Risotto has long been one of my favourite meals to make, this may seem unusual due to its reputation as an especially fiddly and tricky dish. Nevertheless, its propensity to be a vehicle for copious amounts of cheese attracted our attention and it became one of the staple meals in our piling-on-the-pounds freshers diet. Whether it was cooking or cheese that initially brought us eating together in halls remains ambiguous; traipsing across the quad clutching our onions and pans formed the foundations for our friendships. The ritual of cooking and eating with friends or family is of great importance, no matter how simple the meal. Sitting down to eat together brings the day to a close and creates a bond with those you share it with, it is one of the oldest human traditions. Food has become something functional in our lives, we need to keep in touch with the enjoyment of cooking for each other. Looking forward to a group evening meal encourages more thought to go into cooking, as it becomes more enjoyable it becomes easier to plan ingredients and to eat a balanced diet.
Making mushroom risotto did come to a rather messy end when it ended up covering the walls of a grotty toilet in Blue Mountain, Deej has refused to eat it since. Anyway, since then many different risottos have been made (fewer of them mushroom), up until we all became slightly more health conscious and cut down on our nightly carb and cheese meals. It’s the kind of meal which would be okay if you ate a sensible portion size, but it is also very easy to overestimate the amount of ingredients needed, resulting in forks attacking the pan full of leftovers and severe bloating. Good things did come out from all that cheesy mess, I eventually transformed my risotto making from something which resembled wallpaper paste to creating my own lighter recipes. The wonderful thing about using barley is that it is a rotation crop which farmers have to grow in order to organically farm wheat, supporting the symbiotic relationships between crops and the soil. Creating a demand for rotation crops incentivizes famers to grow crops organically.
Having read Plenty rather a few times I was aware of Ottolenghi’s burnt aubergine technique and thought that the soft, smokey insides would be the perfect supplement to copious amounts of butter. I also liked the idea of the rice (or barley) becoming inseparable from the aubergine. In his recipe Ottolenghi instructs to burn one of the aubergines under a hot grill for an hour and then fry the other in chunks. He also uses lemon and basil to compliment his flavours. I decided to do a herb test with sage, basil, mint, parsley and dill to determine which worked best. Sage overwhelmed the smokey flavour, dill and basil were light but I found the flavours too strong, a balanced combination of mint and parsley complimented the flavour beautifully. Like many of his recipes (and mine) this is a bit of a faff but there are a few ways to simplify it which I will detail.
250g pearl barley, soaked over night
2 large aubergines, cut in to 2cm chunks if frying, or 5mm slices if griddling
1 white onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled
juice of a lemon, zest of half
a mixed handful of mint and parsley leaves, chopped finely
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
knob of butter
1 stick celery
couple of bay leaves
1 small onion
2 cloves of garlic, peeled
a few sprigs of thyme
Cover the barley with cold water and leave in a bowl to soak over night, this reduces the cooking time. About an hour before you want to eat, pierce one of the aubergines all over and place under a hot grill to blacken and blister. After 50 minutes take out the burnt aubergine, remove the top, slit it from top to bottom and carefully scoop out the buttery fleshy insides and leave to stand in a colander whist you are preparing the rest of the risotto, this gives it a delicious smokey flavour.
Meanwhile make the stock, this is well worth it for the flavour of the risotto, although you can just use 2 veg stock cubes dissolved in 1l of boiling water. Put on a big pan of water and add the carrot, celery and onion chopped roughly into very big chunks (roughly third them). Add the cloves of garlic, bay and thyme. Cover and leave to simmer for 20 mins before beginning the other steps but leave on a low heat throughout the cooking time.
After the stock flavours have had time to intensify, melt the butter in a large non stick pan or wok set over a medium heat. Simultaneously, add half the olive oil to a frying pan or griddle pan set over a medium heat and add the aubergine. Use chunks if frying and slices if griddling. (Griddling is slightly more time consuming as you may have to do the slices in batches).
Add the remaining olive oil and the finely diced onion to the melted butter and soften for around 5 minutes. Crush the garlic into the pan and cook for a further couple of minutes. Turn the heat up a notch and add the drained pearl barley, stirring constantly for a minute to coat it in oil before you begin to ladle in the stock.
Adding the perfect amount of stock to a risotto is very particular, you want to aim to add around 1l. The best way to do it is to judge by eye, adding a ladle full at a time and allowing the pan to dry off before adding another, continually tasting the risotto. After ladle 4 or 5 you want to be paying closer attention, barley is hard to over cook (unlike rice) so the process becomes much easier. You also need to time it so that the fried aubergine and risotto are ready at roughly the same time so adjust the hobs accordingly. Once your stock pan is nearly empty, the barley tastes tender and your risotto has thickened and reduced add the drained aubergine flesh, zest and juice of the lemon, half the chopped herbs and half of the parmesan. Stir well to combine and serve into shallow bowls. Divide the fried aubergine chunks/slices between the servings and scatter the remaining herbs and parmesan over each.