By Sara Bir
When I ran across a recipe for cooking barley risotto-style, I had to try it. At the local natural foods store, I searched for the pearled barley specified in the recipe, but what the store's bulk section advertised as "pearl barley" didn't look right to me. It had a brown hue and the tapered shape of a football, unlike the whitish, rugby-ball-shaped pearl barley from, say, the Quaker box. But OK, whatever, I bought it anyway.
We invited friends over to share the barley risotto with us. Two hours of cooking and stirring later, the "pearl" barley was nowhere near tender. The natural foods store had sold me hulled barley! By then we were starving, and so I served the decidedly chewy creation. The flavor from the slowly caramelizing stock was deep and rich and wonderful. "The sauce is great!" enthused our kind guests. I apologized for serving them gourmet horse food.
Eventually, I bought regular old pearled barley and gave the dish another shot, with great results. Hulled barley has its place, but not in this recipe.
This technique of cooking barley is adapted from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything.
1 pound asparagus
10 to 12 ounces white mushrooms
4 to 6 c. vegetable or chicken stock
1 to 2 tbsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. butter
1/2 small onion, minced
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 c. pearled barley
1/2 c. dry white wine
2 to 3 tbsp. mascarpone cheese
Trim the asparagus, reserving the tough ends. Cut the tender segments into pieces about 1 to 2 inches long.
Brush off the mushrooms and separate the caps from the stems, reserving stems. If the mushroom caps are small, halve them; if they are large, quarter them.
In a medium saucepan, combine asparagus ends, mushroom stems and stock. Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover and keep at a very gentle simmer.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium-high heat, add 1 tbsp. olive oil and the mushroom caps. Brown without disturbing for about a minute, then toss and continue to brown mushrooms on all sides. You want the mushrooms to be golden brown; they will shrink a bit in size, but not much, and they will not release much liquid. (It is best to have plenty of room in the pan, so brown the mushrooms in two batches, if needed). Remove mushrooms from pan; set aside.
In the same pan, lower heat to medium and melt 1 tbsp. butter. Add minced onion and cook, stirring frequently, until onion is translucent. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute. Add the barley and cook 1 minute, stirring to coat with butter.
Add the wine to the pan. Stir until almost all of the wine is absorbed.
Meanwhile, remove the solids for the stock; discard solids. Keep stock at a simmer. Add about half a cup stock to the barley mixture and stir until almost all stock is absorbed. Continue adding stock one ladle at a time, tasting barley periodically to check doneness.
When barley is mostly cooked but still has some bite, add the asparagus and sautéed mushrooms to the pan. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Cook until barley is fully tender. Add a few last splashes of stock if needed (you want the risotto to be loose but not soupy), remove from heat and stir in mascarpone cheese. Adjust seasoning, divide between plates or bowls, and garnish with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
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