Beet barley risotto with the red greens

We had gotten a couple bunches of beets with brilliant red stems and leaves from our CSA share, and I was very excited to cook them up. I was also craving risotto, so voilà: beet risotto. Although risotto has a medium-long cooking process, prep is pretty easy, and while it takes a while on the rangetop, you can – despite the common assumption – leave the risotto pot alone for periods at time. Perfect for an evening spent grading papers.

I had the beets roasting in the oven and the onions and garlic cooking along in brown butter in the dutch oven before I realized that I was out of arborio rice. As I was rummaging through the pantry I came across a fresh bag of pearl barley. Always handy for excellent soups, but it also makes an excellent if a bit toothy risotto. Problem solved. I poured some chardonnay over the barley after cooking it in the onions and butter, ladled in some stock after the wine cooked off, and went off to grade a paper. I’d come back after a paper, stir in a ladle-and-a-half of stock, and head back to another paper. With a glass of chardonnay for myself, natch.

After three papers, things were starting to get a bit close, and I browned some more butter in the wok and tossed in those beautiful red leaves that I’d washed and chopped. I’m accustomed to reddish greens, like chard, losing their red as they’re being cooked, but these did not. In truth, they weren’t red like a chard red but deeply scarlet to the point of being purple. Stirring the risotto and adding in the penultimate ladle of stock, I thought back to the last barley soup we had done and the chickpeas that gone in and how satisfying that was. I found a can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed them, tossed them along with the chunks of roasted beet from the oven into the pool of stock lying on top of the barley, and stirred it all in.

The red greens, which even cooked until limp retained that deep, deep scarlet, got a good splash of champagne vinegar, and I mixed some Parmesan, parsley, and fresh-squeezed lemon juice into the risotto. The roasted beet chunks had turned the risotto a robust harvest reddish-orange. I ladled the risotto into deep black bowls, placing a good portion of red greens beside each portion. There was a tablespoon or so of butter left in the wok that had turned that same red as the leaves, and I drizzled a little on top of each bowl.

The barley risotto was creamy and a little crunchy, the roasted beets were sweet and smokey, and the chickpeas were just as satisfying in risotto as they were in soup. The red greens were amazing: the bitterness was there, but only a hint, and they had much of the sweetness of the beets, and they were very earthy. The taste was not all that far from the smell of wet dirt or wet leaves. I usually cook risottos in the spring, though they have that hearty character so appropriate to warm, starchy cold weather meals. This one looked forward to that. It may have been the best meal I’ll have all fall.

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