If I could do my wedding all over again, I’d drop the chicken in favor of steaming bowls of Creamy Barley Risotto with Mushrooms and Spinach. I’d also want to cook it myself, right there in the dining area, for all 150 of our guests. This is probably why most reception venues have a set menu.
I realize that cooking barley risotto at your own wedding presents a few logistical concerns. My dress would undoubtedly get in the way, serving everyone at the same time would be tricky, and the pot would be so large, I’d pass out before I finished stirring.
Despite the challenges, I can’t help but fall for the idea of making risotto for everyone I cherish most, because to me—perhaps more than any other dish—risotto says, “I love you” and “We are good enough friends that I can cook in front you while consuming conspicuous amounts of wine.” One splash for the risotto. Three sips for me. Four sips for you. Forever and ever amen.
Undeniably comforting, yet refreshingly simple, I consider risotto the meal-equivalent of giving someone a giant hug. It’s a cheesy analogy, but I sincerely believe it’s true. Risotto is one of my favorite dishes to make on chilly evenings, and—despite singing the praises of make-ahead party meals like this Sweet Potato Goat Cheese Quiche earlier this week—I break the rules for risotto, which is best made and served immediately.
Some of my favorite dinner memories are being gathered in my tiny Madison kitchen with a few close friends, all of us stationed near the risotto pot and polishing off a bottle of wine before the risotto even hit the table.
As often as I make risotto, rarely do I use classic Arborio rice…or any kind of white rice at all. At the risk of scandalizing my Italian in-laws, I prefer to use whole grains, such as farro, barley like today’s risotto recipe, or even brown rice.
Not only are whole grains richer in fiber, protein, and nutrients, they also make a killer creamy and complexly flavored risotto.
A quick barley run-down: there are two common types of barley, hulled and pearl. Hulled barley retains the outer bran layer, while pearl barley has the bran layer mostly removed.
Although hulled barley is higher in fiber, it takes much, much longer to cook and can be more difficult to find. Pearl barley still offers a good amount of fiber and nutrients, is easily available, and doesn’t add any extra time to the risotto’s cook time. Victory!
The inspiration for this Barley Risotto with Mushrooms and Spinach came from a beautiful creamy barley bowl I had at a local restaurant in Madison. It was filled with complex layers of flavor from fennel, white wine, onions, and one of my more recent loves, mushrooms.
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the barley bowl since, so I decided to recreate it via today’s Barley Risotto with Mushrooms and Spinach.
You can use any mushroom you enjoy, with the exception of white button mushrooms, which don’t have enough flavor to carry the dish. The restaurant used oyster, which were incredible, and I opted for more affordable cutie creminis and portabellas.
Not a mushroom fan? Swap any sautéed veggie that makes you happy. My love-vegetable butternut squash would be outrageously tasty. (I’m sorry I just used the phrase “love vegetable.”)
The final component of the barley risotto is a bed of garlicky sautéed spinach. You can certainly stir the different components together, but I love the look of the different layers, as well as the sensation of plowing my fork deep into the middle of my bowl to ensure that I grab a little taste of each.
I might have missed serving Barley Risotto with Mushrooms and Spinach at our reception, but I’m pretty sure my wedding dress is still stowed safely in my grandmother’s attic. Anyone have an apron large enough to cover a ball gown?
Creamy Barley Risotto with Mushrooms and Spinach
- 16 ounces cremini baby bella mushrooms
- 6 ounces portabella mushroom caps
- 4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
- 3 tablespoons olive oil divided
- 5 cloves garlic minced, divided
- 16 ounces fresh spinach
- 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt divided
- ¾ teaspoon black pepper divided
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 large fennel bulb, stem and outer leaves removed, cored and diced
- ½ large yellow onion diced (about 1 ½ cups)
- 1 cup pearl barley*
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ cup dry white wine
- Brush off the mushrooms with a barely damp paper towel. Cut the creminis into thick slices. Remove the stems from the portobella caps, cut the caps into thick slices and halve. In a medium pot, heat the stock to just below a simmer.
- In a wide, deep pot such as a Dutch oven, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high. Add the mushrooms, ½ teaspoon salt, and 1 clove minced garlic and sauté until the mushrooms are browned, soft, and give up their liquid. With a slotted spoon, transfer the mushrooms to a small bowl and set aside, then pour the mushroom’s leftover liquid into the saucepan along with the chicken stock.
- Reduce heat to low and add another 1 tablespoon olive oil to the Dutch oven. Wait a minute to ensure the temperature of the pot decreases (this will prevent the garlic from burning). Add 3 cloves minced garlic and sauté just until fragrant, about 15 seconds, watching carefully so that the garlic doesn’t burn. Add the spinach, ½ teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper, stirring to combine. Cover the pot and let steam for 2 minutes, then uncover, increase the heat to high, and stir for another minute, just until the spinach wilts. With a slotted spoon, transfer the spinach to a bowl and set aside. Discard any excess liquid that has cooked out of the spinach.
- Reduce heat to medium. Add butter and remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and heat until the butter melts. Add the sliced fennel and chopped onion and cook stirring often, until the vegetables soften, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the barley and stir to coat with the butter and olive oil. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring often, then add the dried thyme, bay leaf, remaining garlic clove, remaining ½ teaspoon salt, and remaining ¼ teaspoon pepper. Cook 1 additional minute. Add the wine. Stir and cook for 2 minutes.
- Add 2 full ladles of the stock to the barley. Stir and simmer over medium heat until the stock is absorbed, 5 to 10 minutes. Constant stirring isn’t necessary, but do watch the pot and stir often. Continue adding the stock, 2 ladlefuls at a time, until it is all absorbed and the barley is creamy, but maintains a bit of chew, 25 to 30 minutes total.
- To serve: Ladle the barley into bowls, then top with the spinach and mushrooms. Enjoy immediately.
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