Since asparagus showed up at my farmers’ market, the first hour of shopping has turned competitive. Typically mild-mannered customers, crazed by the precious green and purple spears, cast territorial glares as they scout which farmers have got the goods and race to claim their shares. By nine o’clock, not a trace of asparagus remains.
In this dish, fresh asparagus lends its earthy flavor to a spring risotto. Like pasta and stew, risotto is a year-round dish that can be endlessly customized to showcase seasonal flavors. Making risotto with barley is both easier and healthier than using arborio rice, which has been scrubbed clean of nutrients and requires constant stirring.
While mild rice serves as a backdrop for flavors and textures, barley asserts itself: its warm, nutty flavor and chewy texture complement subtle spring vegetables. Pearl barley, the type most commonly found in grocery stores, has been scrubbed of its bran. Hulled barley, which retains its bran, has a nuttier flavor and more fiber, protein, and healthy oils, but you’ll probably have to make a trip to the natural foods store to find it.
Made with whole grain, barley risotto sticks to your ribs. It’s just the thing to warm you up on a cool, rainy spring night.
Leek and Asparagus Barley Risotto
Small bunch asparagus, trimmed and cut into bite-sized pieces (about 1½ cups)
4 Tablespoons olive oil
4 cups sliced and rinsed leeks, white and light green parts only (about 2 medium)
1½ teaspoons chopped garlic
2 ½ teaspoons minced fresh thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried
1 carrot, diced
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 cup barley (pearl or hulled)
½ cup dry white wine
4 cups vegetable broth, or 2 cups broth and 2 cups water
Salt to taste
Steam asparagus 3-4 minutes, until just tender. Rinse under cold water and set aside.
Warm broth (and water, if using) in a small saucepan over low heat. Keep broth warm on a back burner.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large pot over medium heat. Sauté leeks, garlic, and thyme 8-10 minutes, until liquid evaporates and leeks begin to brown lightly.
Add carrot, celery, and barley to pot and stir for three minutes. Add wine and stir frequently until almost evaporated.
Add 2 cups of the broth and stir. Simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes, until broth is absorbed. Add the remaining broth and simmer for 15-18 minutes, until broth is almost absorbed. Add steamed asparagus and stir frequently, until liquid is absorbed and asparagus is heated through.
Remove from heat. Season with salt to taste. Serve with a drizzle of the remaining olive and lemon wedges.
Mary Lake is a writer, teacher, columnist for MF&L, and vegetarian blogger: Mitten Machen