This is a rich and warming autumnal dish that, with a British twist, uses pearl barley instead of risotto rice, giving it a nutty flavor and a bit of a nutritional boost, too. Buy pearl barley, which has been “polished” to remove all the bran, giving you lovely pearly-colored grains.
It may be a bit of a culinary cliché, but wild mushrooms really do make for a fantastic risotto, especially at this time of year when they are abundant. A rather large caveat though: never pick and eat mushrooms unless you are absolutely certain that they aren’t poisonous. Go with a seriously experienced forager or buy them from a market. Although the idea of strolling through woodland picking my dinner appeals, I confess I got these ones from a specialist stall on Borough Market, so I know they are safe to eat.
Roasting the garlic adds a deep, rich flavor to the risotto, and although turning the oven on, too, may seem like a bit of extra effort, it’s absolutely worth it. You could probably deepen the flavor a little further by using chicken (preferably homemade) stock rather than vegetable stock, but I have tried to keep this as a good vegetarian option. Saying this, true Parmesan is not actually vegetarian as it uses an animal rennet starter, so if you are cooking for strict veggies, go for one of the “Parmesan-style” hard cheeses that you can find in larger supermarkets and health food stores.
Like the classic rice based risotto, the barley doesn’t really reheat well, so this is definitely best served fresh from the pan with mountains of extra grated cheese for sprinkling.
1 large garlic bulb
1 tablespoon rapeseed/canola or olive oil, plus a drizzle for the garlic
20g/1/3oz/2/3 cup dried porcini mushrooms
1 litre/35fl oz/4¼ cups vegetable or chicken stock, plus extra if needed
80g/2¾oz/5½ tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
300g/10½oz/1½ cups pearl barley
leaves stripped from 3 sprigs of fresh thyme
200ml/7fl oz/generous ¾ cup white wine
400g/14oz fresh wild mushrooms
50g/1¾oz/2/3 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus plenty more to serve
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 190ºC/375ºF/Gas 5.
Put the whole garlic bulb on a small sheet of foil and drizzle with a little oil. Wrap the foil around the garlic and roast in the oven for about 40 minutes until the flesh is soft and caramelized. Leave to cool.
Meanwhile, put the dried porcini in a bowl and cover with 200ml/7fl oz/ generous ¾ cup boiling water. Leave to soak for 5 minutes, then drain through a fine-mesh sieve reserving the liquid. Chop the porcini roughly and leave to one side with the soaking liquid.
Put the stock in a saucepan and bring it to a gentle simmer.
Heat 30g/1oz/2 tablespoons of the butter and the oil in a separate large saucepan over a low–medium heat, add the onions and gently simmer for about 10 minutes until they are well cooked, but not colored. Add the barley, chopped dried mushrooms and thyme leaves to the pan and stir to coat in the oil, then add the white wine and cook until it is almost all absorbed by the barley.
Add the mushroom soaking water and cook until the barley has absorbed that, then begin adding the stock. Pour in a ladelful of the hot stock and cook until the liquid is almost absorbed, and then add another ladle, stirring the mixture regularly as you go. By the time all the stock is added, the barley should be soft with just a little bite, but if not, keep adding a little more stock until the barley is cooked al dente.
While the barley is cooking slowly, prepare the fresh mushrooms. Chop them into chunky pieces as they will shrink more as they cook and you want quite large pieces in the risotto.
Use the remaining 50g/1¾oz/3½ tablespoons butter to fry the fresh mushrooms in a frying pan until softened and golden. You will need to do this in batches, adding a little of the butter and a few of the mushrooms each time, as if you overcrowd the pan they will sweat and go soggy rather than browning nicely.
Squeeze the roasted garlic flesh out of its skin and stir it into the cooked barley, followed by the freshly cooked mushrooms and the Parmesan cheese. Taste and season, then serve immediately with extra Parmesan for sprinkling.