I’ll be the first to say that there is no risotto without rice. And a very starchy rice at that, such as Arborio, which thickens its cooking liquid like pudding. Whole grains such as spelt, wheat berries and oat groats just don’t do this, you see, and they take much longer to cook. But this time, for me, it was well worth the wait. Whatever you want to call it, this “risotto” with the nutty-tasting ancient grain spelt was even better than the real thing.
I love being given random food gifts from friends. Last week it was a couple pounds of spelt berries left over from Karol’s CSA pick-up. I’m game for this round of Iron Chef, I thought, tossing the plastic bag of brown-colored berries from one hand to the next like a beanbag.
- So, with spelt grains in mind, I decided to play up their earthy flavor with some ultra-tasty, super-fancy, and obscenely expensive mushrooms. Hey, I didn’t have to pay for the spelt. I settled on a large clump of maitake, or “hen of the woods,” from Madura Mushroom Farms, which looks like a gray piece of coral. (I didn’t yet cook with another splurge mushroom purchase from the stand, the strange white puff that looks sort of like cauliflower below.)
- whole spelt berries
- a knot of maitake, or “hen of the woods” mushrooms
- Maitake are some strong-tasting mushrooms, indeed; it now seems totally logical that they’d cost more than twice as much as white button. Their deeply savory, woodsy, almost funky flavor is enough to charge an entire dish. However, I had a leftover root of parsnip, and though their sweetness could blend well with these ingredients. Plus, once chopped to a fine dice and stirred from the start of making the risotto, they’d turn into mush and add bulk to the sauce.
- diced parsnips cook in the risotto until soft and creamy
- They certainly did, and every last mushy piece of parsnip that was lingering by the time the dish was ready was a burst of interesting contrast, too. The trick to getting the spelt to cook down enough to simulate risotto-like creaminess is to parboil it for quite a while, then add it to the sauteeing onions and parsnip. Then, cook it for another long while, stirring, adding stock, until the bloated berries pop in your mouth delightfully rather than get stuck to your molars as you chew. Some butter — or lots of it — to finish and sprinkle of parmesan should help smooth it out even more. But it’s just that texture of the softened spelt grains, and their nutty flavor, that makes this risotto variation an exciting change.
- This will likely be one of the last wintery dishes for now, as I’ve just grabbed my first bunch of ramps of the season at the Greenmarket yesterday!
- Spelt Risotto with Hen of the Woods Mushrooms and Parsnip
- (makes 4-5 servings)
- 8 oz. uncooked whole spelt berries
- 1 parsnip, peeled and finely diced
- 1 onion, chopped
- about 1/8 lb hen of the woods (maitake) mushrooms, carefully broken to bite-size pieces
- 4-6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
- 2-3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 3-4 tablespoons grated Parmiggiano-Reggiano
- salt and pepper to taste