Spring Barley Risotto with Asparagus and Lemon

Before the destruction of the last Temple in 70 CE Shavuot was a harvest festival . For 49 days, between the second night of Pesach and Shavuot, Israelites would bring a portion of barley grain (Omer) from their fields to the Temple to show gratitude to God for bringing the spring rains and a good barley harvest.

Here is a dish that anyone could celebrate with the richness of the barley and cheese brightened with the taste of quickly cooked spring asparagus and fresh lemon zest.

2 ¾ cups vegetable broth, or water and 1 Telma vegetable bouillon cube
1/8 teaspoon saffron threads, slightly crumbled
10 asparagus, tough ends removed
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, diced into ¼ inch dice
2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
1 cup pearled barley
½ cup white wine, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier
½ teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
15 grindings of black pepper, or to taste
Finely grated zest from ½ lemon (about 1 teaspoon)
1-2  tablespoons unsalted butter-optional
½- ¾ cup grated fresh Parrano or Parmesan cheese
¼ cup toasted, slivered almonds (1 tablespoon set aside for garnish)
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1.    Combine the broth and the crushed saffron threads in a 1 quart pot and bring to a simmer.

2.    Meanwhile, remove the tough ends of the asparagus, wash, and cut the stalks on the diagonal into ½ inch pieces reserving 1 ½ inches of the tip.

3.    When liquid is simmering drop in the asparagus stalk pieces and blanch for 2 minutes until bright green and slightly tender.  Remove with a slotted spoon to a small glass bowl. Add the tips to the simmering broth and cook for 1 minute.  Remove from broth and add to the glass bowl. Set aside 5 tips for garnish.  Keep broth warm while you prepare the barley.

4.    Heat a 3 quart saucepan over high heat for 10 seconds.  Add the extra virgin olive oil and heat for 10 seconds.  Add the onion and garlic and reduce heat to medium.  Sauté mixture until onions are slightly golden but do not let garlic burn.

5.    Add the barley and stir to coat with the onion mixture and oil.

6.    Add the wine and stir constantly until the wine is absorbed.  Add all of the simmering broth, stir, and then cover and reduce heat to low.  Stir the barley mixture every 5 minutes or so to prevent sticking and burning.  If all the liquid has been absorbed and the barley appears too hard and/or dry, then add another ¼ cup of water and cook for another 5 minutes.  The barley will be firm, but tender after 30-35 minutes.

7.    Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the salt, pepper and lemon zest until well combined.

8.    Gently mix the butter (if using) and grated cheese into the barley mixture and when evenly distributed and melted add the almonds and the asparagus pieces MINUS  the 5 asparagus tips that were set aside.

9.    Immediately serve the barley risotto in a nice dish garnished with the reserved tablespoon of almonds and the 5 remaining asparagus tips.

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