April 25, 2022
by Merrie Witkin
Orzotto verde con Piselli (Barley cooked risotto-style with fresh greens and peas)
I had hoped that this column would be all about ramps, the wild leek that appears in early spring and causes a frenzy among locavore chefs and foodies alike. But alas, I have yet been unable to find any, either in the woods and fields around where I live, in the greenmarkets, or even in the farmers’ markets in the city. Local Hudson Valley farmers with whom I spoke thought it would likely be early May before they would be available this year. And as I will not provide any recipe that I myself have not tried (and tinkered with), that will have to wait. So when I was recently in the city and made my ritual visit to the Union Square greenmarket, I came away with baby lettuces and arugula, baby leeks and green garlic, in lieu of the ramps I went in search of. They provided perfect inspiration for a risotto verde (risotto with fresh greens, or “green risotto”), and I proceeded to pack them in a suitcase along with a pound of arborio rice and bring them to friends I happened to be visiting. With the addition of parsley and English peas it made an elegant spring meal along with a simple protein and a bright white wine.
Risotto is essentially a starchy rice cooked in a manner designed to release the starch and highlight the grain’s creaminess. The basic method involves first briefly toasting the rice in aromatics, olive oil and/or butter (what the Italians call a “sofrito”), then slowly stirring in a broth to release the starches to provide creaminess, and with the particular flavorings–be it meat, vegetables, or other ingredients (the “condimenti”)–added to give the dish its particular flavor profile and identity. This technique works equally well with pearl barley, which maintains its nutty creaminess when cooked this way and has more fiber, protein and nutrients than white rice. Italians call barley cooked in the style of risotto, “orzotto”, a specialty of the Friuli region in northeast Italy; “orzo” is the Italian word for barley. With its mild and nutty flavor, barley is a perfect base with which to highlight the spring greens just now appearing in farmers markets or in your own spring gardens, and together they make a smashing orzotto.
My recipe uses mild greens—here both spinach and parsley—and mild alliums in the form of spring garlic or wild field garlic along with scallions, to provide the aromatics. In order to preserve the greens’ fresh taste and bright green color, they are briefly blanched in the hot broth, then quickly cooled and puréed, to be later added to the dish at the end of the cooking process, a technique used by Judith Barrett and Norma Wasserman in their recipe for spinach risotto, and also by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt in his recipes for ramp and green risottos featured on the cooking blog, Serious Eats. (1) The purée also adds extra creaminess, lessening the need for as much cream or butter as in a typical risotto.
Orzotto Verde con Piselli
Serves 4 as a first course, or 2 as a main dish
1 cup pearl barley
4 cups well flavored chicken or vegetable broth
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 lightly packed cups of fresh baby spinach (should equal about 5 ounces, the amount of a standard small store container package)
1/2 cup lightly packed parsley leaves
6 good sized scallions, greens separated from the white parts, and both reserved
1 bunch of green garlic, or if unavailable, a good-sized bunch of wild field garlic with its bulblets (separate the greens from the white parts and reserve.) (2)
1/2 cup fresh peas
2 tbsps butter
2 tbsps olive oil
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 tbsp crème fraiche (optional)
1. Included in Barrett, Judith and Wasserman, Norma, Risotto, Collier Books, 1987.
2. Green garlic or spring garlic is young garlic harvested in early spring before their cloves form. They look like leeks and have an aromatic mild flavor. You can sometimes find them at farmers markets, as they are not harvested commercially on a large scale. However, as I noted in my March column (The springtime of wild chives), wild field garlic is ubiquitous and can substitute nicely, although it takes a bit more work. Instead of the very fine chive-like shoots I use there, for this recipe you want to look for the more substantial sized shoots as they will have larger bulblets. Dig up a bunch with a trowel so as to get the entire plant, wash them well and remove the tiny rootlets and any papery sheaths that may cover the bulblets.
Notes: To make this fully vegan, substitute olive oil for the butter and crème fraiche, and vegetable stock for chicken stock, omitting the Parmesan cheese.