A healthy barley risotto recipe with a creamy cauliflower sauce and tangy tomatoes. A comforting, nutritious vegan dinner.
I love risotto, but a recent move towards eating more whole grains had started to make this comforting dish look less appealing. I have been reading Michael Pollan’s In Defence of Food which strongly emphasises the importance of eating foods that have been as minimally processed as possible. The arguments in favour of whole foods are convincing. I have been making almost all my food from scratch for a few years now, but have still been using refined carbohydrates in the ingredients. Reading about how much of the nutrition has been stripped from these ingredients (even if I always kind of knew this was happening) was sobering. So whole grains it is.
I recently ate barley risotto in a restaurant, but with so many other delicious things to cook, I hadn’t quite got round to trying it out. Until now that is.
I knew that barley would make this dish more nutritious. What I was not expecting was that it would make it more delicious. Cooked like this, barley is not only creamy, it also has some bite – very welcome texture in a dish that sometimes feels a little mushy.
A quick flick through some recipes to get an idea of this dish’s process revealed something exciting – barley risotto does not need to be stirred! Now I personally quite enjoy standing over a pot, adding bits here and there, stirring away, but freeing up time in the kitchen means I have more time to make exciting things to go with it, so I wasn’t going to complain.
I was hoping to find a standard liquid to barley ratio during my research, but this task proved fruitless. Almost every recipe I looked at suggested a different volume ratio – from 1 barley to between 2 and 8 liquid! Very helpful! So I experimented, and settled on 1/3.5 for this recipe. Even accepting the fact that different people like their risotto different ways, I cannot understand this disparity – can anyone shed any light on this?
My ratio was enough to cook the barley, with the cauliflower added at the end to loosen it up and make it more creamy. I used one of my favourite cauliflower preparations in this dish – chopped fine and boiled in just enough water and for just enough time to make it tender, then blended to a purée. This flexible, amazingly creamy liquid has so many applications (see it utilised in a fabulously healthy soup here). It can be stirred into many a dish and almost undetectably will add fantastic nutrition and silky, dairy-free creaminess.
This risotto doesn’t really taste like cauliflower. The chilli and tomato flavours come through much more. This may be a positive if you are trying to sneak vegetables past a reluctant family member or guest. If you’re a real cauliflower enthusiast, however, some roasted and sprinkled on top would be fab. Cauliflower enthusiasts may also like to check out my dedicated Pinterest board here.
I have also eaten this with juicy garlic mushrooms spooned over. A recipe for this is on it’s way once I work out how to photograph this drab-looking, but freakin’ yummy, kitchen staple.
This dish is completely vegan, but you will see from the picture that I couldn’t quite resist adding a little feta on top. Oh cheese, how I love you through my guilt.
Barley risotto with cauliflower
- 1 head c. 600g head cauliflower
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium onion diced 1cm
- 4 cloves garlic crushed
- 10 sun-dried tomatoes chopped small
- 2 hot red chillies chopped fine
- 250 g pot barley
- 1 small glass drinkable white wine
- 2 teaspoons homemade vegetable stock paste or 2 stock cubes
- salt and pepper to taste
- Chop the cauliflower into small pieces (c. 1cm) - there is no need to cut it into florets before you do this. Put in a saucepan and add enough water to just cover. Season with salt (I used about 1/2 teaspoon). Bring to the boil, turn down to a simmer and cook, covered, for 10 minutes - any longer and the cauliflower may start to taste bitter. When the cauliflower is tender, strain and reserve the liquid. Blend the cauliflower to a creamy purée using as much of the liquid as you need to achieve this. Set both the purée and the remaining liquid aside.
- Heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium heat, add the onion and cook for a few minutes until a little softened. Add the crushed garlic, chopped sun-dried tomatoes and chopped chilli and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until everything is softened and fragrant.
- Turn up the heat, add the barley and stir to coat in the oil and aromatics. Cook for a few minutes, stirring frequently. Add the white wine and stir frequently until all the liquid is absorbed.
- While the white wine is being absorbed, measure the cauliflower water into a measuring jug. Add enough extra water to make up about 700ml water.
- Add the cauliflower-water liquid and stock paste/cubes to the pan and bring to the boil. Turn down to a simmer, cover and cook for about 20 minutes. Uncover and cook for a further 20 minutes, or until the barley is tender - it will still be a little firm, but should be fully tender. You may need to stir very occasionally to stop the barley sticking, but you do not need to stir in the same fashion as a normal risotto. You may need to add a little more water during the cooking process, depending on your barley, but bear in mind that you are yet to add the cauliflower purée which will make the final dish more liquidy.
- When the barley is ready, stir in the cauliflower purée and cook for a couple of minutes to fully heat through. If you would still like the risotto to be more soupy, adjust with more water or stock.