I really struggled with the name of this post. Here’s why: most of us have a clear understanding of and experience with Risotto: that wonderful, self-saucing Italian wonder typically made with Arborio, Carnoroli or other short grained white rice whose high levels of starch meld with the broth during the cooking and stirring of the dish to make a creamy, tender dish with just a tiny bite from the rice cooked al dente and, quite often, made even more delectable by a generous addition of grated Parmagiano Reggiano.
That’s all good so far. But then, we who like to play in the kitchen can’t necessarily leave a good thing alone. Not content at letting rice be the lone star in a dish this glorious, we start playing with other grains: spelt! barley! and…. now…. oats!
But there’s a problem. Risotto is called risotto because it contains RICE. Now for those of us who’s knowledge of the Italian language starts and stops with the food we eat from that venerable cuisine, butchering the meaning and intent of a word like “Risotto” by preceding it with other grains, i.e. “Barley Risotto”, doesn’t necessarily cause us to grit our teeth. But, as Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food Movement told us a few years ago in Loviissa, Finland when served a “Spelt Risotto” – “You can’t call it Risotto if there is no Rice!” Um…so…”Speltsotto?” No. But what, then? A pilaf it certainly is not.
The problem is that when a word is adopted from another language into English, it often loses part of the original meaning, and can come to be a representative of an idea: in this case, “risotto” to a non-Italian can imply “a creamy savory grain porridge of some sort; definitely delicious”. And unless there is no modifier indicating the use of another whole grain, we understand that there will be rice in the dish. If not, well, then, most diners accept without question that calling something “Barley Risotto” is perfectly reasonable, and proceed to enjoy their meal without further discussion.
Which brings me back to oats. The white, short grain rice varieties typically used to make risotto, while delicious, are refined foods and don’t tend to be very nutritious, unfortunately. Oats, on the other hand, (also barley and spelt) are a healthy whole grain option. In fact there are a number of chefs looking for a whole grain alternative when creating risotto, beginning, not surprisingly, with the use of short grain brown rice.
Whole oats – steamed lightly but left whole, or steel cut – take a lot longer to cook than rolled oats, but patience pays off because cooking releases some of the starch in the oats creating the creamy saucy texture so loved in risotto, but with all of the health benefits left intact. Oat fiber is particularly important for heart health: just one bowl of oatmeal a day can lower your cholesterol 8-23% studies show. (One cup of oats contains close to 4 grams of fiber.) It has a myriad of health benefits which I won’t go into in detail, but which you can find here and read at your leisure.
This recipe calls for whole oat groats: those with the husk removed but left uncut. You can find these at health food stores and some grocery stores. If you can’t find them, steel-cut oats (sometimes called Irish oats) are a really good option here too. Take a look here for further descriptions and pictures.
I eat oats for breakfast nearly every day: whole oat groats, steel cut or old-fashioned rolled oats. But oats aren’t just for breakfast. They pair really well with savory foods for a lunch or dinner main course, as with this oat risotto. Once again I’ve used porcini here: both the reconstituted dried porcini and its soaking water are used in this dish, along with a sprig of rosemary and sweet roasted carrots and wonderful, savory, salt Parmagiano Reggiano. The best part about this dish is that, unlike traditional risotto, you don’t need to stand there and stir it most of the time. You add the liquid all at once, put the lid on ajar, set the timer, and walk away for a while, returning only to put the finishing touches on your fabulous main course. Buon Appetito!
Porcini, Roasted Carrot and Rosemary Oat “Risotto”
Preheat oven to 200°C / 400°F
1 oz / 30 g dried porcini
1 liter boiling water
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into strips
salt, pepper, olive oil for sprinkling over carrots
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 yellow onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1.5 cups / 3 dl whole oat groats or steel cut oats
1 teaspoon salt
one 1″ / 2.5 cm sprig rosemary, leaves picked and minced
1/2 cup finely grated Parmagiano Reggiano
salt and pepper to taste
Place your dried porcini in a heat-proof bowl. Pour the boiling water over the top of them, push the mushrooms down into the water to make sure they are all covered, and set aside to steep.
Peel and cut the carrots, place them on a baking try, sprinkle with olive oil, salt and pepper. Using your fingers, mix the carrots around to make sure they are completely covered in oil. Bake for 20-25 minutes.
Place a medium-sized pot over medium-high heat. Pour the olive oil into the pot and then add the onions. Simmer the onions until they are soft and translucent; about 5 minutes. While the onion cooks, strain the mushrooms, making sure to save all of the soaking liquid. This will be added back into the dish. Roughly chop the mushrooms.
Add the garlic; stir briefly. Add the oat groats and cook for 3-4 minutes more, stirring constantly the oats toast. Add the mushrooms, then all of the soaking water, rosemaryand the one teaspoon salt. Bring the mixture to a boil; reduce to medium-low; cover the pot partially with a lid, and allow the mixture to simmer for 30 minutes.
When the carrots are done, remove from the oven and chop them into a medium dice. Add the carrots to the oat mixture. Taste the oat mixture to see if the oats are done to al dente. If not, continue to cook. Once the oats are done, turn off the heat and stir in the Parmagiano Reggiano. Taste the mixture and adjust the salt and pepper, if needed.