Mushroom barley risotto

Mushroom barley risotto. (Photo and styling by John Houser III, for The Baltimore Sun / September 11, 2012)

Even though mushrooms are available year-round, I tend to crave them most in the fall. The look, feel, smell and flavor of mushrooms evoke chilly September walks through dusky forest trails. Purveyors at area farmers' markets often sell these foraged fungi in small baskets featuring one specific style of mushroom such as a morel of a lobster mushroom, but they also offer variety baskets; that's what this recipe is based on. These baskets typically contain three to four types of mushrooms and are a steal at around $12.

For this recipe, I wanted to showcase how hearty and comforting a mushroom dish could be using minimum ingredients. Using barley instead of Arborio rice for the "risotto" removes the frustration because the barley is fully cooked and still keeps a great texture. The barley swells plump with stock and then becomes creamy when more liquid is added combined with high heat and vigorous stirring. The addition of bacon gives the dish some crunch while reinforcing the umami of the mushrooms, and the lemon zest at the end wakes the dish up like a soft fall sunrise.

john@rouxde.com

Mushroom and barley risotto

Makes: 8 servings

1 pound mixed mushrooms, chopped (I used maitake, shiitake and crimini)

8 ounces bacon, chopped into 1/4-inch dice

1 bunch thyme 10 sprigs), leaves stripped from the stems

1 large onion, medium dice

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup pearl barley

4 cups beef stock (can use vegetable stock or water)

1 ounce Parmesan cheese, shredded

1 teaspoon kosher salt

fresh ground black pepper

lemon zest

Heat a large pot over a high flame. Add the bacon, turn the heat down to medium, and cook until the bacon is crispy, and the fat has rendered out. Remove the bacon from the pot, turn the heat up to medium-high and add the mushrooms to the bacon fat. Cook the mushrooms, until browned and crisp in spots. Add the onions and garlic and cook until the onions are translucent. Add the barley and 3 cups of the stock. Bring stock to a boil, turn down heat to low, cover the pot and slowly simmer for one hour. After one hour uncover the pot, add the last cup of stock and bring to a vigorous boil over high heat. Cook while stirring frequently until almost all of the liquid has evaporated and barley is creamy. Add the Parmesan and stir to melt and incorporate the cheese. Add the salt and pepper to taste. Let cool for five minutes and then serve topped with crispy bacon bits and a pinch of lemon zest.

Tip: A fried, poached or soft boiled egg added to a bowl of this risotto is a welcome sight.