Have you ever thought about the nutritional benefits of asparagus? It’s a very unusual looking veggie and comes in thick stems (like the ones in the photo which I took at Borough Market) or with thinner stems which do not require peeling. The thinner asparagus are known as “baby asparagus”.
Spring is asparagus season in most of Europe. Although, nowadays, it is not unusual to find asparagus in supermarkets almost all year round.
Is asparagus good for you?
If I say asparagus is a powerhouse, you probably say that I think most veggies are. But if I had to list all the vitamins and minerals found in asparagus you will probably agree with me. So I’ll just highlight a handful of benefits which explain why I chose asparagus to be the star ingredient for today’s recipe.
- is a good source of Vitamin K, the blood clotting vitamin;
- contains anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties – protects your body against free radicals;
- acts as a natural diuretic – i.e. it makes you pass water which helps you get rid of excess salt and lowers high blood pressure;
- the nutrient inulin provides food for the good bacteria in your body, protecting you against colon cancer;
- provides you with folate, an essential requirement for the production of red blood cells;
- good source of fibre;
- good source of Vitamin B1 (thiamine);
- contains glutathione, an antioxidant which helps fight cancer.
The ladies attending my cookery classes asked if I can help them make a “healthy” risotto. We cooked two risottos – the typical Italian recipe inspired by Gennaro Contaldo and then we cooked a tweaked version, with barley. My springtime barley risotto is completely vegan too.
This recipe requires less attention than the typical risotto as you do not have to stand by and stir continuously. I replaced the rice for barley, a grain which is by far healthier than rice. It helps control your cholesterol levels and protects against heart disease. It also contains more fibre than rice and keeps you full for longer.
I gave this recipe a vegan spin and left out the wine, butter and cheese.
It is inspired by the Springtime Risotto of Gennaro Contaldo, a chef I truly admire.
- 1 cup pearl barley rinsed
- 1 medium-sized onion chopped finely
- 3 cloves garlic crushed and chopped
- 1/4 tsp smoked crushed chillies optional
- 2 cups asparagus chopped
- 1 cup fresh garden peas shelled
- 1 1/2 cups zucchini sliced
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 ltr vegetable stock hot
- 1 tbsp lemon rind grated
- 1 tbsp fresh mint chopped finely
In a heavy-based pan heat the oil and gently fry the onion. When it starts to soften, add the crushed garlic and smoked chilli flakes (if using). Stir to avoid sticking.
Add the chopped asparagus and the sliced zucchini to the pan. Stir until the vegetables are covered with the onion mixture. Keep stirring gently for a couple of minutes for the vegetables to soak up the flavours.
Add the rinsed barley and stir well into the vegetable mixture. After stirring for one minute or so, add 500ml of hot vegetable stock. Give the mixture a good stir, bring to the boil, cover with tight fitting lid and lower the heat. Simmer for 10 minutes.
After 10 minutes, check the barley, add more hot water as needed. Do not let the mixture stick to the pan. Add your peas, stir and cover. Simmer for a further 10 minutes. Add more hot water as required, stir, cover and simmer for the last 10 minutes. Barley takes between 30-40 minutes to cook, depending on your preferred texture.
After 30 minutes of simmering, check the texture of the barley. I like my grains al dente, but you may prefer a softer texture, in which case, add a little bit more hot water and simmer for a further 5 minutes. When barley is ready all your stock should be absorbed, but the mixture should not be too dry. Give the barley and vegetable mixture a gentle stir, cover and leave to rest for 5 minutes.
Add the chopped mint and lemon zest and give the mixture one final stir (if it is slightly dry add half a cup of hot stock and stir).
Your barley risotto is now ready to serve.
As the name implies this recipe is made with springtime vegetables which are in season. In this recipe, I used baby asparagus to avoid having to peel the stems. I just trimmed the very end of the stem and used the rest. When using seasonal vegetables you benefit from full flavour, better taste and less money.
You may wish to leave out the smoked chilli flakes for a truly fresh taste. However I find that a tiny amount of smoked chilli flakes give the dish a nice kick.
I would love to receive your comments after having tried my springtime barley risotto.
My thanks go to
Gennaro Contaldo for the inspiration