I recently asked a few friends for their back-pocket recipes—the ones that never fail to please, the ones they can make in their sleep. One friend told me she has yet to feed the barley risotto from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem to someone and not have them like it. She also noted that she improvises to account for her varying pantry inventory, and it always turns out well.
This all sounded promising. I immediately opened my copy of Jersualem and set to work making a dish I have no idea how I have overlooked—the recipe is not only accompanied by a stunning photograph, but also calls for relatively few ingredients, most of which I always have on hand.
This is the basic process: sauté shallots, garlic and celery until soft, then add the barley, smoked paprika (and a few other seasonings), crushed tomatoes, and broth all at once. There’s no need to add the liquid incrementally as you do when making traditional risotto, and there’s no need to stir constantly either. Ottolenghi finishes the dish with cubes of feta marinated briefly in olive oil and crushed caraway seeds.
For risotto, it tastes incredibly light, the predominant flavor being tomato with a hint of smoke thanks to the paprika. At the end of the 45-minute simmer, the grains retain a nice chew, and the cubes of feta, folded in gently at the end, soften, holding their shape while lending a slight creaminess.
Start to finish, the dish takes about an hour, prep and all, but once it’s simmering, there’s no extensive hands-on work. I’ve since made the dish several times, and have found a way to simplify the process: I omit several ingredients (butter, celery, fresh oregano, and caraway). I substitute others (barley with farro, because I typically have it, shallots with onions, and vegetable stock with water). I don’t marinate the feta anymore. And I stir in kale or chard at the end to make it more of a one-pot wonder.
The essential seasonings here, for me, are lemon peel, whose fresh citrus flavor somehow pervades the tomato base, and smoked paprika, which is subtle enough to keep diners guessing. Thus far, this risotto has been very well received—soon, no doubt, it will slip into back pocket stature.
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 onion, finely chopped, to yield a heaping cup
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup pearled farro
- 3 to 4 sprigs thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 bay leaf
- 4 strips of lemon peel
- pinch crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 26-oz box or 28-oz can crushed tomatoes, see notes above
- 3 cups water
- kosher salt and pepper to taste
- 5 ounces kale or chard, leaves removed from stems, finely chopped (about 4 packed cups)
- 6 ounces feta, preferably in brine, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
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