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When Risotto Isn’t Made with Rice

Ever since dining at AQ Restaurant in San Francisco last year where I enjoyed it for the first time, I’ve been rather fixated on barley risotto.

Oh, don’t get me wrong; I still adore the traditional version made with tender yet toothsome short-grain Italian rice.

But when it’s made with barley, it takes on a whole different personality — heartier, chewier and with a more roasty-toasty flavor.

Hulled barley leaves the bran layer intact, so it contains a  powerhouse of amino acids. But it takes a long time to cook and is extremely chewy. On the other hand, pearled barley, which is the most common type sold, is polished further to remove the bran layer, making it less nutritious and technically not a whole grain, but faster to cook. A pot of risotto made with pearled barley will take about 40 minutes to cook form start to finish.

But you don’t have to stir barley risotto non-stop on the stove-top like you would with arborio rice. You will have to put some muscle to the spoon, but not quite as frequently because the barley is less prone to stick to the pan. Continue to add warm chicken stock to the pot as the barley soaks up the liquid and becomes more tender.

Flavor barley risotto as you would any other risotto — by stirring in butter, olive oil, cheese, herbs or mushrooms at the end. Spoon into a shallow bowl and top with a chunky meat stew, a vegetable ragout or grilled seafood.

In this version, I stir a little homemade pesto into the barley, then top it all with “Thyme Roasted Shrimp,” one of my favorite go-to recipes from cookbook authors Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough.

It makes for an effortless yet spectacular dinner — even on a weeknight.

And it sure does a belly good.

Barley Risotto with Thyme Roasted Shrimp

(Serves 4)

Extra virgin olive oil for cooking and garnishing

1 small onion, diced OR 2-3 spring garlic bulbs with tops, diced

1 1/2 cups pearled barley

Splash of white wine or dry vermouth (optional)

4 1/2 cups warm chicken or vegetable broth

Salt and pepper to taste

1/4 cup homemade or purchased pesto or handful of chopped fresh herbs such as basil, parsley, tarragon or thyme

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese (optional)

Thyme Roasted Shrimp

In a medium saucepan on medium heat, add a drizzle of olive oil, then add onions. Saute until translucent.

Add pearled barley and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring well until it turns glossy.

Pour in a splash of wine and cook until it nearly evaporates.

Next, start adding the warm chicken stock, about a cup at a time, stirring well after each addition. Once it is absorbed, ladle in another cup of stock. Repeat until all stock is added and barley is tender, about 40 minutes. If you like your risotto looser, you can add a bit more water or stock at the end.

Meantime, turn on the oven for the Thyme Roasted Shrimp, if making.

When the barley is tender, season with salt and pepper, then stir in the pesto or herbs, as well as the parmesan, if using.

Divide barley into four shallow, wide bowls. Drizzle on a little extra virgin olive oil. Top with the shrimp and their cooking juices. Serve immediately.

From Carolyn Jung

More: My Dinner at AQ in San Francisco

Another Hearty Grain to Try: Artisan Three-Hour Polenta