Barley risotto flavoured with lemon and thyme, served with maple roasted carrots and kale pesto for a hearty vegan meal.
Barley is a humble and often overlooked grain, mostly used for animal feed and to produce malt (for use in the production of beer and whisky).
In my childhood I knew barley as the mushy bits in the bottom of the bland vegetable soup served at my Grandmother's house. Hmmm.
Actually, barley can be much nicer than that
Barley popped back onto my radar a few weeks ago during a discussion around the dinner table about which grains and legumes had the most protein. Out came Google, and I was very surprised to learn that barley has 10g of protein per 100g (uncooked), or 4g per cup once cooked. It's not quite the protein powerhouse of legumes like lentils or black beans, but it's a very worthy addition to our diets as it's also low GI, packed with fibre (more than quinoa, and much more than rice) and a rich source of B vitamins and several other nutrients.
On the whole barley's pretty good for you. It's also dirt cheap, which means I'll be trying to include it in our family meals a little more often.
Barley does contain gluten, so it's off the menu if you have coeliac disease or are otherwise gluten intolerant.
Moving right on from my Grandmother's not-so-great soup, barley works very well in place of rice in a risotto. I think the key to a delicious barley risotto is packing in the flavour with herbs and a good quality stock, and giving it the time to cook well. Now that I know how long it takes for barley to cook, I think Gran must have had her soup cooking for half a day to manage to overcook it the way she did back then!
Barley risotto: minimum effort required
Barley risotto does take a bit longer to cook than rice risotto, and takes more liquid, but it doesn't require so much constant care while cooking. I used my usual method to start a risotto, cooking onion, garlic and herbs in olive oil, before adding the barley and toasting it for a few minutes. I then added lots of vegetable stock and left it to cook slowly (stirring every now and then) while I roasted some carrots and whipped up a batch of kale, almond and sunflower seed pesto to stir through at the end.
If you have an open bottle of white wine sitting around, you could also add a splash to the pan and reduce that away before adding the stock. Or open a bottle 'for the risotto'. You know what to do with the rest.
Once done the barley is plump and soft, but with more texture and chew than rice. It's pretty yummy. Minimum effort and a little bit of time resulted in a delicious meal with lots of flavour, perfect to have bubbling away on a slow Sunday afternoon at home.
For the risotto:
- 1 ½ cups pearl barley
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 onion finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic crushed or finely chopped
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme finely chopped (or substitute with an additional ½ teaspoon dried thyme)
- 2 leaves bay
- 7-8 cups vegetable stock (broth)
- Zest of one lemon and juice of one half
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Kale pesto
For the roasted carrots:
- 2-3 pieces large carrots peeled (if desired) and cut into even
- 1-2 teaspoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon maple syrup
- Fresh thyme sprigs
- Salt and pepper to taste
For the risotto:
- Heat vegetable stock in a saucepan until simmering.
- Heat olive oil in a separate large saucepan or frypan (skillet).
- Add onion, garlic and thyme, and cook for 5-10 minutes over a low-medium heat until soft and golden.
- Add barley and stir to coat grains in oil. Cook for a few minutes to toast the grains.
- Add the bay leaves and vegetable stock, reserving about one cup for later.
- Cook for 45-60 minutes, stirring from time to time. The barley soaks up a surprising amount of liquid so keep an eye on it and add more stock as required. If you run out of stock, add a splash of boiling water from the kettle.
- Once the barley is cooked but still has a little firmness, remove and discard bay leaves.
- Stir through the lemon zest and juice.
- Stir through 3-4 tablespoon of kale pesto, which will freshen up the flavour and add to the creaminess of the risotto. Add a little bit more water if it needs loosening up.
- Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
- Serve with roasted carrots and more kale pesto, as you like.
For the carrots:
- Preheat oven to 200C (390F).
- In a mixing bowl, toss together the carrots, olive oil, maple syrup, and salt and pepper to taste. Make sure the carrots are well coated.
- Put the carrots into a roasting dish and into the oven.
- Roast for about 30 minutes, until soft and caramelised around the edges. Turn up the temperature for 5-10 minutes towards the end if you're not getting the colour you're after.