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.)
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.
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
Place the spelt in a small pot with 3 inches of water to cover. Bring to a boil, and reduce to a gentle simmer. Cook, covered, until liquid has absorbed.
Meanwhile, heat about 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven. Once hot, add the mushrooms. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper and stir occasionally for 2-3 minutes, just until mushrooms have begun to brown a little and are very fragrant. Remove from pan and set aside. Add more olive oil to the pan and cook the onion and parsnip over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally and seasoning wtih pinches of salt and pepper, until onions are translucent, about 8 minutes.
Transfer the boiled spelt berries to the pan of onion and parsnip. Add a ladle of stock, which should be kept warm on another burner, and stir occasionally, adding more ladles of stock at a time as the spelt absorbs the liquid. Continue for about 30-45 minutes, or until the spelt has become very tender and bloated-looking and the sauce is to desired consistency. Add the mushrooms for the last 5 minutes or so of stirring. Parsnips should be partially dissolved with only some visible chunks. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as desired. Add the butter and grated parmesan, and serve with optional fresh herbs (such as parsley) for garnish.
(for 4-6 servings)
8 oz. spelt berries (at $6/lb from Cayuga Organics): $3.00
1 parsnip (at $1/lb): $0.35
1 onion: $0.30
1/8 lb maitake/hen of the wood mushrooms: $5.00
4-6 cups vegetable stock (homemade): $2.00
2-3 tablespoons olive oil: $0.50
2 tablespoons butter: $0.50
3-4 tablespoons grated parmesan: $1.00
Four brownie points: Whole grains such as spelt berries are such a compact source of your daily needs. With the bran, germ and all, these grains have lots of fiber and protein, but also iron, niacin, thiamine, magnesium, and all that stuff that “enriched” refined flour is enriched with, for lack of the whole grain. Spelt and other whole grains also keep your energy at a more steady level, with a lower glycemic index than white rice, pasta or breads. It’ll keep your hunger at bay, more likely, and give you more of the stuff that you need. Trying out whole grains like spelt in more familiar applications like risotto is a good way to give it a try.
Nine maple leaves: I’m very fortunate to have such great purveyors of heirloom beans and grains, as well as mind-blowing mushrooms, both grown locally in Upstate New York and sold at my neighborhood Greenmarket. These luxuries make cooking in so much more fun. Plus, I can rely on butter and other dairy to be around, although the olive oil and parmesan in this recipe was imported. Onion and parsnip were some stragglers of the winter season at the Greenmarket as well (kind of rubbery and old from being in my fridge too long, but not a problem when cooked down in a dish like this).