You know the thing about there being two types of people: energy givers and energy suckers? The idea is that you want to spend your time with energy givers, people who have the ability to make you feel revitalized, enthusiastic about life (those energy suckers, on the other hand, sometimes just have to get kicked to the curb).
That’s more or less my approach to cooking. I’m all about the recipes that are energy givers, not the ones that make you feel like a stove slave. And I mean this on a couple of levels. For one thing, I’m into recipes that provide energy because they’re nutritionally solid. But I’m also into preparing dishes where the very preparation makes me feel refreshed and rejuvenated. This dish I made the other night – Pearled Barley with Peas & Mint, Risotto Style – fits that bill exactly.
I haven’t had the chance here yet to wax lovingly about risotto, to tell you how very much I adore the dish. I think it just might be my favorite food in all the world. At the very least, it’s way up there on the list. And it just might be my favorite food in the world to make.
It’s a soothing, comforting preparation that makes me feel like a real cook, and like I’m tending to my family at the same time I’m doing something for me. It’s standing, feet planted firmly in front of the stove, deliberately but gently coaxing hot broth into smooth grains of Arborio, urging them toward their creamy potential with soft, counter-clockwise strokes of the spoon. It’s giving those grains your undivided attention, knowing they’ll reward you for your vigilance (a little like raising kids, don’t you think?).
I know, it sounds like an energy sucker, but, for me at least, it’s the other way around. Making risotto is a cinch, but it does require almost constant tending of the pot. There’s something about the process, about being required to focus on the rice, that dials it all back for me, puts my cares into perspective, allows reflection on the day. And the whole time I’m making dinner.
But while making it does wonders for my mental health, risotto is otherwise not the healthiest of choices. I’m kind of a stickler for whole grains, and those Arborio grains are pretty little things, shiny and pearl-like – which means they’ve been pretty well stripped of all their good-for-you properties.
So, inspired by a long-ago post from Heidi on pearled barley “risotto,” and using one of my favorite risotto recipes from Giada De Laurentiis, I came up with this version. The grains I used still had a brown mottled look to them, meaning they hadn’t been polished too much, and so perhaps retain more nutritional qualities. I also just discovered First Blush juices, and wanted to try them as a wine substitute (I know, I’m breaking rules all over the place here). I was impressed by their nuanced, dry taste. And the resulting risotto-style dish was, while not as creamy and indulgent as the traditional stuff, extremely satisfying in its own right – both in the making, and the eating.
Pearled Barley with Peas & Mint, Risotto Style
6 cups low-sodium chicken stock
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 medium finely chopped onion
1 ½ cups pearled barley
½ cup First Blush Cabernet juice or dry red wine
1 cup frozen peas, thawed
½ cup freshly grated parmesan
¼ cup each chopped fresh mint and Italian parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Bring the broth to a simmer over medium-high heat; don’t allow it to boil. Keep warm and softly simmering at just under medium heat.
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Saute the onion until soft and translucent, about 5 to 8 minutes. Add barley to pan and stir, toasting until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add juice or wine, stirring until liquid is absorbed. Add two ladlefuls of hot stock, stirring continually until absorbed (it’s ok to step away momentarily step away to pour your kid a glass of milk or something — just not too long or the barley will stick and potentially burn). Add another ladleful of stock, stirring continually until liquid is absorbed. Repeat this process two or three more times, then check barley for doneness. Add peas, then continue to add stock until barley is just tender, but not mushy (you may have leftover broth).
Stir in parmesan, mint, parsley, salt and pepper to taste. Add more parmesan for a creamier consistency. Serve immediately.