I will have the mushroom risotto (I guess)… Oh the number of times that I have muttered that phrase.
I will start by saying that I appreciate the fact that every restaurant that I have been to over the past few years has a vegetarian option. Even the steakhouses are begrudgingly adding one item to the list for the carnivore’s date. The only exception to this rule tends to be the BBQ joins where the most that I am likely to get is half a cob of corn provided that it has not been dipped in bacon fat. But the rest of the restaurants are doing their part and for that I am grateful. The problem is that what they possess in willingness to feed the vegetarian crowd (I use the word crowd loosely) they lack in creativity.
Whether you have gone through years of culinary training or worked your way up from dish washer, if you are going to call yourself a “chef” you need to be able to make at least one good vegetarian dish. As a reality food show junky, nothing gets my blood boiling quite like these self-declared “chefs” who crumble at the very thought of cooking without meat. It seams that in most streams of North American and European cooking schools, they are taught that every dish is build around the meat element. What pushes me into blind rage is the fact that they insist on calling it “a protein” and so if not able to start with “a protein”, they cannot build a dish. Guess what “chefs”? There are other sources of protein and millions of vegetarians who are able to whip up tasty and well presented dishes without needed to slaughter something first. Just saying. Maybe you are not the chef that your little white coat implies if a simple veggie meal is your culinary weak link.
Outside of the world of reality TV, things don’t really get much better. Throughout the restaurant world, menus are built around meats and the vegetarian option is an add on to avoid complaints in North American and European cooking. I think that is it completely possible that all of the restaurant owners and cooks got together and decided that they would put one vegetarian dish on the menu and if everyone chose the same dish, then the vegetarians wouldn’t get upset. What did they choose? The mushroom risotto.
If I want a really good veggie meal, I head down the Ethnic route. Ethiopian, Indian and Mexican (watch the beans for lard) are excellent sources of quality vegetarian and vegan fare. They are often cheap and filling and prove that slapping a steak on something does not necessarily make it better. These cultures are masters of the pulses and build their dishes around those and not the mainstream “protein”.
So why the mushroom risotto? Risotto can be notoriously hard to make right and takes time. I can understand serving it in an Italian restaurant but why is the this the go to option for everyone else? It is rarely all that good. I fancy myself a bit of a mushroom risotto Goldie Locks. I have probably had dozens now and they are always either too soft, too firm, too crunchy, too glutinous or just plain barely edible. All in all, it is simply a bore!
A couple of years ago, I was watching Chef Michael Smith (you know, the tall Canadian guy) and he was getting ready to make risotto. As I hunted around for the remote to change the channel I heard him say something interesting. He was asking why we always need to add rice. Why not try another grain?
What was this? Another grain? He went for barley and changed my relationship with the risotto for ever. The truth is that you can make risotto out of almost any grain. i still takes the time and patience but it is well worth the wait. Faro, other rices and millet all work but my favorite is barley and quinoa. This is a hearty and healthy risotto. You absolutely do not need to add mushrooms to this either. Pumpkin is an awesome option. Play around with the flavors and your grain combinations to create your perfect comfort food. For the ovo-lactos out there, I grate some cheese into the risotto before serving and on top to add another detention of salt and gooeyness.
Mushroom Barley Risotto
- 5c Mushroom stock (or vegetable stock)
- 1 Onion chopped
- 3 cloves of Garlic chopped
- 1 Bay Leaf
- 1/2tsp white pepper
- 1tbsp rosemary chopped (or any earthy herb that you like)
- 2tbsp olive oil
- 1c assorted mushrooms chopped
- 1/2c white wine (whatever you are drinking)
- 1 1/4c pearl barley
- 1/4c quinoa
- 1/2c frozen peas
- 1/2c grated Parmesan cheese
- salt to taste
- In a medium saucepan, bring your stock to a low simmer.
- In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil add in the onions, garlic, white pepper and bay leaf. Saute on medium for 2 minutes until the onions are beginning to become translucent.
- Add in the mushrooms and the rosemary and continue to cook until the mushrooms release some juices and begin to soften. This should take about 5 minutes.
- Add in the barley and the quinoa and cook for 2 minutes stirring continuously.
- Add in the wine and stir until evaporated.
- Begin to ladle in some stock one ladle full at a time stirring until evaporated. Continue to add more stock and stir until the barley is cooked. This generally takes about 40 minutes but does vary.
- Once the barley is cooked, stir in the frozen peas and remove from the heat.
- After the peas have heated through, add in the grated parmesan and stir through.
- Serve with a sprinkling of cheese.
- You might need more stock if you run out before the barley is cooked. It is ok to add more or less depending on your grains.
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I made a batch of this the other night for the parents (who are still in shock over my decision to give up meat 18 years ago) and it was a hit. I will admit that I grilled a rare steak and served it on to for my Dad because some habits die hard.