OK. I might be overdoing the pearl barley cooking and soon I shall turn into a light-brown grain. But after the lovely Josephine at My Home Food That’s Amore asked if my Barley Risotto yesterday was an orzotto, I thought I’d better do some research. Pearl barley to me is my mother putting some in a meat stew when I was a child; it is what thickened that warming Scottish soup of my childhood, Scotch Broth, made with pearl barley, stewing lamb and root vegetables. Thus, I wasn’t thinking Italian when I made the barley risotto yesterday – and it was anyway a dish from Jerusalem! – but it turns out the Italians use barley too. And orzotti are a speciality of the Fruili Venezia Giulia region in north-east Italy.
The Italian word for barley is orzo, hence orzotto (rather than risotto – from rice). Pearl barley is orzo perlato. It’s what the Italians used, along with rye and millet, before rice arrived in the Po Valley about 600 years ago. Pearl barley is said to be a better source of iron, fibre, potassium and folic acid than rice; it’s also good for the digestive tract and lowers cholesterol (The Food Doctor Healing Foods for Mind and Body, Ian Marber & Vicki Edgson).
As for the eating, it just makes a nice change to rice. It’s nuttier in flavour, softer in texture. I don’t prefer it; it’s just different. This evening I made it with mushrooms and rocket and grated some lovely Parmigiano Reggiano over it. Parmigiano Reggiano comes from a protected, designated area of northern Italy. Only cheese made in that region can bear the name while ‘Parmesan’ – the name we tend to use in UK – is a more generic name.
I started out by making the usual soffritto for ‘risotto’ – gently frying in this case just some finely chopped shallot and garlic until softening in some olive oil and butter. Then I added some sliced chestnut mushrooms (about 150g) and continued to cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms were starting to look cooked through.
This initial cooking before adding liquid ensures a better, deeper flavour. Then I added a cup of pearl barley. It’s important to wash it first. It took about 3 washes for me to get clear water. Drain it and then add to the shallot mixture. Mix round and then add a good splash of dry vermouth or white wine. Let it bubble for a minute or two and then add a couple of cups of hot stock (I used chicken but use vegetable if you want a vegetarian meal). Cook gently with a lid on for about 20 minutes or until the pearl barley is tender, stirring occasionally to make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. Add more stock or hot water if necessary to keep a nice sloppy consistency. When the barley is ready, turn off the heat and add a good handful of rocket and grate over some Parmigiano. Carefully mix together and pop the lid back on for a couple of minutes so the rocket wilts into the mixture.
Now spoon onto plates. This will make a couple of portions. Grate over a little more cheese and drizzle with olive oil.
It was really good. The nuttiness of the pearl barley is wonderful with the earthy mushrooms, and then that peppery rocket and salty cheese make the dish come together in a most delicious way. I’m not planning on giving up rice for risotto, but the pearl barley does make an interesting and tasty alternative from time to time.