Beetroot, thyme and barley orzotto


In my last job, which I quit to stop my brain falling out, my team members were mostly all a good decade younger than me. I worked three days a week, looking after my toddler on the other days, and on returning to the office after the weekend, I would want to punch whoever (usually a boy) would pipe up with “had a nice bit of time off, have you?” I would paste a fake smile onto my face and take a deep breath, my veins boiling with hot feministic vitriol.

Time off? Doing childcare? Yeah right. I’m sure some of them thought maternity leave was just like a holiday too – non-stop sitting around, resting, drinking bucket-sized cappuccinos, eating cake, snoozing, lunching and mostly sitting on my arse. A lovely long holiday, with a baby. Just imagine.

The reality is thus. You reach 9:30 in the morning and feel like you’ve been up for a whole week already. You feel physically drained a lot of the time – not only because your child screams through the wall of your bedroom waking you up several times a night – but also because daytime hours are spent WRESTLING. There is the physical activity no-one warns you about when you have a child – you are mainly bending, wiping, lifting, lugging, scraping, yanking and chasing. Not to mention relentlessly cleaning everything, if you are a control freak like me.  RRRRRAAAAAHHH!

So, anyway, on heavy-duty wrestling days, I need major carbs. Here is a nice variation on a risotto, made instead with pearl barley, which is apparently a superfood, don’t cha know. When you substitute the rice with barley, it’s called ‘orzotto’. It has a lovely bouncy texture which feels a bit less claggy than versions made with arborio rice.

You could basically take any risotto recipe and substitute it with pearl barley and any combination of ingredients. Here’s a version made with roasted beetroot, thyme and lemon. It’s warming and tangy – lemon zest is a magic ingredient, especially paired with the sharp, salty pecorino cheese.

Serves 4

You will need:

3 – 4 medium sized beetroot
2 mugful’s (regular British tea mugs) of pearl barley
Olive oil
2 medium onions
2 sticks celery
2 medium carrots
2 large cloves garlic, crushed
8 sprigs fresh thyme
1 medium lemon
1.5 litres hot chicken or vegetable stock (stock cubes are fine)
Generous wedge Pecorino cheese, grated (you could also use Parmesan)
Freshly ground black pepper (you probably won’t need salt, cause the cheese is very salty)

Cut the beetroot into cubes, put into an oven tray, toss with vegetable oil and cover the tray tightly with foil. Roast in a hot oven preheated to 190C for about an hour, or until tender when you push a knife into the cubes.

While the beetroot is roasting, prepare all your vegetables and have them ready so that you can add them quickly in one easy go, because once the orzotto is cooking, you won’t be able to stop stirring the mixture: finely dice the onions, then chop the carrots and celery into fine cubes. Finely zest the lemon peel and set aside, take four of the thyme sprigs, remove the leaves from the stalks and finely mince (keep the others whole).  Finely grate the Pecorino cheese.

Toast the barley in a dry casserole until you can smell it getting all ‘toasty’ and nutty – about five minutes over a medium heat. Keep stirring it so that it doesn’t burn. Then remove and put in a bowl to use later.

Warm your stock up in a separate saucepan, and keep a ladle at the ready.

Heat up a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a large casserole dish on a medium flame, fry the onions until soft for a couple of minutes, then add the diced carrots, celery and four whole thyme sprigs. Mix together and keep stirring for a few minutes, until they start to soften. Then add the pearl barley – keep stirring until all the grains are coated in oil. (If you want to add some booze at this point for flavour, chuck in a small glass of white wine or vermouth, and stir until it evaporates).

Mix everything around well and then add your hot stock, one ladle at a time, and add a new one each time the liquid evaporates. Keep doing this until the barley is cooked – depending on your barley grains, it could take anything from 30 to 50 minutes. It seems to take forever, but keep going! Fortify yourself with a glass of wine as you go, and some crisps.

Take off the heat, remove the four thyme stalks (which won’t have any leaves left on them now), gently mix in lemon zest and remaining chopped fresh thyme leaves, a good couple of handfuls of the grated Pecorino, then the roasted beetroot cubes. Serve with more Pecorino sprinkled on top.

This dish is like a big, friendly hug from a labrador – hurrah!




  1. One word…yum! Any chance you could share the chicken thing we ate at your house? It was delicious x


  2. re “had a nice bit of time off, have you?” perhaps you should have offered to swop? It would be amusing to see them on monday morning, totally broken, a mear shell of a human, like after one of ‘their’ heavy party weekends, but without the warm glow.


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