No, dear Italian friends, this is not an Italian risotto and please forgive the use of the word ‘risotto’, but Ottolenghi uses it in his wonderful book Jerusalem from which I took this recipe. (Though it has to be said, it’s not quite his recipe, as you shall see.) I’ve learned that Italians are very correct when it comes to food and coffee but fortunately for me and the risotto I made last night, Ottolenghi is a good deal more forgiving.
I’ve been meaning to try pearl barley instead of rice in a risotto for some time. My friend Elsa made a version a while ago (and she’s Italian!) and it was delicious and then another friend Rona recommended this recipe in Jerusalem. My son sampled it at her house recently and told me it was wonderful so I had to give it a try. Rona also told me it was very forgiving, unlike a normal risotto, if there was any delay in the proceedings. A normal risotto is an instant thing: you make and you serve it; no hanging around, but apparently this one will happily wait until everyone is ready.
It has to be said that Ottolenghi’s recipes, while wonderful, are also quite complex. So although I made a point of buying the essentials – the pearl barley and feta – I made an assumption I’d have everything else. Which I didn’t, so the recipe had to adapt a little to my store cupboard. I started preparation around 6pm last night. The recipe in the book is for 4 and so I made some adjustments, but not really a quarter of everything. However, I did measure out 50g of pearl barley instead of throwing some into my usual cup; I had a small tin of chopped tomatoes (160g) but didn’t have passata so a squirt of tomato puree with a little extra stock would have to do. Neither did I have caraway seeds for the marinating of the feta and decided fennel seeds would do instead. So, thus far, not too much of an adaptation. I got started. I rinsed the barley, chopped and gently fried shallots and other things, added the barley and stock and tomatoes … and then I was interrupted. I’d promised to help a friend who need some editing advice. I turned everything off and moved to my computer and Skype instead. While I was Skyping and wearing my Editor’s Hat, my son rang. Could he invite himself to dinner. Of course, I said. When I finally got back to the kitchen, I weighed out another 50g pearl barley, washed it and threw it into the waiting mix. I opened another small can of tomatoes and threw those in too and turned the heat on again. I was pleased to read in Ottolenghi’s description of the recipe: ‘does not require the exact precision and meticulous preparation’ of a ‘proper Italian risotto’. Well, that was a relief. Exact precision had been thrown out with the empty tomato cans.
It smelled good and was gently bubbling away while I received updates from son who, having told me he was leaving his London Bridge office was then called into another meeting. Time went by. ‘Eat without me,’ he advised by text. ‘I’ll save you some,’ I offered, remembering how adaptable this recipe supposedly was. This pleased him. Until at about 10.00pm when he finally left the office and knew coming to my house for barley risotto wasn’t on the cards. Thus, I had lots of leftovers. Guess, what I’m having for supper tonight!
The making of the risotto is easy enough. I measured out 50g pearl barley and rinsed in water until the water was clear and left it in a strainer. I chopped 1 shallot, 1/2 stick celery, 1 garlic clove and cooked gently in about 2 tablespoons olive oil and a good lump of butter. Once that was softening, I added the barley, a couple of sprigs of fresh thyme, 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika, a good pinch of dried chilli flakes, a strip of lemon rind, 1 tin (160g) chopped tomatoes, a good squeeze of tomato puree from a tube, 300ml stock (I used chicken; Ottolenghi uses vegetable), a bay leaf and some salt.
Then you need to let it bubble gently away for about 30-45 minutes until most of the liquid is absorbed and the barley is tender. Check seasoning.
Meanwhile, marinate some feta cheese in a generous drizzle of olive oil with (in my case) fennel seeds that you’ve gently roasted in a dry pan (or caraway seeds if you wish to follow Ottolenghi).
Once the risotto is ready, spoon into a shallow bowl and top with the marinated feta and its oil. Sprinkle over some chopped fresh oregano … or, if like me, the oregano in your garden doesn’t look very happy, some freshly chopped parsley.
It turned out to be a perfect supper as apart from being delicious, it was wonderfully warming (especially as I’d been quite generous with the chilli flakes!). I can’t believe it was hot, sunny and in the mid-twenties a few days ago and now it’s deeply autumnal with cold, wind and rain and I’ve had to turn the heating on. This is a very different ‘risotto’ to an Italian rice one. The pearl barley is very soft and almost slides down one’s throat. I remember my mother often put it into stews when I was a kid, to thicken them. There’s definitely more Middle East than Italy to the eating, but it’s still very good and beautifully comforting. I’m really pleased I tried it.