushrooms on top, a little parsley over each, and a pinch of truffle salt.

Related recipe: Barley Soup with Caramelized Onions and Pecorino Cheese; recipe: Barley ‘Risotto’ with Sautéed Mushrooms and Truffle Salt

There are 10 comments on this item
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1. by Pat on Jan 16, 2013 at 4:01 PM PST

I’ve been substituting barley for rice in risotto recipes ever since local barley arrived in our farmers’ market -I think it adds great texture and earthiness that’s perfect with greens and wild mushrooms.

2. by Deborah Madison on Jan 16, 2013 at 7:38 PM PST

Pat - aren’t you lucky to have local barley in your market! All local gains and flours seem so much more alive and amazing to cook with. I’m glad you like barley used as if it were risotto rice as well. I makes a lot of sense as well as good eating.

3. by Pat Bitton on Jan 16, 2013 at 9:22 PM PST

We’re seeing a real resurgence of local grain-growing here in Humboldt County, so much so that we now have a grain CSA! Barley (grains and flour), wheat flour, buckwheat flour, rye flour, cornmeal and flax seeds. Enough now for bakers to be using it on a commercial scale ( :-)

4. by anonymous on Jan 17, 2013 at 6:39 AM PST

I’m so glad to hear you are updating Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. I have carried my copy (and sometimes little else) to five cities in three countries over the years. Around our house, you are known as “My lady” - “My lady has a recipe for that” or “Let’s see what my lady suggests for this vegetable”. Now I’ll just have to carry two copies!

5. by Deborah Madison on Jan 17, 2013 at 2:50 PM PST

Pat - That is such wonderful news. And thank you for the bakery link. Are you in the CSA?

6. by Deborah Madison on Jan 17, 2013 at 2:52 PM PST

You may be anonymous, but I’m honored to be “your lady.” (I feel like one of the women on Downton Abbey.) I think you’ll be fine with just the updated copy -one book is enough to carry!

7. by Par Bitton on Jan 17, 2013 at 4:25 PM PST

Debbie, yes I’m in the CSA - from I had to learn a lot about baking in a hurry! But at least grains and flour keep in the freezer, unlike produce, so I could take the learning process a little more slowly.

8. by anonymous on Jan 23, 2013 at 4:47 PM PST

Yum! Made this for dinner with local pork and a salad- delicious! I even had the truffle salt-a special Christmas gift fom a friend. Thanks!

9. by debra daniels-zeller on Mar 4, 2013 at 10:51 AM PST

I have to tell you Deborah that have made this soup twice and it has never made it to the risotto becauseI love the soup too much. I’ve been making my own mushroom stock with shiitake mushroom stems, onions, garlic, carrot and celery bits. What I love about Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is all the ideas it generates in my own kitchen. Can’t wait for the updated version. Next time I hope to make the risotto!

10. by Deborah Madison on Mar 4, 2013 at 11:23 AM PST

Thank you, Debra! Well, leftover soup, all thickened up, is pretty much the same thing. Making your own stock has got to make it truly wonderful!

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Deborah Madison, the celebrated cookbook author and local-food advocate, feeds us with her occasional reflections. Her latest book is Vegetable Literacy.

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