January is like pushing the reset button on all the bad habits accumulated throughout the year.
For the average Londoner, bad habits start somewhere around June or July, with long Sunday afternoons spent in a beer garden or alongside the Thames, eating fried or roasted meaty things with chips on the side and drinking bottles of wine or pints of lager. Autumn comes, and we start replacing fresh salads with ‘warm’ salads – healthy but calorific and carborific (sure, that can be a word). Festivities continue in the lead up to Christmas and by mid December, there’s a reason to celebrate with a meal or a glass of something sparkly nearly every day. You can hardly fight off all the greasy little canapés washed back with sickly sweet Bucks Fizz, wodges of stilton chased by lashings of port, and seemingly endless tins of nasty Quality Street at every turn. And of course Christmas is simply one massive glut, culminating in the traditional New Years Eve champagne & fois gras. Which is rather appropriate – I suspect our own livers probably don’t look dissimilar by that stage.
But then 1 January comes and a new year.
The reset button is pressed, and we’re all eating superfoods, drinking wheatgrass shots and joining gyms we’ll only be using for the sauna & towel service by April.
Our bowels don’t know WHAT has happened.
Fibre. Liquid Fasts. Detoxes. And those beautiful, highly pigmented superfoods, which we read about from time to time in the Observer and immediately proceed to Waitrose to empty the shelves of red quinoa, sweet potato, spinach or whatever the trendy superfood of the week happens to be. The naturally occurring chemical compounds responsible for all those jewel tones and the other sensual qualities in superfoods, such as colour and smell, are caused by phytochemicals. They’re what give turmeric its fabulous colour and garlic its love-it-or-hate-it smell. Preliminary investigations into phytochemicals indicate there are potential effects on diseases such as cancer, arthritis, diabetes and other illnesses. This, of course, is not really any surprise to anyone who subscribes to naturopathy or a variety of other traditional medicinal beliefs from around the world. I’ll admit – I do love a good evidence base, and look forward to seeing research findings in the coming years. In the meantime, when did good nutrition ever hurt anybody?
So when my Nana asked me to come up with a good recipe using barley, my mind instantly turned to her favoured spice of choice: turmeric. Risotto (or orzotto, as its called when you use barley) is excellent because you can use practically any sturdy grain and flavour it with pretty much anything you like. My recipe below is enough for two generous main courses.
250 g dehulled or pearl barley
2 tsp olive oil
Handful of dried mushrooms soaked in 2 cups boiled water
2 tsp balsamic vinegar
250 ml white wine (optional)
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed or diced
1 Tbs turmeric (optional)
1 tsp dried oregano
Parmesan to taste – I used 3 heaped Tbs for the whole serving (optional)
Fleur de sel & pepper to taste
- In a medium-large saucepan, heat 1 tsp of the olive oil and lightly soften, without browning, the diced onion & garlic. Turn up the heat to med-high and toss in the barley. Give it a quick stir around for 45 seconds or so, until it has absorbed all the oil. If you have any wine sitting about, you can throw it in now (it will burn off all the alcohol, you detox nuts!) and there should be a satisfying sizzle noise as the grains of barley suck up all the liquid. This will happen fairly quickly. Stir with a wooden spoon.
- Add the dried mushrooms and their soaking liquid. You can turn the heat down to a medium or medium-low now, but keep stirring with the wooden spoon. Don’t stop stirring. (Now is a good time for a phone call. Chat while you stir.) As each portion of liquid is absorbed and the starches start to leak out into the liquid, add more liquid. You can add the balsamic vinegar at this stage, as well as the dried oregano and the turmeric. If you’re feeling particularly decadent, a strand or two of saffron wouldn’t go astray here either.
- After about 25-35 minutes of stirring, you should have plumped up grains of barley in a thick liquid. You don’t want the orzotto to get too dry or to resemble a soup, either. You want it to be…for lack of a better description…risotto-like!
- If you’re not trying to get turmeric into your diet, then feel free to leave it out. If there are other spices you’re trying to integrate into your diet for health reasons, add them now – there’s nowhere to hide spices like a risotto or orzotto. But, if you’re not on a January diet, then, heck, now is the time to toss in some crispy pancetta pieces, small wedges of blue cheese and oven-roasted cubes of butternut squash.
- Season with salt & pepper and immediately before serving, quickly stir in a handful of parmesan. Obviously, if you’re vegan or off dairy, leave this bit out – just add a bit more salt.