Risotto has a terrible reputation of being quite hard to conquer. Except, it’s not hard. In fact, it’s ridiculously easy. I believe risotto gets the diva reputation from the standing over a hot pot, stirring constantly for nearly half an hour. I get it. During the summer months, getting a facial full of steam is not my idea of a good time (not that I would enjoy it all that much in Winter either). But any other time of year, risotto is totally worth the sweat. I also like to add a step to the process that makes it all worth while and completely enjoyable. More on that in a minute.
After years of whipping up risotto at home with the traditional arborio rice, you come to learn that risotto is not a “thing” but more of a technique. You have a starch that you lightly coat with oil and toast and then ladle by ladle whirl in liquid, letting it absorb every last drop of flavor before adding in more until you’ve got a creamy concoction on your hands. So why does it have to be just rice? It doesn’t. Any sort of starch that soaks up liquid and holds its shape will work.
You can make risotto with elbow macaroni noodles, quinoa, even regular rice. Will it always be the same consistency as arborio rice? No. But then, that’s sort of the fun of it. And that’s what happened when I first made barley risotto. I was inspired by the budding trees and colorful flowers bursting from the ground in early Spring and wanted something fresh. Because I could care less about what my arteries are up to, I had bacon on hand, a bag of frozen peas stashed in the freezer and fresh mint whose main purpose was to be muddled into oblivion in an invigorating Mint Julep. I knew that all of those would come together quite nicely, there was just one problem, (although in this case, you can probably tell, not that problematic) I was out of arborio rice. But I had plenty of other grains on hand. Lentils, amaranth, farro, quinoa and barley. An idea was hatched.
One common myth about risotto is that it needs to be stirred CONSTANTLY. It doesn’t (there are a number of recipes out there for risotto baked in the oven). But you also don’t want to walk away for long periods of time. If there isn’t enough liquid in your pot, the risotto can stick and start to burn in spots. But because barley doesn’t absorb liquid nearly as quickly as rice, you can actually step away to do some other things, like chop some veggies for a salad. Just don’t go too far away and completely forget. You still want to stir the pot fairly frequently.
So remember before when I mentioned I added a step? Here it is: when you throw in the barley, you stir it a bit in the hot oil to coat it all and toast it slightly. Normally when I make risotto, I pop open a bottle of wine and use just a bit to deglaze the pan and christen the liquid absorbing process. (However, this recipe calls for Vermouth, which is my usual standby for when I don’t have an open bottle, which I did the first time, but the flavor was so great, I just kept it in.) So now you’ve got an open bottle of wine. The smartest thing you can do is pour yourself a glass. One should NEVER waste wine. That’s a criminal offense I believe. So now you have a friend to keep you company as you stir your part of simmering grains. A friend that will make you happy and before you know it, it will be dinner time. Thanks friend. If you don’t have wine on hand or plan on using it, a cocktail will do, obviously.
When making any style of risotto, the key is to be prepared. Once you start making the risotto, you really don’t want to stop. When all the vermouth and stock have been absorbed, it’s time to add your featured flavors. And then it’s time to eat it. So with this particular recipe, you can’t cook the bacon after the risotto is all set up. Keeping risotto warm and at the right consistency is difficult. It’s not impossible, but after all that stirring and drinking, you’re going to be hungry. Just ask any Top Chef contestant. By crisping up the bacon first, not only is it ready to go, but you also flavor the oil for the barley and get to use the bacon fat. Win win. It’s also helpful to measure everything else out like the peas, chopped mint and parmesan cheese. It will make your life easier. If you’re a fast drinker, have a second ready to go.
The first time I made this, I served a salad alongside of it. A very easy salad. One that I could chop up and mix as I went along making the risotto. Have a sip (or gulp) of wine, give the pot a stir, have another sip of wine, chop up some lettuce and repeat. I’m not telling you to save making the salad for during the whole risotto stirring process. What I’m saying is that it’s possible. You should only do it if you feel comfortable enough. Although enough wine any will make anyone feel confident enough to do that. Too much will make you pass out. So know your limits.
I always find it best to heat up the stock on the stove and keep it nearby. Hot liquid is absorbed much quicker. If you add cold liquid to a hot pot, it will cool down the contents and then each time, you have to wait for the liquid to come up to temperature before the barley will begin cooking again. I also find it best to always heat up more liquid than called for. Sometimes, a little extra stock is needed. Anything that’s left can be cooled and kept in the fridge until you need it next.
Each time you add your hot stock into the risotto, it will be loose. If you drag your spoon across the pot, the line it makes fills in with liquid immediately. When the liquid is nearly all absorbed, you can drag a line through it again, only this time, it slowly disappears, that’s when you know to add more liquid. But when do you stop adding liquid? The best option is to just taste it. Get a spoon, and bite the barley. If it’s really crunchy, it’s obviously not done. You also don’t want it to be mush. The barley has a bit of a bite, but that gives way to a soft center, basically al dente.
If you find that you have leftovers (hard to imagine), add some liquid to the risotto when you reheat it. The risotto will become creamy again. Will it be the same as before? No, but it will be fairly close and just as satisfying.