Sunday, May 18, 2008


I remember the first time that I made risotto. It felt triumphant! I had heard from so many places that risotto was a finicky, difficult dish to make. You must stir every second! You must add exactly the right amount of liquid at exactly the right time! You must saute the raw rice grains to exactly the right level of transparency! Then, one day, I watched a cooking show in which the chef finally admitted that, no, it's not really that difficult. It's actually kind of...(shhhh).....easy. I soon tried it out and found that excellent risotto at home was now in reach. Triumphant, I tell you. Triumphant. I began making risotto in all sorts of flavors, from radicchio and prosciutto to butternut squash to spring vegetables. We enjoyed them all. Lately I realized that my risotto-making had tapered off; in fact, I hadn't made a risotto in months! Anxious to remedy this oversight, I headed for the pantry. 
I looked inside, and there it was, my container of short-grained Arborio rice. Familiar, comforting, an old (delicious) friend. But there, right next to the rice jar, was a bag of something else...pearl barley. New, intriguing, ripe with possibility. Pearl barley is, to my mind, an old-fashioned wonder-food. It has a very low glycemic index, meaning that it won't spike your blood sugar the way white rice or Captain Crunch will. It has been shown in some studies to have a stabilizing effect on blood sugar for up to ten hours, and it will certainly keep you feeling full longer than regular rice will, thanks to a higher protein and fiber content. I found my hand reaching for the barley. 
With a combination of a bit of regular risotto technique and some experimentation, I found this in my bowl.

Mushrooms, chicken, and fresh thyme elevated this obscure little grain into something subtle and warm, with deep flavor and a toothsome texture. It completely satisfied my yearning for risotto, but can't really be called that as it contains no rice. Hence, I dub thee 'Barsotto'. Go forth, and fill bellies with warm homey goodness! 

Mushroom Chicken Barsotto

Use a few different kinds of mushrooms for better flavor. This time I used Portobellos and their smaller sisters, Cremini. Even though they are technically the same, I find them to have different flavors. When using Portobellos in a dish, as opposed to on the grill, I like to use a spoon to gently scrape out the dark gills on the underside so that they don't turn my finished product an unsightly shade of grey-brown. As we were already planning on having wine with dinner, I added a nice splash (1/4 C)  of it to deglaze the pan after all the sauteing, but it's optional. Barley takes up a lot more liquid than Arborio rice does, so don't be alarmed if you need to add a touch more near the end of cooking.

3 C fresh mushrooms, sliced 1/8th inch thick
3-5 dried mushrooms (such as Porcini or Shiitake) 
1 Tb olive oil
2 medium shallots, minced
1 C pearl barley (NOT the quick-cook variety!)
1/4 C dry white wine, optional
4 C low-sodium chicken stock
2 C water
1 Tsp fresh thyme leaves
2 C cooked chicken
1 Tb unsalted butter
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat 1 C of water in the microwave just to a boil, and add the dried mushrooms. Allow them to reconstitute. Heat a large saute pan over medium heat, then add the sliced mushrooms. Sprinkle them with a pinch of salt to encourage them to give up their juices. Continue cooking them, stirring occasionally. After they give up their juices, cook until dark golden brown, then remove them from the pan and set aside. You may wish to use a little nonstick cooking spray as they brown if you feel they stick too much to your pan. 
After removing mushrooms, heat the olive oil in the saute pan and add the shallots. Saute until tender. Add barley. Stir until the barley grains are coated with the oil, then add wine and scrape up all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Add stock, water, and thyme to the pan. Remove reconstituted mushrooms from warm water, chop, and add to reserved browned mushrooms. Add the mushroom soaking water to the pan, being careful not to add any grit that may have come off of the mushrooms while soaking.
Allow the liquid to come up to a slow boil, and stir occasionally. Continue cooking until barley is al dente, 30-40 minutes. Add more liquid if necessary. When the barley is nearly done, add the mushrooms and cooked chicken and continue cooking until barley is done and chicken is warmed through. Stir in 1 Tb butter to add a little richness. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Top with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and chopped fresh parsley. 

No comments: