As I move on through my weird little life, I have come to realize that there are some rather shocking details in my relationship with food. Example: I just don’t like yellow curry. I’ve tried it. I’ve played with multiple applications. It just doesn’t work for me. Example two: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese is without a doubt my favorite hangover food. Well, that or biscuits and gravy with a side of hash browns. But only if those biscuits, gravy, and hash browns are from Brails Restaurant in Eugene, Oregon. Otherwise I’d take the boxed macaroni, complete with its powdered fluorescent orange box-mate, any day of the week.
But a more pertinent example for us today is risotto. I like risotto. I like the creaminess, the cheesy finish, the number of vegetables you can load it with; I even like the endless stirring. It’s therapeutic in a lot of ways. The only thing, in fact, that I don’t like about risotto is the rice. I know; who AM I? But the rice too often gets sticky and gloppy, and if it’s not gloppy, it’s soupy but somehow still underdone, and frankly I’m over it. No, if I’m going to have something toasty and nutty but also somehow creamy and chewy, I’m going with barley.
The idea of risotto without the rice is something like ice cream without the cream: contradiction central. Here, though, the truth is in the technique: the slow, steady stirring that lets the grain release its starches and become a warm, comforting dish of welcome-to-fall-I’m-so-glad-you’re-here.
If we were going to have fall, I decided, we were going to need root vegetables. Discs and sticks and chunks of rutabagas, carrots, sweet potato, and parsnips, all gleaming with olive oil and garlic herb salt, roasted until caramelized and tender. I folded these into the barley just as it finished, then dolloped in sizable lumps of soft, creamy goat cheese, a scattering of toasted pecans, and, because if it’s worth doing it’s worth overdoing, some whole fried leaves of sage and rosemary.
Alterations apropos of the season might entail swapping out the sweet potato or carrot for hunks of pumpkin or butternut squash, and you can certainly use walnuts or even pine nuts if you don’t like pecans. But I wouldn’t skip the goat cheese. Its insistent tang is a needed foil for the mellow autumnal combination of root veggies and barley.
We ate this so fast our forks had whiplash. It is warm and hearty, certainly, and the clamor of different flavors settles together so nicely that you can’t help but keep going back for another taste. The sage and rosemary mellow as they fry, producing a toasty earthiness rather than the overwhelming pine-forest flavor you might expect.
Root Vegetable Barley Risotto
3 medium carrots
3 medium parsnips
2 medium rutabagas
1 medium orange fleshed sweet potato
¼ cup olive oil
1-2 teaspoons salt (a nice garlic and herb salt works well here, if you have it)
½ teaspoon pepper
¼ cup chopped pecans
¼ cup butter
10 sage leaves
1-2 teaspoons whole rosemary leaves
Scant 1 cup chopped onion (from ½ a medium onion)
4-6 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup pearled barley
½ cup dry white wine
Additional salt and pepper, to taste
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth, warm but not boiling
8 oz. soft goat cheese
- First, preheat the oven to 400F and line two cookie sheets with aluminum foil. Place the cookie sheets in the oven while it preheats.
- Peel the root vegetables (except the onion) and cut them into discs, slices, or chunks of approximately the same size, no thicker than about ½ inch. Place them in a bowl and toss with the olive oil, salt, and pepper.
- Spread the vegetable chunks evenly in a single layer on the preheated trays, then return trays to the oven and roast for 45-60 minutes, tossing halfway through, until vegetables are fork tender and nicely caramelized. Set aside until risotto is ready.
- While the roots are roasting, warm the broth in a medium pot. You want it at a bare simmer at most. No more, or too much will evaporate while you wait to add it to your risotto. (It shouldn’t be cold either – this will increase the risotto’s cooking time.)
- In a large saucepan, toast the pecans over medium-low heat until they begin to take on a caramel aroma and look lightly browned. Be careful with them; they will burn easily. Don’t take your eyes away too long. When they are toasty, remove them from the pan and set aside.
- In the same pan, melt the butter over medium heat, then add the sage and rosemary leaves. Be careful; sometimes they will spit a bit when they touch the hot fat. Fry them for about 45 seconds, agitating the pan a little to turn them around in the butter, until they have darkened just a bit. Remove them, reserving the butter in the pan, and drain them on a paper towel. They will crisp up as they cool.
- Again in the same pan (see how economical we are being for whoever washes the dishes in your house?!), add the chopped onion and garlic. Sweat the onions and garlic for 5-8 minutes, until the onion is translucent and the garlic smells just the way it is supposed to. You know what I mean.
- With soft, tender onions, turn the heat up to medium high and add the barley. Stir briskly for 1-2 minutes until the barley is fully coated in butter and has toasted a touch.
- Deglaze the pan with the white wine, stirring vigorously to detach any browned bits from the bottom of your pan (but be careful not to be too vigorous, lest you ignite your wine). Continue stirring slowly until the wine is almost completely absorbed into the barley.
- When the pan is nearly dry, add about a cup of the broth and stir to incorporate. Let it simmer, stirring frequently, until the broth is almost absorbed. The first time you add broth, this will take 10-15 minutes. The amount of time it takes for the barley to absorb the broth will increase as you add more liquid.
- Repeat this process, adding broth and stirring, until the barley is tender but chewy and you have added all of the broth. This will take about 45 minutes.
- When the barley has almost absorbed the last of the broth (it will be slightly soupy, but don’t worry), add the roasted root vegetables and season to taste with salt and pepper.
- To serve, scoop some risotto into a shallow bowl, dollop on a good portion of goat cheese, sprinkle with pecans, and top with a few fried herb leaves.