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Mushroom Risorzotto
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Mushroom Risorzotto

Today's culinary invention might not rank up there with the telegraph or the computer as a new development that changes our way of life, but it made for a mighty tasty dinner the other night, and that's not a bad thing.

Speaking just among us "foodies," I thought it might be worth a paragraph or two to briefly trace the evolution of this simple dish, idly hoping that examining how the creative process works might somehow help us get better about replicating it.

The dish is simple enough, but it boasts a new twist: Call it a "Risorzotto," it's a risotto-like preparation, a shotgun marriage between risotto (made with rice) and the Friuliano orzotto (made with barley), featuring both grains in a mix that adds an extra dimension of both texture and flavor. The rice comes out soft and creamy, the barley tender but a bit more chewy; and the barley's earthy, roasty flavors pump up the more delicate taste of rice.

The concept took a two-year-long double bounce from Northern Italy to home, with an assist from Japan: I first encountered orzotto (barley risotto) in March 2000 at Trattoria Mario, a friendly little restaurant in the village of Prepotto in Friuli's Colli Orientali. I brought that notion home, tucked in the back of my head, then rediscovered it a few months later in Fred Plotkin's excellent Friuli cookbook, "La Terra Fortunata."

Then, just the other night, watching Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto at work on FoodTV, I spotted him tossing barley and sushi rice together in a side dish with fresh porcini. "Bam!" I thought. "There's an idea! Why not use that combination in a risotto?"

The rest followed simply: Approaching autumn makes me think of mushrooms, and their earthiness seemed like a natural with barley and rice. Moreover, I like to play around with using mushrooms in vegetarian dishes because their robust flavors tend to make meatless dishes that go particularly well with red wine. (In fact, this dish turned out "vegan," featuring no meat, animal or dairy products, although it would be a trivial matter to adapt it with cheese, butter or even sausage or other meat if you're feeling omnivorous.)

The procedure isn't much more complicated than making risotto (a favorite that I covered in detail in our first FoodLetter on Jan 24, with variations on Feb. 11 and Aug. 22), once I addressed the pesky reality that barley takes about twice as long to cook as rice. Even so, the entire dish needed only about an hour to pull together, and I expect it would go a bit more quickly on a second try.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

1 1/2 oz. barley (Don't use the "instant" variety)
2 1/2 oz. Arborio rice (or other risotto rice)
1/4 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
3 tablespoons olive oil
8 oz. fresh white or brown mushrooms or a combination
1/2 medium yellow onion
1 or 2 cloves garlic
1/2 red bell pepper
Bay leaf
Water (or vegetable stock)


1. Soak the dried mushrooms in 2 cups hot water for 20 minutes, then remove from the water, rinse to remove any sand or grit, and cut into large pieces. Reserve the soaking water, pouring it through a strainer lined with paper towels or cheesecloth to trap any sediment.

2. While the mushrooms are soaking, bring 1 1/2 cups lightly salted water to the boil and simmer the barley grains for 15 to 20 minutes. This gives the barley the "head start" it needs so it will be finished at the same time as the rice. Drain the barley thoroughly, put it in a small bowl, and toss with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil so every grain is coated.

3. Rinse and dry the fresh mushrooms. (Wipe them clean if you buy the notion that water washes out their flavors. Personally, when I consider that some mushrooms grow in a medium of manure and that I have never found any real evidence that rinsing does any harm, I use plenty of H2O.) Chop them into thick slices. Mince the garlic, chop the onions, and dice the red bell pepper, cutting sections of it into long strips and then slicing the strips crosswise to make small squares.

4. From this point, the process is essentially the same as for a standard risotto. (See
if you need a refresher course.) Put a large pot of water (or vegetable broth if you prefer) on a back burner and bring it to a simmer. Heat the reserved and strained mushroom liquid in another pot. Put the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a heavy saucepan on the burner in front of the water and heat until the oil is hot and aromatic but not starting to smoke. Reduce heat to medium, put in the chopped onions and minced garlic, and sautee until they are translucent but not brown. Add the red diced red bell pepper and stir briefly; then put in the sliced white or brown mushrooms. (Hold the porcini - they come a bit later.) Reduce heat to medium, cover the pan tightly, and leave to "sweat" the mushrooms for a few minutes until they start to cook down and give up their juices.

Remove the lid and stir in the barley, then the rice. Stir constantly until the grains look dry and just start to toast. Add the reconstituted porcini, the bay leaf, and about 1/2 cup of hot water from the back pot, stirring constantly; stir until most of it is absorbed, then continue adding water in small portions, stirring and adding more water as needed, as in the standard risotto procedure. After about 10 minutes, start using the reserved mushroom liquid in place of the water. If it runs out before the dish is quite done, resume using water as needed.

This completes the dish, although as noted, if you don't have philosophical reasons for making this dish vegan-style, it could certainly be enriched with a bit of butter and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese stirred in at the end. And of course this barley-first-then-rice process could be introduced to just about any risotto recipe you can imagine. If you experiment with it, please let me know how it goes!

WINE MATCH: Wild mushroom dishes usually make me think of a Pinot, but we were briefly Pinot-impaired, so my next choice - a fruity, peppery Chateau de Segries 2000 Lirac from the Southern Rhone fully passed muster instead. In fact, I think just about any Syrah, Shiraz or Syrah/Grenache/Mourvedre blend from the Rhone, California or Australia would be excellent with this dish, as long as you avoid the huge, blockbuster style.

Let us hear from you!

If you have suggestions or comments about The 30 Second Wine Advisor's FoodLetter, or if you would like to suggest a topic for a coming edition and recipe, please drop me a note. I really enjoy hearing from you, and I try to give a personal reply to all mail if I possibly can. The Ask A Question form at
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Thursday, Oct. 3, 2002
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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