This isn’t a real risotto; after all, it doesn’t have any rice. Instead, it’s a barley dish that’s cooked just like risotto. While we really like risotto, with all its creamy goodness, we thought that we’d try to make up something a bit different. Once we decided to use barley as the grain, we looked around to see what we could add to the risotto. Well, it turns out that we had an ear of corn, and, of course, we always have dried shiitake mushrooms on hand. Dinner plan solved.
Now, if you’re regular risotto makers, as we are — we try to scratch out a batch every couple of weeks, although lately our risotto levels are running low — all the information you need to make this barley risotto is that we seared the corn and shiitake mushrooms in a hot cast iron skillet before adding them to the almost-finished risotto. If you’ve never made something like risotto before, follow along as we scratch out a batch.
Obviously, if you think that this would be better made with arborio rice rather than barley, feel free. Follow the same instructions and you’ll be golden. For the wine, we like to use a Pinot Grigio, almost always Barefoot brand. It’s inexpensive, but good. For Parmesan, you can substitute Grana Pardano — we almost always do — as it’s made in the same fashion, just not in the Parma region of Italy. We never get pre-grated Parmesan, as, once grated, it loses its flavor, and who wants cheese without flavor?
Procedure in detail:
Char corn. If you have one, place a large cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Otherwise, use your heaviest skillet, and let it heat up very hot. Once hot, add about a tablespoon of oil, swirl it around, then add the corn. Shake it into a single layer and season with salt and pepper. Let the corn blacken on one side, about 5 minutes, then give everything a stir, trying to flip over most of the kernels. Let sear and char for another 5 minutes or so. Transfer to a small bowl.
Sear mushrooms. Since the skillet is still nice and hot, we’ll sear the mushrooms. If needed, add a bit more oil to the pan, then spread the mushrooms into a single layer and sprinkle with just a bit of salt and pepper. Let sear, without stirring, until golden-brown on one side, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir the mushrooms around, trying to flip, then let sear on the other side until golden, another 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to the same bowl as the corn.
Cook onions. In a large (3-4 quart), heavy-bottomed kettle over medium heat, melt the butter along with a tablespoon of olive oil, swirling the pan to mix. Once melted, add the onions and the garlic, and cook gently, stirring often, until translucent and tender, about 3 to 5 minutes.
Coat barley. Stir the barley in with the onions and garlic until the grains are coated and glossy. You can cook the barley for a minute or so like this, but not too much longer, as it’ll seal off the grains, making it harder for the grains to absorb liquid while cooking.
Simmer in wine. Once coated, pour in the wine, give everything a stir, and simmer, stirring nearly continuously, until most of the liquid is absorbed. This can take 5 to 10 minutes.
Simmer in broth. This is the technique for risotto: add hot broth a little at a time, stirring until it’s absorbed before adding more. We generally add about 1/4 cup of the hot broth, then stir, stir, stir, and, after 5 minutes, or so, it’s absorbed, so we add more. All the time, we keep the broth simmering. If we run out of broth before the barley is done, we quickly boil some water and use that. As the broth is absorbed, test the barley, and, when it seems mostly tender, but still slightly chewy, it’s perfect.
Finish risotto. Add the corn, mushrooms, and Parmesan cheese. Give everything a stir, cover, and remove from heat. Let it stand for about 5 minutes to let the corn and mushrooms heat through and the cheese melt, then give it another stir. If it seems as if there isn’t enough broth, you can add a tablespoon of butter and stir it in. Taste, and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
Serve. We think of risotto as a main and plate it accordingly. If you want, top with a bit of added Parmesan for a garnish.
While this was pretty good, we found it to be sweeter than we would have liked. What was surprising was that the sweetness came from the corn kernels, and not an added sweetener. We think it would have been fine with just half the amount of corn, but, at half an ear, what do you do with what’s left? The barley was a nice change from arborio rice; it had a different flavor, but was nowhere near as creamy, which, to our minds, is what risotto is all about. On that basis, we’ll say three stars.