Comfort food, we all have something that reminds us of a great meal or memory or just is a favorite. Maybe it's mashed potatoes, chicken pot pie, peach ice cream, or even cinnamon rolls. My husband would say his is sushi, so I guess it really CAN be anything! This dish is my definition of comfort food with a creamy texture, earthy smell and the recipe contains cheese. I came up with this dish after my husband and I took a trip to Italy. I really LOVED Italy, everything about it was amazing. The people were friendly and kind (I was pregnant at the time and they really love pregnant women). The historic sites were...well what exactly can you say about the Roman Colosseum? All you can do when you see it is to stare in awe. Much of Italy is like that with art, culture, history, agriculture and it's people all fascinating. And then there is the food. Mama mia! We enjoyed every single meal we ate there (and that is saying a lot). The simple meals in quick cafes were fresh and delicious. The working class meal we ate when we had no idea what we were getting (no Italian on our part and no English on theirs). We just pointed to some other people's plates and an incredible hearty lunch was served. Each meal is a process (except breakfast which is simply espresso and bakery item to go) and was made to enjoy - to savor. The best meal we had was at Ristorante Rinaldi al Quirinale in Roma. We went for a special dinner and came away wanting to move to Italy just to be able to eat at this place more than once. I remember wishing I wasn't pregnant so I could fit more food into my squashed belly!
We walked into the place pretty early for the regular crowd. We were greeted at the door with a display case of the vegetables available for eating. If it's not in season, you ain't getting it. Dinner in Italy is meant to be five courses: the antipasti (appetizer), primo (1st course, usually pasta, soup or risotto), secondo (your meat or fish dish), ordered with contorni (vegetable dishes or salad) and ending with dolci (dessert) then coffee or an apertif. I have no idea how anyone can eat all of this - even though dinners last several hours, it's still a LOT of food. The funny part, the Italians are shocked and maybe even a little offended when you don't order everything. But we'd already learned our lesson at previous places and knew we couldn't order it all. I started my meal with the most amazing risotto dish I've ever had...creamy rice, mushrooms and smoked provolone cheese. It was divine and I have been in love with risotto ever since.
Back home, I often recreated that dish (with never quite the same amazing results). This time, I decided to branch out a little. Risotto is white starchy rice (see previous post on other rice types here), and I was looking to make it a little healthier. I decided to use pearl barley which is a grain I adore. You can find it with the other dried peas and beans in the grocery store. It stays firm but tender when cooked like pasta, not mushy like oatmeal or some other grains. It doesn't have a strong flavor on it's own, so it adapts well with other flavors. I knew I wanted to use wild mushrooms. This interesting company called Marx Foods sent me several samples of wild dried mushrooms (which keep in your pantry forever just waiting for the perfect use). One package ended up in a miso soup to be written about later, but the shiitakes I knew would be perfect in a risotto. This recipe is an adaption from a couple I found out on the web. I was really thrilled how it all turned out and the whole family loved it.
1 c pearl barley
2 c water
4 c beef or vegetable stock (I made mine with the water I re hydrated the mushrooms in)
1 tbsp olive oil
2 oz rehydrated shiitake mushrooms
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp chopped fresh sage
1/3 c grated Parmesan cheese
1 tbsp butter
1/8 tsp pepper
extra sage and Parmesan for garnish