Please give this a chance. I know it sounds like I copied it from the menu of a late 1960s hard-core vegetarian restaurant, the kind that would serve lots of unsweetened yoghurt and raw stuff (I didn’t). It also looks a bit icky; I have concluded that risottos are possibly the hardest dish to photograph attractively. After my attempts, I went and hunted through cookery books to find out what others did. Apparently photographing the ingredients is a common stratergy, and I was pleased to see that those who did photograph the dish itself were generally as successful as I was.
However, do not be put off. This is in actual fact delicious, designed to taste good and use fun and quirky ingredients. The healthiness is, one might say, the icing on the cake.
I very much enjoy risottos, and this is everything a good risotto should be, slippery and smooth with butter and olive oil. One of the great things about using barley in a risotto is that it can have this silkiness and still retain its own texture, making it a much more interesting dish to eat. Another great thing about this risotto is that, unlike rice, it does not need to be stirred continuously, nor have the liquid added in small quantities. I made it with two additions of water, and couple of stirs though it, then some watching at the end. It is an easy dish to multitask with.
A final word about substitutions. This uses the leaves from beetroot, which you can often buy at farmers’ markets still attached to the beetroot. If you can find them, I would urge you to try them; they stand up well to cooking, and their stalks dye the risotto a delicate pale pink. Choose fresh looking green leaves with firm stalks and no yellowing on the leaves. The beetroot that come with them are lovely too – I like mine roasted whole with balsamic vinegar. If you can’t find beetroot leaves, or if the whole idea is one step too far towards hippydom, them any green leaf vegetable will work, spinach, chard/silverbeet, etc. This recipe was adapted from Lisa Turner’s ‘Risotto style barley with kale, goat cheese and parmesan’.
Barley Risotto with leeks and beetroot leaves (serves four)
Two tablespoons olive oil
One and a half tablespoons of minced/finely chopped garlic
Half a large leek, or a whole smaller one
One tablespoon of fresh thyme
One and a half cups of barley
Four cups vegetable stock (if you are using very strong or salty stock, reduce the amount of stock and replace with water)
500g beetroot leaves and stalks, leaves torn up and the stalks cut into small pieces
Melt the butter in a large pot. Add the olive oil, leeks, garlic and thyme, and cook until the leeks have turned white and soft, then add the barley and cook for another minute. Pour in half the stock, and let it simmer. When the water level gets low, stir and add more stock. About half way through the cooking time, add the beetroot stalks, and in the last third add the leaves. Continue simmering until the barley has absorbed all of the liquid, but is still wet and slippery; this will take about forty minutes. Towards the end of the cooking, watch it closely and stir more frequently.
Serve hot and glistening, possibly without telling conservative eaters what is in it. I generally don’t serve this with cheese, but it would be delicious with parmesan, feta, grated gruyere, or really any cheese.