Pearled spelt and pearl barley lend themselves extremely well to long, slow risotto-cooking. When cooked they become lush and creamy, and their earthy, nutty flavour pairs brilliantly with the flavours of the autumn: mushrooms, sweet potatoes and winter squash. This recipe uses squash but you could substitute for any similar earthy ingredient and it makes for a simple yet delicious meal for a winter evening; it does take a little time, but some things are worth the wait and this is one of them.
I cannot stress enough the importance of a good stock for this dish (or any risotto-type dish for that matter). Your stock will be taken up by the grains as they expand and lend them its flavour; get your stock right and you will end up with a dish that will taste as if it has been made by a seasoned professional. Seriously.
This is easily adapted for vegans, simply omit the butter and Parmesan.
RECIPE – serves 3
500g of butternut or other winter squash, cut into 1cm cubes
1000 ml vegetable stock
20g unsalted butter
1 tbsp rapeseed oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
300g pearled spelt or pearl barley
a small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
50g Parmesan, finely grated
1/2 of a nutmeg, finely grated
a few good handfuls of baby leaf spinach
Heat the oven to 200°C/ fan 180°C/ Gas 6.
Tip your cubed squash onto a roasting tray and drizzle a couple of tablespoons of olive or rapeseed oil over it together with a good pinch of sea salt. Using your hands, ensure that every surface of every piece of squash has a fine film of oil, then spread the pieces out evenly across the roasting tray. Do not crowd your tray, leave a little space between each piece of vegetable and in a single layer, otherwise some pieces will steam rather than roast. Roasting drives out some of the moisture in the vegetable, intensifying the flavour in a way that steaming does not. The oil coating protects the vegetable from the dry heat and delays caramelisation until the vegetable is soft, the caramelisation also adds an essential layer of extra flavour. Roast for between 45 and 60 minutes, then set aside until needed.
Heat your stock in a suitable pan until it is just simmering. Keep it at that point throughout the cooking time.
Melt the butter with the oil in a large risotto pan or deep-sided frying pan over a medium-low heat. Add the onions and fry gently until they are softened, about ten minutes. Add the crushed garlic and cook for a minute more, then add the pearled spelt or barley and stir thoroughly until every grain is slick with oil. Turn the heat up and add the vermouth; let it bubble for a minute or so until the alcohol has burned off then add a ladleful of hot stock to the pan, stir thoroughly and bring the heat right down to a gentle simmer.
If your risotto is cooked at too high a temperature the stock will simply evaporate, whereas you want it to be able to penetrate through the grain. The ideal temperature is just short of boiling point; if your stock went in cold it would leave the dish too cool and always trying to catch up with the heat.
Add more stock to the pan when the liquid has been absorbed and the grains are in danger of catching; keep on adding the stock, a little at a time, until the grains are tender but with a good ‘bite’ – this is very much a personal thing but it is hard to accidentally overcook these grains. Pearled spelt will take around 30 minutes to cook, pearl barley will take closer to 40 minutes on average.
When the grain is cooked, stir the roasted squash through the pan and add the parsley, nutmeg and Parmesan. Stir until thoroughly combined and then season carefully before adding the spinach and allowing it to wilt into the pan.
Serve with a crisp green salad dressed with a good squeeze of lemon juice; the acidity of the lemon cuts through the earthy nuttiness of the speltotto and each enhances the other.