Barley Risotto with Pumpkin + Fennel

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Risotto is all at once simple and complex. It never ceases to amaze me how a few humble ingredients and some therapeutic stirring can result in something so rich and decadent. You can also create so many different versions of this dish, as it is easily adaptable to what's in season and on hand, and can be made with just about any grain.

Risottos often appear on our table on chilly weekday evenings, when there hasn't been time to prepare a slow roast or stew, but the body craves something warm and comforting.

Here, I've used some hearty barley for my grain, along with fragrant fennel and a deep orange pumpkin from the garden which has just come into season. I stir in an herb-packed sauce moments before serving, a method inspired by a dish I had at a Local is Lovely workshop in the Blue Mountains last year. In doing so at the end, you add a zesty brightness to the gentle creaminess of the risotto. If you like, reserve the seeds from the pumpkin and roast them in salt and paprika for an additional crunchy garnish. 


Barley Risotto with Pumpkin + Fennel

1 small pumpkin, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 2 1/2 pounds), seeds reserved if desired

8 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 teaspoon salt, divided

1/2 teaspoon pepper, divided

1 bulb fennel, trimmed and diced, fronds reserved

2 stalks celery, diced, leaves reserved

1/2 cup watercress

1/4 cup parsley

2 tablespoons basil

1 tablespoon dill

1 tablespoon thyme leaves

1 tablespoon rosemary leaves

2 sage leaves

1 tablespoon capers

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 cups barley

1 cup dry white wine

8 cups chicken or vegetable broth, warmed in a stockpot

1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano

Pumpkin seeds, toasted (optional) 

Preheat oven to 400°F.

On a baking sheet, toss pumpkin in 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Roast until pumpkin is tender, about 20 minutes, stirring halfway through.

Meanwhile, make the herb sauce:  In a food processor or blender, purée fennel fronds, celery leaves, watercress, parsley, basil, dill, thyme, rosemary, sage, capers, lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, and remaining 6 tablespoons olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper until smooth. Set aside.

In a large stockpot over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon butter. Add onion, garlic, fennel and celery. Sauté until soft and translucent, 5-7 minutes. Add barley. Stir until fragrant, 5 minutes. Add wine, stirring until barley absorbs wine. Add 1 ladleful of broth. Cook, stirring frequently, until barley has absorbed broth. Continue this process, 1 ladleful at a time, until barley is cooked, risotto is thick, and all of the broth has been absorbed, 25-30 minutes. 

Remove from heat. Stir in pumpkin, Parmigiano Reggiano and remaining 1 tablespoon butter. Divide risotto amongst bowls, drizzle evenly with herb sauce, and serve immediately.

Serves 4-6