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Apr 24, 2012
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By Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas

When you’re looking for something a little different, barley can be a wonderful substitute for rice in many risotto recipes. Because barley tastes richer and has a nuttier flavor and chewier texture, it becomes a beautiful co-host to assertive flavors. In this dish, those flavors include the earthiness of beets and the smoky-porky joys of bacon. Given its three main ingredients, we think of this particular “risotto” as our “3-B” (barley, beets, bacon), and love not only its deep, satisfying flavors but also its lovely, rosy color.

We usually serve this hearty dish as a main course, accompanied by nothing more than a green salad. The recipe serves four, but we sometimes make it just for the two of us, reheating the leftovers a couple of days later and topping each serving with a poached egg. Comfort food at its best!

Barley “Risotto” with Beets and Bacon
Serves 4

6 slices bacon diced in ¼-inch pieces
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups cooked beets cut in ¼ inch dice
1 cup barley
½ cup white wine
4-6 cups chicken stock
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
salt and pepper

In a heavy pot over medium heat, cook half the bacon until it is brown and crisp. Remove it with a slotted spoon and let it drain on a paper towel. Dispose of the bacon grease in the pan and pour in the olive oil (no need to wash the pan out). Add the uncooked bacon to the pot. Stirring frequently, continue cooking until the bacon begins to brown, then add the onion and garlic, and cook over medium low heat until the onions soften. Stir in the barley and beets and cook for another three minutes or so; then pour in the wine. Raise the heat to high, and cook until all the wine has evaporated. Add about ½ cup of the chicken stock, stirring until it has all been absorbed. Continue adding the broth at the rate of about half a at a time, letting each new addition be completely absorbed into the barley before adding the next. Stir frequently and adjust the heat as needed. When the barley is tender and creamy, remove the pot from the heat and stir in about half the cheese. Top with the reserved bacon and serve immediately. Pass the rest of the cheese at the table.

* * *

We tasted twelve wines priced between $15 and $20. Our favorites were those that reflected one or more of the elements that characterize this risotto. Some mirrored the smoke and meatiness in the bacon, while others echoed sweet, earthy sensations such as those in the beets, or rich and creamy elements paralleling the plump silkiness of the barley. No matter the specifics, the best pairings were those that worked as a whole, with the wine and the food complementing each other rather than accentuating one in favor of the other.
Approx. Price
Amalaya, Valle Calchaqui, Salta (Argentina) Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Tannat “Esperanza Por un Milagro”2010
(Imported by The Hess Collection)
This is a soft, seductive wine with lots of sweet, red fruit to replicate the inherent sweetness of the beets. A delicate tannic structure keeps the wine from seeming too flabby or lush.
Clayhouse Paso Robles (California) Malbec “Vineyard Series” 2010
An elegant balance of fruit and acidity, plus the rich strawberry jam and cedar elements in this Malbec link it nicely to the risotto’s hearty ingredients and textures.
Cono Sur, Maipo Valley (Chile) Cabernet Sauvignon “Visión” 2010
(Imported by Vineyard Brands)
With an abundance of dark fruit (blackberries, blueberries, and plums) to connect with the beets, and smoky, spicy notes to click with the bacon, this Cabernet mates deliciously with the risotto.
Marqués de Cáceres
Rioja (Spain) Crianza 2006
(Imported by Vineyard Brands)
A medium-weight, deeply colored blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha, and Graciano grapes, this velvety Spanish wine is pure ambrosia with the complex flavors and richly textured barley-based dish.
Picket Fence, Russian River Valley (California) Pinot Noir 2010
When tasted on its own, “Picket Fence” conveyed an overpowering impression of highly toasted oak, but when sampled with the dish that very feature became an asset. The wood struck a chord with the smoky bacon, and the wine’s food-friendly acidity came to the fore.