So there I am one afternoon, lying on the couch and staring out the window. The sky is blue and glazed with ice; drifts of fresh snow lie in shadows across the fields and pastures. Once I get out there on my skis, my blood pounding through my veins and arteries, I’ll enjoy it. It’s true, but I never quite believe it until it happens. At my feet, my dog Jake is dancing around, convinced his time to play in the snow is about to begin. Eventually I concede, strap on my skis, and we go for a glide around the fenceline.
When we get back, it’s time to get supper started – I had plenty of time on the couch to decide what I wanted to cook. Once the winter settles in for the long haul and the calendar page is turned, my body starts looking for solid-state fuel to power me through skiing and running and long cold nights. Risotto is one of my go-to favourites.
Risotto, a savoury rice “pudding” from the Veneto region of Italy and one of the great comfort carb dishes, is traditionally made with polished short-grain Italian rice – arborio, carnaroli or vialone nano – and in the Veneto, is typically served all’ onda, or loose, its sauce flowing like waves. In other parts of Italy, the finished effect is thicker, the stock more absorbed.
But in search of denser calories, more nutrients and a slower, longer release of energy, I have returned to whole grains for my risotto – hulled barley, and wheat’s cousin, farro (also called emmer). Both of them require precooking. Be warned, though: if you accidentally use spelt, another cousin of wheat, instead, you’ll be simmering it for several hours, and it may emerge from the pot still crunchy. I limit my spelt usage to its ground form, which I add to breads, muffins, crisps and cobblers, but in small amounts, because it is lower in gluten than wheat.
When you shop for farro, you may find whole grain, semi-pearled or pearled, each serving up increasing degrees of processing that shorten the cooking time. Hulled barley, like the Saskatchewan-grown purple barley I used in making today’s recipe, requires a couple hours of simmering in plenty of water (or a short cycle in your pressure cooker), while pearl barley has had its hull and its bran layer removed so that all that remains is the central starch core. It cooks to tender within half an hour. Pot barley is somewhere in the middle of those two, and is much toothier than pearl barley. Back in my restaurant days, I made barley risotto with pot barley, and added cooked bulgar for added texture and flavour. These days, I prefer hulled barley’s nuttier taste, and manage the long precooking stage by using a crockpot (while cross country skiing!) that doesn’t require tending.
So the lesson is to avoid procrastinating. Put the barley on to simmer, get out there and ski, then settle down at the table. First we eat, then we’ll move on to a round of grappa and a civil discussion.
Barley Risotto with Butternut Squash and Thyme
This classic dish should be uncomplicated and colourful. It relies on perfect produce, treated gently. Endless variations that follow the seasons are possible: in spring, the first asparagus and candied salmon; in early summer, peas with prosecco and mint; in the fall, roasted bell peppers, fennel and tomatoes with the last basil; in winter, braised short ribs and rosemary, or shredded roasted chicken thighs and frozen corn kernels with dried tarragon. Please yourself. Grill or roast some sausages to serve alongside.
Serves 4-6 as a side
4 T. olive oil
1 onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 c. diced butternut squash
2 carrots, diced
1 bell pepper, diced
3 c. cooked hulled barley
1 T. minced fresh thyme
½ c. dry white wine
6-8 c. chicken or vegetable stock, heated, or as needed (depending on how ‘wavy’ you wish)
salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste
2-4 T. cool butter or whipping cream, optional
½ c. finely grated parmesan cheese
½ c. fresh parsley, minced
Heat the oil in a shallow pan and add the onion and garlic. Cook over medium heat until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the squash, carrots and bell pepper. Cook for about 5 minutes, then add the wine, stir, and cook until the wine’s aroma has dissipated and the liquid is mostly absorbed. Add stock in 1-cup increments, stirring each addition until it is almost all absorbed. Season to taste. Stir in butter or cream, then add the cheese and parsley. Mix well and serve immediately.