Barley Risotto With Vegetables

Risotto, the traditional Northern Italian dish, uses a short-grain rice and a long and slow cooking process to release the starch from the rice. This starch creates a creaminess, which might make you wonder if heavy cream was used. While risotto is utterly delicious, it doesn't offer much of a nutritional punch.
Barley, one of the superfood grains, offers high levels of manganese, selenium, fiber and B vitamins. It's also a great accomplice for controlling cholesterol and blood sugar. Hulled barley is the best with a higher dose of nutrition, but it takes a very long time to cook and can be difficult to source. Pearl or pearled barley is a good compromise. While the nutritional values are lowered due to the removal of the bran, cooking time is greatly reduced. It's also easier to find in your local grocery store.
A bowl of uncooked pearled barley

How about a barley dish cooked in the style of risotto making? It's not going to be as creamy as the one made from rice, but it will be just as delicious, a little more nutty in flavor and much better for your overall health. While it will still take 45 minutes to one hour to prepare, that's still an easy accomplishment. You can cook this barley risotto while you set the table, empty the dishwasher, prep the chicken for grilling, make a jug of sangria and respond to a few emails and texts. See, not that difficult.

The Recipe

The Barley Risotto
6 T extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 c pearled barley
1 c white wine
6 c chicken stock
1/2 stick butter
1/2 c grated or shredded parmesan cheese
1/2 c shredded asiago cheese

Heat the stock in a saucepan and lower the heat to keep hot.

Over medium to high heat, pour the oil into a large pan. Saute the onion until it's softened. Stir in the barley and cook until it has browned lightly. Pour in the wine. Use caution as the barley will sizzle and splatter. Stir continuously until most of the wine has been absorbed. Ladle in about half a cup of chicken stock and stir. Reduce heat so that the barley simmers. Now you can set the table and unload the dishwasher, but keep a close eye on the pan. This dish will require constant attention and quite a bit of stirring.

Keep adding stock and stirring until the barley is tender but still a bit chewy. Once it's ready, stir in the butter and cheeses and remove from heat.

Pour onto a large platter or shallow bowl and top with sauteed vegetables. If you wish, you can serve grilled chicken or salmon on the side.

Note: Depending on the heat setting and the barley, you may need to use a little more stock or water. For vegetarian option, use vegetable stock. To make this dish vegan, replace cheese with a vegan-approved replacement and replace the butter with one quarter cup of really good extra-virgin olive oil. You may need to add coconut cream and salt at the end to get a creamier consistency.

The Vegetables
4 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T butter
1 c diced red, yellow and green peppers (a mix of all three)
2 c diced mushrooms (any combination)
1 cup diced yellow squash
1 bunch asparagus (tough ends removed and spears cut into 2" to 3" pieces)
1/2 c chicken stock or water
1/4 c julienned basil or chopped Italian parsley

Once the risotto is under way, heat the oil and butter in a large non-stick pan. Once the butter has melted, stir in all of the vegetables except the asparagus. Continue to stir until all of the vegetables have softened a bit, then stir in the asparagus and season with salt and pepper. Add the stock or water and allow to cook until the asparagus has softened just a little and there is still a bit of liquid in the pan. Set aside.

Once the risotto is ready to serve, reheat the vegetables over high heat and stir in the fresh basil or parsley. Pour over the risotto.