Beet Season Part III: Lemony Gold Beet Barley Risotto

It’s truly beet season outside. As I sit down to write this, it’s snowing yet again. Yesterday’s Times ran a story on how we seem to be trading weather patterns with the Arctic Circle. If that’s the case, we’d better get used to eating a lot of beets. This risotto recipe features gorgeous gold beets, which boast just as vibrant a color as their red brethren, but are a sunny yellow.

This recipe hearkens back to cooking school—the wonderful Natural Gourmet Institute—where I was astonished to learn that you could make “risotto” using any whole grain, good news if you can’t find the traditional arborio rice, or if you’re trying to pack more nutrients and fiber into your diet. I chose barley because of its nutty taste and springy texture. I highly recommend soaking the barley overnight: as with any grain, soaking will make it cook faster and become easier to digest.

It could just be my imagination, but I find that foods of like colors pair well together, so here the sweet, earthy taste of the yellow beets is amped up by lemon zest and juice. The whole thing gets a salty dose of richness from ricotta salata, a milky-white pressed cheese whose saline flavor lives up to its name. You’ll want to wait until after you add the ricotta to salt the risotto, as the cheese will alter the taste substantially.

The risotto recipe appears in my cookbook, Lucid Food, but I’ve discovered a few shorcuts that make the version that appears here a true one-pot meal, my favorite kind. Garlicky sauteed greens such as kale, spinach, or collards make a pretty complement to this dish. If you’re lucky enough to get beets with their greens attached, by all means cook them up and serve them on the side, or if you’re so inclined, add them right into the risotto a few minutes before serving.

I hope you’re staying warm, and finding ways to enjoy the dramatic weather—beet season will be over soon enough.

Lemony Gold Beet Barley Risotto

Serves 4-6

1 cup pearled barley

4 cups vegetable or chicken stock

4 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra

1 yellow onion, finely diced

2 gold beets, peeled and diced small

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup white wine

1 ½ cups crumbled ricotta salata

2 teaspoons lemon zest (preferably from an organic lemon)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Salt and pepper

Soak the barley in cold water to cover for 8-24 hours. Strain.

Pour the stock into a pot and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to a simmer.

Heat a large soup pot over medium high heat. Add the olive oil, then the onion, and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the beets, garlic, salt, and barley and sauté for another 5 minutes. Stir in the wine and cook until it has evaporated, about 2 minutes. Ladle a cup of stock into the risotto and stir until the liquid is absorbed. Repeat, adding stock 1 cup at a time, until the barley is tender. This will take 30-35 minutes. Reserve ¼  cup of stock to stir into the risotto at the very end.

When the barley is tender, turn off the heat and stir in 1 cup of the ricotta, the lemon zest and juice, and the remaining ¼ cup stock. Salt to taste.

To serve, fill a bowl with risotto and spoon a little olive oil on top. Garnish with the remaining ricotta, and season with freshly ground black pepper.

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