Beetroot, Buffalo Cheese & Walnut Orzotto

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I love beetroot and it’s such a gorgeous earthy warming vegetable for this time of the year. Though it does also make a wonderful salad, used fresh and raw, such as my Sensational Antioxidant Salad; or as a dip, like my Roasted Beetroot, Tahini & Orange Dip and of course soup. There’s barely a soup as fine as a rich Beetroot Soup. I’d never made a risotto with beetroot though. I have to confess I caught sight of a recipe card in a supermarket the other day for a beetroot risotto with goat’s cheese and while I didn’t pick the card up, the idea stayed with me and I played with it a bit. It would be good to use pearl barley instead of rice with such an earthy vegetable as beetroot, I thought, so an orzotto was in order. I’ve taken to making orzotto quite a lot since my first foray into using pearl barley a few months ago, when I made Mushroom & Rocket Orzotto. I don’t prefer it to normal risotto rice – and for some things I definitely prefer rice – but there’s something about the more rustic, nutty pearl barley that makes it perfect for some ‘risottos’ – or more correctly ‘orzottos’ as ‘orzo‘ is the Italian word for barley, while risotto comes from ‘riso‘ – rice.

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I had a nice bunch of beetroot and in the farmers’ market this morning I bought some buffalo cheese from one of my favourite stalls, but instead of the little ‘lambors’ – soft goat’s cheese – I usually buy I chose a more mature version for a stronger flavour. It was still a soft texture so I knew it would melt down well into my orzotto.

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I also decided to add some walnuts as I’ve been inspired to use them much more in cooking with my addiction to Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem cookbook over the past few months; another nutty flavour to enhance that of the pearl barley.

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When Jonathan and Lyndsey popped round late afternoon and then over a cup of tea asked if I wanted to go back to theirs for supper, I suggested I cooked my planned orzotto for them. Thus ingredients for one soon became ingredients for three, but fortunately there was plenty of everything. Especially when Jonathan told me he had lots of good home-made stock in his freezer for me to use. The beetroot and other ingredients were put into a bag and we all piled into their Mini along with Zeph the Yorkshire Terrier and a 5-foot Xmas tree that they’d bought from the little garden centre near me!!

It’s always slightly strange cooking in someone else’s kitchen, even my son’s. But I can count on him having the best of tools and gadgets along with devilishly sharp knives. Only a long nail saved the top of a finger as I started chopping. I peeled and chopped 4 beetroots. Short of wearing gloves, there’s really no way to avoid getting one’s fingers heavily stained red. Jonathan couldn’t resist pointing out that if I did cut my finger at least there’d be no obvious sight of blood. Fortunately, my greater care left my fingers intact and the beetroot nicely diced into roughly 1cm cubes. I warmed a little olive oil in a frying pan and then tipped the beetroot cubes in. I seasoned with salt and pepper and on a last-minute whim decided to add some freshly ground cumin seeds too, as they go so well with beetroot.

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I left this gently cooking, stirring occasionally, until the beetroot was almost cooked through. In another larger pan, in which I planned to cook the orzotto, I warmed some more olive oil and added 1 medium onion finely chopped and a handful of walnuts, roughly chopped.

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When the onion was translucent and the nuts lightly browning, I added about a cup and a half – roughly 200g – of pearl barley.

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It’s important to rinse the barley first. Put it in a bowl, pour in cold water, stir round with your hand and then carefully pour the water off and any little bits that rise to the surface. You may need to do this two or three times until the water runs clear. Stir it round well and allow to cook for a minute or two then add a good glug of dry vermouth or white wine. Let it bubble over a medium heat and once most of the wine has been absorbed, start adding hot chicken stock (or vegetable stock if you want to keep this vegetarian). As the stock is absorbed, add another couple of ladlefuls.

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Once your orzotto is well on the way to cooking through, tip in the cooked beetroot, scraping in any bits in the bottom of the pan. Those are the best caramelising bits full of flavour.

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Pour in the rest of your hot stock and stir. I used about a litre of stock in total. Check seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Now pop the lid on and allow to gently simmer until all the stock is absorbed and the pearl barley is tender. Unlike a true ‘risotto’ you don’t have to stir all the time. Turn the heat off when ready and break the soft cheese over the top. Save a little to put on the orzotto when serving.

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If you can’t buy this kind of buffalo cheese, use goat’s cheese instead, but a nice mature one with a good full flavour. Put the lid back on for a couple of minutes or so to allow the cheese to start to melt a bit, then gently mix in just a little; you don’t want all sign of the cheese to disappear. Now serve the orzotto, piling it gently on to plates, then dot some more of the cheese on top.

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It looked so colourful and wonderful but – in Jonathan’s words – the taste was AMAZING. Everything combined so well: the sweet earthy beetroots with the sharp acidity of the strong cheese; the walnuts with the nutty pearl barley. The flavour was deep and robust without being overpowering. It was really very good indeed.

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A lifelong lover of good food and travel; writer and book editor

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