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A FAUX RISOTTO WITH BARLEY AND MUSHROOMS

Rice is easy. Rice is quick. But rice can get boring. Every once in a while we have to force ourselves to break out of the Rice Rut.

When the main meat dish is ready, sometimes all we need is a starchy side dish to complete the menu. With all of the quick-cooking rices available to the time-crunched cook, rice is a perfect solution. But eating rice night after night makes us feel desperate for a change.

Here are some alternatives:

Small red potatoes, unpeeled, sliced in half and boiled just until tender, are a speedy way to get another starch to the dinner table. Just a little butter and a sprinkling of just about any fresh herb does the trick.

Orzo is a quick-cooking, rice-shaped pasta that imparts a slightly different texture and taste and makes a welcome new addition to dinner. Cook according to package directions, drain and then stir in cheese, pesto or sauteed onions and mushrooms to taste.

Stepping even further beyond traditional starch substitutes, we often enjoy quick-cooking barley as a boredom-breaker. Today's recipe features hearty and robust portobello mushrooms cooked with the barley, making a terrific complement to almost any entree. A little half-and-half finishes the dish for a risotto-like texture and appearance -- without the copious amounts of broth and time it takes to turn out the classic Italian rice dish.

So step out of your rice rut. You and your diners will be glad you did.

QUICK BARLEY AND MUSHROOM RISOTTO

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 large onion (1 cup chopped)

1 package (6 ounces) already sliced portobello mushrooms

1 teaspoon bottled minced garlic

1 can (14 1/2 ounces) beef broth, fat removed

3/4 cup quick-cooking barley

2 tablespoons half-and-half

salt and black pepper to taste
In a 12-inch non-stick skillet that has a lid, heat the oil on medium-low. Peel and chop the onion, adding it to the skillet as you chop. Chop the mushrooms and add them to the skillet. Raise the heat to medium-high and cook for 1 minute.

Add the garlic, broth and barley and stir well to mix. Cover the skillet, raise the heat to high and bring it to a boil. Stir from time to time.

Cook for 10 to 12 minutes, until tender. Stir in the half-and-half. Serve immediately. Serves 4.

Approximate values per serving: 192 calories (17 percent from fat), 4 grams fat (1 gram saturated), 3 milligrams cholesterol, 7 grams protein, 35 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams dietary fiber, 347 milligrams sodium.

Send us desperate tales of woe or everyday success stories and your favorite quick recipes to Desperation Dinners, c/o United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016; or e-mail: ddinners@aol.com.

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