Falling for Risotto
By Cheryl Forberg, RD
Many people choose to follow restrictive eating plans these days, whether it’s to lose weight or to restrict certain nutrients (such as carbohydrates) or a specific compound (such as the gluten protein) from their diets. For that reason, I tend to not write about grains as frequently as I used to. But with Autumn around the corner, satisfying comfort food dishes come to mind, and today I would like to share an old recipe for a perfect Fall meal.
Whole grains have sustained families and civilizations, as a familiar and comforting common thread. But in recent history, they've fallen from favor. It's no wonder, since we're deluged with choices that are tasty, fast, and economical. But "fast" is usually a dead giveaway for a grain that is refined. And though refining pares back preparation time, it also peels away the most valuable parts of a whole grain.
Grains do lack the vibrant colors that proclaim the phytochemical bounty of many fruits and vegetables. Berries, citrus, and grapes are the pipeline to polyphenols. Yellow- and red-hued fruits and vegetables are the gateway to carotenoids. And phytosterols, the cholesterol-clones, are found in avocados, soy, nuts, and seeds. But the truth about whole grains is this -- they have all three. This translates to a versatile array of choices that are not only rich in protein, complex carbohydrates and fiber. Their antioxidant activity is on par with many fruits, and exceeds most vegetables.
It's true that some whole grains take longer to cook than their refined, less nutritious counterparts. But here are a few quick ways to spike your whole grain intake while enjoying a lingering fullness. The extra cooking time will be well worth the wait.
Toast your oats! Substituting toasted oats in your favorite oat recipes imparts a nutty richness. Spread oats on a baking sheet for about 10 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, stirring halfway.
Toss a handful of dry bulgur into your next pot of soup. It delivers a subtle thickening quality while adding chewy texture to every bite.
Whole-wheat couscous is widely available as a sweet or savory starch choice. It takes the same amount of time (5 minutes) to cook as refined couscous, with more than triple the fiber.
Here is one of my favorite whole grain recipes, Barley Risotto with Wilted Greens. I used to make this recipe every day, when I worked for Wolfgang Puck at Postrio restaurant in San Francisco. This is a lighter version, though you can turn it into a main course by stirring in roasted chicken or turkey at the end. Do not use pearl barley, which is more refined and cooks very quickly.
Barley Risotto with Wilted Greens
Makes 6 side dish servings
1 tablespoon olive oil or grapeseed oil
1 cup finely chopped yellow onion
1/2 cup finely chopped carrot
1/4 cup finely chopped celery
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1/4 cup white wine
1 cup hulled barley
3 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried)
4 cups baby spinach leaves or torn leafy greens, such as kale, Swiss chard or arugula
½ cup freshly grated Romano cheese (optional)
Salt and ground black pepper
Heat the oil in a shallow 3-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft. Pour in the wine and cook, stirring constantly, until the liquid is completely absorbed. Add the barley and stir well.
Carefully pour in 2 cups of the broth and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the liquid is absorbed, stirring frequently. This will take about 10 minutes. Add the thyme and the remaining 1½ cups broth. Turn up heat until the broth comes to a boil, then reduce the heat to low. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the barley is tender but still al dente. Stir in the greens.
Remove from the heat and let sit for a minute or two until the greens wilt. For a brothier risotto, add extra broth or hot water. Add the cheese, if desired. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.
BARLEY FACTOID: Hulled barley, also known as barley groats, is the least processed form of the grain. Only the outermost hull is removed, unlike pearl barley, which is stripped of both the hull and the nutritious bran layer. Hulled barley takes slightly longer to cook but has more texture, fiber, and antioxidants.