To the radishes, first of spring

Sometimes, I don't know quite what to do—with you. You are always the first to the markets; you show up all pink and fresh and new, beguiling in your white-pink-green candy-cane suits. I pick you up and bring you home—thrilled, delighted with my haul—and then, like a new parent (I imagine, that is), I look at you beaming and proud and in love, but a little bit bewildered, too.

I like you on toast, I know that—shaved and crisp, layered with baguette and cold ribbons of butter, flakes of sea salt. You are fine on salads, although I miss you sometimes caught up a in crouton-pickled-beet-crumbled-cheese bite. Still you are there, present, bright. And then the ideas end. Radishes? Thank goodness for the Internet.

I find you online, cut into matchsticks, tossed with vinegar and oil and chives and salt, served over a warm spring risotto of Pecorino and rice. I leave you in and change the Arborio out; barley, I've heard, can make just as creamy and rich a pot. The barley from our CSA is not quite right—hulled, not pearled—but with a strong and patient arm, it lets go eventually. I stir in cheese, herbs, lemon juice, and then it's your turn. I serve myself a bowl, and sprinkle you on top.

We sit down to the table: you fresh and pink and new, and me hungry, grateful, ready to spoon you up.


This recipe is the product of three inspirations. The radish dressing was inspired by a recipe for Romano Risotto with Radishes from Gourmet, September 2009. The most recent issue of Cook's Illustrated provided the method (Almost Hands Free Risotto), and the idea to substitute barley for Arborio rice came from a 2007 101 Cookbooks post on Meyer Lemon Risotto made with pearled barley. Since the barley from our grain CSA is only hulled, not pearled, I wasn't sure it would cream up the way it should, but I decided to try anyway. The result was a little more stirring than I'd bargained for, but well worth the work. If you use pearled barley, your barley should soften faster and you'll be able to cut down on the stirring time at the end.

The nice thing about this recipe is that although it does require some legwork at the beginning and end, it gives you a solid 30-minute break in the middle to get the kitchen all cleaned up and the table set. That way, when the risotto finally is ready, you can sit right down to eat.

for the barley risotto:
5 cups low-sodium chicken stock
1 and 1/2 cups water
4 tablespoons butter, divided
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups barley, hulled or pearled (see headnote)
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup coarsely grated Pecorino, Piave, or Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon lemon juice

for the dressed radishes:
1 pound trimmed radishes, cut into matchsticks
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives
optional: torn basil

Combine the stock and water in a large pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Cover and turn the heat down to a simmer.

Warm up half the butter in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. When it's melted, add the onion and salt. Sauté, stirring frequently, for 3-5 minutes, or until the onions are softened but not browned. Add the garlic and sauté, stirring constantly, for about 30 seconds, or until it starts to get fragrant. Pour in the barley and cook, stirring frequently, for 3 minutes.

Pour in the wine and cook, stirring constantly, until it is all absorbed. This should take about 3 minutes. Pour in 5 cups of the hot broth and water mixture and turn the heat down to medium-low. Cover, set your timer for 40 minutes, and—stirring every ten minutes or so—simmer until almost all the liquid has been absorbed and the barley is just al dente.

Add another 3/4 cup of the hot broth and water mixture and stir until almost all the liquid has been absorbed, about 10 minutes. The barley should be starting to get creamy. Add the remaining 3/4 cup liquid and cook, stirring constantly, for another 10 minutes, or until all the liquid is absorbed and the barley is cooked through and creamy. Turn off the heat, stir in the cheese, cover, and let sit for 5 minutes.

Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and the lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot, with the dressed radishes on top.

Note: To reheat this risotto on the stove top, simply put it in a heavy-bottomed pot with a splash of milk or cream.

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All text, photographs, and other original material copyright 2008-2010 by Elspeth Hay unless otherwise noted.