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Pearl Barley Risotto with Irish Ale, Butternut Squash and Sage (c)2013 La Domestique

It’s been one of those perfect autumn days here in Cavan. We had blue skies and golden sunshine, the wind felt fresh and crisp, and there were even a couple passing sun showers. As I write this now I gaze out the window and watch the sun slowly disappearing behind the hill. Our house looks out onto grassy fields and this is the time of day the cows come round. As I cook supper I like to look out my kitchen window and watch Herefords and Charlaois navigating the bushes looking for tasty bits of grass and basking in the sun. A stream winds its way around the field, and I can see magnificent grey herons gliding towards the water and meadow pipets darting in and out of the grass. I remember that not every home I’ve lived in had a kitchen window, and the thought of cooking in a dark box with harsh florescent light makes me appreciate my view of nature even more. There are times when I wish I lived in Dublin, where it’s all happening, but this is not one of those times. Right now I’m happy to be just where I am, in the rolling hills and the land of the lakes that is Cavan.

Pearl Barley Risotto with Irish Ale, Butternut Squash and Sage (c)2013 La Domestique

I’ve been cooking up a storm here at La Domestique HQ, learning about artisanal food producers in the area and finding new staple ingredients for my larder. One of my favorite autumnal dishes to make when the weather cools is risotto. I find a bowl full of creamy arborio rice is just the thing to warm me through. Risotto is an Italian rice dish, but you can also think of it as a cooking method. The grains of rice are cooked slowly, adding one ladleful of stock at a time and stirring with a wooden spoon until all the liquid is absorbed. The purpose of this technique is to encourage rice to release starches and achieve a creamy texture. For this recipe, I trade the classic white arborio rice for more wholesome pearl barley, which contains nutrients like fiber, folate, and iron. Italians cook the rice with a splash of red or white wine, but I love a malty hoppy Irish red ale with a bite to it this time of year and think the beer is a nice compliment to the barley (from which the beer is brewed). I cooked the risotto with Smithwick’s, but ale from an Irish craft brewer would be great to try. I used to live in Colorado, where there are tons of Irish craft breweries, but haven’t quite figured out where to find craft beers here in Cavan. (If any locals have a suggestion, please do let me know in the comments section.)

Tullyboy Farmhouse Goat Cheese (c)2013 La Domestique

Traditionally, a handful of Parmesan cheese is stirred into the creamy risotto just before serving, but I’ve found a local hard Irish goat cheese that really takes this dish to new heights: Tullyboy Farmhouse Cheese from Crosserlough, Cavan. I first tasted Tullyboy at the Cavan Farmers Market and couldn’t get over the exceptional flavor: nutty, caramelized, sweet and complex. I’ll be using it all winter grated over hearty ragù and bolognese with pasta.

Cooking risotto may seem labor intensive, but on a cool autumn weekend it’s a comfort to slow down and enjoy the meditative task of stirring a big pot of rice. Here the nutty pearl barley pairs beautifully with maple roasted butternut squash and aromatic sage leaves. This dish makes an excellent side for roast pork or even a humble supper of black or white pudding (sausages for my American readers).

I hope you have a wonderful weekend. I’m planning to visit the Virginia Pumpkin Festival on Saturday to check out the Artisan Food and Craft Fair and the National Giant Pumpkin Contest. There’s also The Food and Drink Show Northern Ireland in Belfast this weekend, featuring Neven Maguire and Rachel Allen, amongst others. Cheers!

Ingredients for Pearl Barley Risotto with Irish Ale, Butternut Squash and Sage (c)2013 La Domestique

Pearl Barley Risotto with Irish Red Ale, Butternut Squash and Sage

serves 4 as a side dish

1 medium butternut squash, weighing about 2 pounds/900g
1/2 cup/120mL vegetable oil
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1 tablespoon chopped sage leaves, plus 12 whole sage leaves
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 cup/200g pearl barley
1/2 cup or 120mL Irish red ale, (Smithwick’s or a craft beer like Dungarvan’s Copper Coast Irish Red Ale)
5 cups or 2 1/2 homemade chicken stock
1/2 cup/25g freshly grated Tullyboy Farmhouse Cheese or Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons/45g unsalted butter
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

Begin by frying the whole sage leaves for the risotto garnish. In a very small sauce pot, heat 1/2 cup vegetable oil over medium-high. Test to see if the oil is ready for frying by dipping in the tip of a sage leaf. It will sizzle if the oil is hot enough. Fry 4 sage leaves at a time, cooking the leaves until crisp and slightly curled, about 15-20 seconds. Remove the crisp sage leaves and place on a paper towel to dry and reserve the oil, which is now infused with sage flavor.

Roast the squash. Heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Using a vegetable peeler, remove the squash’s thin outer skin. Slice it in half lengthways, from stem to base. Scoop out the seeds and discard them. Trim off the woody stem end and base end. Cut the squash into 1/2 inch cubes and place in a roasting tray. You should have about 4 cups cubed squash. In a small bowl, whisk together 1 teaspoon leftover sage oil, maple syrup, 1/4 teaspoon sea salt and some freshly ground black pepper. Pour the mixture over the squash cubes and toss to evenly coat. Place the roasting tray on the top shelf of the oven and cook the squash 20-25 minutes, stirring halfway through, until tender and caramelized.

Cook the risotto. Pour the chicken stock into a medium sized pot and bring to a gentle simmer, then turn the heat down to low and keep it warm. Heat a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium and add 2 tablespoons of the reserved sage oil. When the oil is warm, toss in the shallot and cook for a couple of minutes, till tender and translucent. Add the pearl barley and stir to coat in the oil. Toast the grains for a minute, stirring occasionally, then pour in the Irish red ale. Simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until all the liquid has been absorbed. Add a ladleful of warm chicken stock and allow the barley to simmer, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has been completely absorbed. Add another ladleful of the stock and stir occasionally as all the liquid is absorbed into the barley. Continue adding stock in this manner until the barley is just tender but still has a pleasantly toothsome quality, about 40-50 minutes. You’ll notice the change in texture seems to happen at a certain moment in the cooking process, so don’t be concerned if, for awhile, it seems like the barley isn’t going to soften. As you add the last ladleful of stock, stir in the chopped sage leaves.

When the barley is ready it should not be dry, but instead creamy and flowing. You can always add a bit more stock and let it simmer for a moment if the risotto has dried out just before finishing. Stir in the squash, butter and grated cheese and serve immediately in warmed bowls. Garnish each bowl of risotto with three crisp fried sage leaves.