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Recipe: Cheering spears – Asparagus and pearl barley risotto

Asparagus & pearl barley risotto.
Flavoursome asparagus and barley.

Last Friday was a sad day for anyone who, like me, strives to cook with seasonal British vegetables. “How so?” you may ask. Well, it’s because 21 June marks the official end to the British asparagus season. I love cooking with, and eating, asparagus. In bunches, the bright green spears look almost like mini modernist sculptures rather than plants, and their sweet, earthy taste is completely unlike any other vegetable.

I always endeavour to make the utmost use of UK asparagus when it is available, as springtime recipe posts on Scrumptious Scran bare testament. At around two months, this vegetable’s season is akin to a culinary firework display – dazzling, but all too short. Maybe it’s pig-headedness on my part, but even though imported asparagus is now available year-round, my tendency is to avoid this. I simply don’t agree with flying food thousands of miles, just to ensure this is can be purchased when its UK equivalent is no longer in season. Plus, and I don’t think it is a psychosomatic bias on my part, but asparagus from South America just doesn’t seem to have the depth of flavour of that grown in Britain.

So, to mark the passing of the 2013 season, I decided to cook a dish that would be a celebration – or maybe a wake – for one of my favourite ingredients. My inspiration came from a dish I watched Suzanne O’Connor – Head Chef at The Scottish Café and Restaurant – prepare at the recent Slow Food event held at Edinburgh’s Summerhall. Suzanne cooked an original take on risotto, featuring peas, broad beans, mint and parmesan, but which substituted the quintessential Scottish ingredient of pearl barley, in place of rice.

So, behold my British asparagus and pearl barley “risotto”. The dish may appear quite simple, but I didn’t want anything to infringe upon the asparagus flavour its centre – rather the other constituents should complement this. So the creamy barley is cooked with home-made stock, and augmented with softened onion, a hint of citrus provided by lemon juice and zest, nutty savouriness from the addition of parmesan, and the grassy freshness of chopped parsley.

A fitting 2013 send off to this monarch of British vegetables, I trust you will agree. Roll on springtime 2014!

This recipe will easily feed four people for dinner.


  • 25g unsalted butter
  • 1 onion, finely chopped – I like to use sweet white onions in risotto
  • 275g pearl barley
  • A glass of dry white wine, 150-175ml
  • 1 litre of chicken or vegetable stock – homemade if possible
  • 2 bunches of British asparagus – 400 to 500g in total
  • A good grating of parmesan – at least 40-50g
  • 1 lemon, zest and juice
  • A bunch of parsley – a good handful – roughly chopped
  • A good grind of black pepper, and salt to taste (remember the parmesan will also impart salt to the dish)

Preparation and cooking

  1. Place a wide, not too high-sided, saucepan on a medium heat. Add the butter and melt until it begins to foam, before adding the onion. Fry until soft and translucent, stirring occasionally – this should take around 20 minutes, or so.
  2. Meanwhile, place the stock in a large saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer.
  3. Trim the ends off the asparagus and cut the spears into halves or thirds, depending on their length. Place these into the stock and blanch for 3-4 minutes until just tender.
  4. Remove and strain the asparagus, and place in a bowl of chilled water, to stop further cooking.
  5. Add the barley to the onion, and stir for a couple of minutes to ensure it is coated with the butter.
  6. Pour in the wine and stir until it is adsorbed by the barely – it will splutter and the evaporating alcohol may flare, so be careful!
  7. Add 1-2 ladles of stock to the barely, so the liquid just covers this. Simmer the mixture, stirring now and again, until nearly all the stock has been absorbed. It isn’t necessary to stir the barley quite as often as risotto rice, but do ensure it doesn’t catch on the pan bottom.
  8. Continue to add the stock a couple of ladles at a time. Nearly all the stock in the pan should be absorbed before adding the next batch of liquid. When practically all the stock has been added the barley should be creamy, but the grains still distinct and not broken down.
  9. Add the asparagus and stir into the mixture for 2-3 mins.
  10. Take the pan off the heat and then add the grated parmesan, lemon zest and juice and seasoning. Just before serving add the parsley and stir through.

Serve immediately, with extra parmesan available should diners wish to add a little extra.

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