Pearl Barley Risotto with Chard, Mushrooms and Bacon
Purists may bulk at the fact that I have used the words 'Pearl Barley' and 'Risotto' in the same sentence here but there is no reason why you shouldn't use this humble grain as a substitute for arborio or carnaroli rice. In fact, I would take pearl barley over rice any day of the week. It is cheap, very nutritious and a little goes a long way. Bang, there's your byline, right there The British Association of Pearl Barley Lovers United. Or BAPBLU for short. You can have that for free. If you exist.
But really, I think my love for pearly barley goes back to childhood memories of stews. When Mum would slow-cook neck of lamb, with a simple addition of roughly chopped root veg, stock, seasoning and a scant handful of the stuff. Nothing more, nothing less. It always used to amazed me how swollen the pearl barley could get, forming into these slightly squidgy nuggets, that would bounce back against the pressure of a molar before finally giving up the ghost and collapsing. Sucking that little globule of fat from the middle of the bone was also a treat too. Before having a tea-towel thrown at your head, to mop off the rim of grease that surrounded your mouth.
With this recipe, things needn't get so meaty though. You could go full on vegetarian and omit the bacon, use vegetable stock and replace the Parmesan with a rennet free option. Although if your veggie cheese product uses the words 'Parmigiano Reggiano' on the packaging, then whoever made it really will be breaking the law and you can expect the Italian 'food police' to come crashing through your door. And rightly so.
The main thing is to make sure you have plenty of stock. Because, like I said, pearl barley has a seemingly infinite thirst. When I made this the other day, I simmered up just over a litre of chicken stock and as I began to scrape with a ladle at the bottom of the pot, the pearl barley was nowhere near ready, or soft enough. Luckily, I had some more bags of stock in the freezer. So I boiled the kettle, poured the scalding water into a bowl, slipped a bag in, loosened the plastic a bit and plopped an filthy looking iceberg into a wok. I then slammed the wok over a high flame and managed to melt the damn thing in about five minutes flat. Presto, hey!
This is not ideal though. So preparation and patience is the order of the day. Al dente is no good when it comes to pearl barley, You'll only end up breaking your teeth.
Pearl Barley Risotto with Chard, Mushrooms and Bacon - serves 4
1 onion, finely chopped
1 celery stick, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
250g pearl barley
3 sprigs of thyme, leaves picked
1 sprig of rosemary, leaves picked and chopped
2 litres of chicken stock (you might not need all of this but best to be safe than sorry)
150g Parmesan cheese, grated (plus extra for sprinkling on afterwards)
200g Rainbow Chard, chopped
200g Chestnut mushrooms, cleaned and quartered
150g Smoked bacon lardons
1 lemon, cut in half
Begin by heating a wide saucepan on the hob, over a medium heat and add a generous knob of butter and a glug of oil. As the butter begins to bubble, throw in the chopped onion and celery and stir through, reducing the heat a touch and slowly cook through, until everything becomes soft.
Also, begin to heat your stock up in a separate pan, bringing it up to a simmer.
Turn the heat back up on your wide pan and add the garlic and herbs, stir-frying quickly for a minute or so, to incorporate, and then add the pearly barley. Again, stir through for a minute, reduce the heat once more and then you can begin to add the stock.
This is where the long, laborious work starts but it will be worth it. Continually stir through and as the pearl barley soaks up the stock, add another ladle or two. There are other methods, such as baking in the oven but I always stick by this approach.
Slowly but surely, the starches in the pearl barley will release and everything will start to swell and thicken. It could take up to 30 minutes though, so might be good to have a glass of wine by your side.
And whilst you are stirring, you can get on with the business of steaming your chard, pan-frying your mushrooms and crisping up your bacon lardons. It's a juggle but relatively easy to do. So long as you have some wine.
The pearl barley, in my opinion, is ready when your tooth sinks right through and with ease. When you are that point, turn the heat off.
Quickly drain your chard and then add that to the risotto, along with half of the mushrooms, then dump the grated Parmesan cheese in and stir through, so that it all melts and becomes gooey.
Dot the top of the risotto with some butter and then cover and leave for 5 minutes and then stir the melted butter through.
To serve, spoon a generous portion of the pearl barley into a deep bowl and squeeze a trickle of lemon over each one. Cupping your hands underneath to catch any pips.
Grate over some more cheese before topping the centre with a good portion of the both the leftover mushrooms and the smoked bacon lardons.