It’s a tired cliché, I know, but I’ll repeat what everyone else is saying: where did 2017 go? The last couple of months have really whizzed by. I guess (humble brag alert) that’s what happens when you write a book. I’ve been cosseted in a warm blanket of food, writing, photoshoots and (God forbid) my mangled thoughts but now the manuscript is with my publisher and it’s time to re-emerge.
So here is December and all its expectant joy. It’s dark and bleak outside and we’re set to have the coldest winter in years, but the bright lights of Christmas are here until the last box of mince pies lies, half-eaten – usually the day after Boxing Day when everyone’s too full to eat any more.
It’s a funny time of year, isn’t it? Most of us are very lucky that we can eat, drink and be merry for a few days but boy, is the build-up a bit of a palaver. Just this morning, I popped to the supermarket to get some bread and it was heaving with shoppers who were panic buying Christmas puddings and sprouts like they were going out of fashion.
I like to take a more relaxed approach to the festive season, and I won’t be buying presents or tucking into festive fare for a while yet. In fact, after cooking (and eating) my way through an entire cookbook, I want more of the same – food that’s simple, wholesome and full of flavour. It also needs warmth and a pinch of punchiness to brighten up these long and dark evenings so this week, I’ll turn to this pearl barley risotto which features in the book.
Pearl barley is full of fibre and has a nuttier texture and taste than risotto rice, plus it’s much cheaper. The mushrooms are reassuringly soft and velvety and the lemon and thyme add a nice bit of zing. This won’t take you long to cook and the occasional stirring can be rather meditative, especially after a taxing day at work – or even worse, Christmas shopping.
You’ll notice that this risotto looks exceptionally nice, which is thanks to Manon Houston who took all the photos for the book. Manon’s a fantastic food photographer and stylist and she’s super lovely, too. You can check out her website here.
Pearl barley risotto with mushrooms and thyme
200g pearl barley
100g mushrooms, sliced
100ml white wine
500ml vegetable stock
2 shallots, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 small carrot, peeled and diced
1 celery stalk, ends removed and diced
5-6 sprigs of thyme
The juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp olive oil
50g pine nuts
Heat the oil in a large pan, then add the shallots, carrot and celery and sauté for 3 minutes. Add the garlic and thyme and cook for a further 2 minutes. Add the pearl barley to the pan with the white wine. Mix well, coating each grain in oil – add a little extra if necessary. Add the mushrooms and cook the mixture for another 2-3 minutes. Add a ladleful of the hot stock to the pearl barley and stir well. Bring to a simmer as the liquid is absorbed by the rice. Continue adding more stock, a ladleful at a time, letting the pearl barley absorb it gradually; do this for about 15-20 minutes, until the pearl barley is soft.
Add the lemon juice, black pepper and pine nuts and serve with green vegetables or on its own. Squeeze over some more lemon juice and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, if you like.