Like many parents, I often struggled to get my children to eat vegetables when they were little. I remember conversations with other mums in the school playground, as we fretted about our children’s diets, hatching cunning plans to hide the green stuff in pasta sauce—with varying degrees of success.

So I couldn’t resist a wry smile when my eldest son, now a strapping 22-year-old even without the help of a veg-heavy early diet, recently announced he was thinking of becoming a vegetarian.

A lot of his friends had already made the change, he said, increasingly worried about animal welfare and the environmental impact of meat production. But while most of them could quote chapter and verse on animal cruelty, reducing their carbon footprint and sustainable eating, they seemed to be a bit more hazy on how to feed themselves healthily without meat to fall back on. One of them, he said, had even become anaemic and had resorted to taking iron supplements.

It’s true that if you’re used to eating a non-veg diet, it takes a little more thought and planning to make sure you’re getting a full range of nutrients, so I said I would help him with some nourishing vegetarian recipes.

I remembered that when he was little, one of the most effortless means of packing vegetables into him and his siblings was via risotto, and one of his favourite meals is still a creamy, comforting spinach and leek one.

Spinach is a great source of iron but, to try and bolster the iron content further, I decided to make it with pearl barley instead of rice. Barley, or jau in Hindi, is a great choice if you’re trying to reduce or cut out meat—as well as protein and iron, it also contains B vitamins and a range of useful minerals. As a wholegrain it is a particularly good source of fibre for intestinal health. It is also thought to help lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by keeping blood sugar levels healthy.

Recently I’ve been sneaking “flavour bombs" into my recipes, dollops of taste that complement or set alight the taste of the core dish. One of my favourite soups is a simple roasted carrot one lifted to greatness by a yogurt and dukkah nut and seed mix topping. Crispy fried onions will provide an umami fix for almost anything and as we all know, carefully tempered spices can transform a dull dal. Here, I have used ricotta and Parmesan cheese to add creaminess to the risotto, then lemon zest and fresh herbs to lift the dish and add a lighter, fresher note to the long-cooked earthy grain.

Incidentally, barley has also long been used in traditional Scottish soups and stews. Although in those days the flavour bomb was more likely to be a sheep’s head.

Spinach and Leek Pearl Barley Risotto with ‘Flavour Bombs’

Serves 4

Pearl barley risotto is much easier to make than the traditional Italian rice version. It also has a slightly chewier texture and nuttier taste but is equally delicious.

Ingredients

400g spinach

2 leeks

2 tbsp olive oil

25g butter

200g pearl barley

100ml dry white wine, or water

2 sprigs thyme

Approximately 1 litre of hot vegetable stock

Juice of 1 lemon

‘Flavour bombs’

150g ricotta

75g Parmesan, grated

Zest of 1 lemon

A handful of thyme leaves, finely chopped

A handful of mint leaves, finely chopped

Method

Wash the spinach well, put it in a large pan, cover with a lid and let it cook for 1-2 minutes. When the spinach has wilted, tip it into a colander and leave to drain. Once cooled, press out as much liquid as possible, then roughly chop the spinach.

Finely slice all but the tough green parts of leeks. Heat the olive oil and butter in a large, thick-bottomed pan, then add the sliced leeks and cook gently until softened, about 2-3 minutes.

Rinse the barley under cold water, shake off excess water, then add to the pan. Stir with the leeks for about 1 minute, then add the dry white wine (or water). Cook until most of the wine has evaporated, then add the two sprigs of thyme.

At this point, you could add all the stock at once and simmer the barley mixture until the grains are tender (about 30-45 minutes). I prefer to cook the barley as I would a traditional rice risotto, simply because I enjoy the soothing qualities of gentle stirring. So I add the stock a couple of ladles at a time and stir until it has been absorbed by the barley before adding more stock.

Either way, once the grains of barley are soft, with just a hint of chewiness, they’re ready. I like this risotto to be almost soupy, to be slurped with a spoon, but that’s a matter of taste. Stir in the chopped spinach and lemon juice. Check seasoning—add salt and pepper if needed (this will depend on the flavour of your stock).

While the risotto is cooking mix together the ricotta, Parmesan, lemon zest, thyme and mint and set aside.

Serve the risotto hot, straight away, topped with flavour bombs.

The Way We Eat Now is a fortnightly column on new ways of cooking seasonal fruits, vegetables and grains. Pamela Timms tweets at @eatanddust and posts on Instagram as Eatanddust.

Read Pamela’s previous Lounge columns here

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