Beet and Barley Risotto

Waking up Saturday morning, my heavy eyes flickering open to the new day’s light, I saw a glow through my window. No, it wasn’t the brightening orange of crisp autumn like a warm filter in my windowpane. It was something a little more…unexpected. I woke up to a blinding whiteness that casts iridescent glimmers across my walls. A frosty fogginess not much unlike the way heaven might feel. It was the morning light reflecting off a fresh 5 inches of snow. Yes, in Virginia we had snow in October, a sight I have never seen in 21 years of my life.

It ruined the Halloween plans of many yet caused a sudden bout of holiday spirit and I embarrassingly found myself humming Christmas music throughout the day. It was a day to wrap up in a blanket, sip a warm cup of tea, and cuddle up with the heater vent like it’s our last day on earth together. But above all it was a day where baking cookies was absolutely necessary and long, slow comfort food a must. It would have been a good day for something like this beet and barley risotto.

I like to think of this dish as the perfect way to celebrate the first frost. It uses up the very last of late summer beets and incorporates that fresh flavor before winter comes along and we are stuck in the long days of meat, beans, and potatoes. Yet its warmth, richness, and creaminess are comforting enough to take off a serious chill.

It’s as simple as any other risotto. While the beets idly cook away in the oven, the barley and onions take a nice bubbling bath in wine and stock, slowly soaking up the liquid until swelled and tender. The natural starches lend silkiness without a single addition of cream necessary.  But or course, a fine grating of parmesan cheese, folded and melted within, just adds that little extra touch of gooeyness. And finally, the beets are diced and stirred in, transforming the dish into mass if brilliant rubies. It’s topped with crumbled goat cheese, which melts into the risotto in pockets of tangy, cheesy sauce, and balsamic reduction syrup for a sweet-tart kick.

It’s one of those dishes where I couldn’t wait for leftovers the next day, and the day after that. It has this special way of filling up the heart with love and comfort yet its deceivingly healthy and full of vitamins and protein. It slowly heats you from the outside as you stand over the pot stirring away, loving each and every piece of barley in sight and then from the inside as the warm grains slide down the throat. A first-snow dish for sure.

Beet and Barley Risotto
adapted from imagalicious
serves 4

I know that some people are a little iffy about beets so this could also work with butternut squash. The same goes for the barley; if you prefer risotto with traditional Arborio rice, it’s perfectly fine to use that. My big tip for this dish is to start the beets way ahead of time. You never know how long they’ll take and if they are big like mine were, it could take up to two hours.

2 medium sized beets
1 cup pearl barley, rinsed
1 sweet onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
olive oil
½ cup dry white wine
1 quart vegetable or organic chicken stock
½ cup grated Parmesan
salt and pepper

to serve
balsamic reduction (recipe follows)
goat cheese

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Scrub the outside of the beets under cold water. Dry and rub with olive oil and salt. Place in a foil parcel and bake in the oven for about 90 minutes or until tender all the way through.

Heat the stock to a simmer in a saucepan. In a deep frying pan or pot, heat the olive oil and cook the onion along with a teaspoon each of salt and pepper until soft, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for a minute more. Add in the barley and stir to coat and continue to cook for one more minute. Add the white wine and stir. Once the wine is evaporated, add a few ladlefuls of the warm stock and stir. Let the barley continue to cook over a medium heat, stirring occasionally so that nothing sticks to the bottom. Every time the liquid is fully absorbed and things look dry add a few more ladlefuls of stock until all of the stock runs out. The process will take about 40 minutes.

When the beets are cooked, remove them from the oven and let cool slightly. Remove the skin and dice into fairly small pieces. Add to the risotto along with the Parmesan and stir until everything is bright red. Season with salt and pepper as needed.

To serve, place in a bowl and top with a crumbling of goat cheese and a drizzle of the balsamic reduction.

Balsamic reduction
½ cup balsamic vinegar
1 Tbs. brown sugar

Mix the two ingredients in a sauce pan and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce to a simmer and cook, stirring constantly with a heatproof spatula until reduced by half and syrupy. Remove from the heat. Use right away or store in the refrigerator and reheat as needed.