Springtime Barley Risotto

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.


  1. is a good source of Vitamin K, the blood clotting vitamin;
  2. contains anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties – protects your body against free radicals;
  3. 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;
  4. the nutrient inulin provides food for the good bacteria in your body, protecting you against colon cancer;
  5. provides you with folate, an essential requirement for the production of red blood cells;
  6. good source of fibre;
  7. good source of Vitamin B1 (thiamine);
  8. 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.

Springtime Barley Risotto
Prep Time
10 mins
Cook Time
30 mins
Resting time
5 mins
Total Time
40 mins

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.

Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Mediterranean, Plant-based, vegan
Servings: 4 people
Author: Colette Cumbo
  • 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
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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. 

  6. 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.  

Recipe Notes

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

Dr Axe 

Food to Live


Balanced Diet vs Healthy Diet

Is your diet balanced? Is it healthy? Or maybe it’s both?

What is a Healthy Diet?

Easy! A healthy diet is made up of fruit, veg, some meat and / or fish, low in fat with limited amounts of alcohol. Sounds good?  Actually, it’s not too bad.

What is the difference between a healthy and a balanced diet?

A balanced diet is healthy, with extras thrown in for good measure.

What makes a Healthy Diet “Balanced”?

  • A balanced diet provides the body with sufficient nutrients (macro – i.e. carbohydrates, fat, protein and micro – vitamins and minerals);
  • A balanced diet provides the body with the right amount of energy (calories) – an imbalanced diet leads to weight gain or weight loss;
  • A balanced diet includes sufficient fluids (mainly water) to keep the body well-hydrated;
  • A balanced diet limits counter-productive foods such as sugar and salt.
  • A balanced diet forms part of a healthy lifestyle which includes regular exercise.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) makes five recommendations:

  • Consume the amount of calories your body requires to function;
  • Limit your fats;
  • Eat more fruit and veg;
  • Limit your sugars;
  • Limit your salts.

Why is a Balanced Diet good for you?

A balanced diet keeps you feeling good about yourself.  You can enjoy good quality life, preventing diseases such as obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and some forms of cancer.

A balanced diet also provides you with high levels of energy.  It gives you shiny hair and strong nails.  Your skin looks plump and clear.  Your waist line remains in check, without too much effort.  Who’s complaining?

How do you “Balance” your Diet?

Most countries have their recommended dietary guidelines. These guidelines are set keeping culture in mind. So for example, the Eatwell Plate – the dietary guidelines for the UK – includes foods such as baked beans, crisps and porridge.  The Mediterranean diet includes olive oil and wine in moderation. The Chinese dietary guidelines recommend a diet based on whole grains, fruit and vegetables with tiny portions of protein, dairy and fats. Both the Mediterranean and the Chinese guidelines recommend plenty of water as well as exercise.

All good, but how does this work for you?

  • Establish your recommended calorie intake according to your lifestyle. If you have a sedentary job and you do not exercise regularly, your body needs less calories than a person who exercises seven days a week. A person who does not have a sedentary job also requires more energy to keep them going.
  • Get your energy (calories) in the right amounts:
    • 50-55% from carbohydrates
    • 33-35% from fat
    • 10-15% from protein.
  • Drink plenty of water – recommended guidelines 1ml water / 1kcal of food you consume.
  • Exercise regularly.

You are probably wondering how you can lose weight or maintain good weight when 50% of your energy intake comes from carbs.

Carbs are not only found in starchy foods such as potatoes, rice and pasta. You can get your carbs from fruit and veg. One important fact to bear in mind is that your brain requires carbohydrates. Carbs, in the form of glucose, are the only food the brain uses to function properly.

Balance out your healthy diet by eating a variety of foods in the right amounts. With the right food intake, water and exercise you’re on your way to healthy lifestyle.

Watch this space for more on the subject.


May thanks go to:




Why is obesity such a serious problem?

Our waistlines started increasing after World War II (WWII).  The end of the war marked an end to manual exertion and an increase in technological development.  The car started replacing the bicycle and the corner store or the farmers’ market were seriously challenged by the Co-Op chains which started sprouting all over the place.

Change of lifestyle post WWII

In 1954 television started entering households and physical activity started on a downward spiral.  By the eighties TV was transmitting round the clock and leisure activities plummeted even further. The birth of the microwave in the early 1980s brought plenty of ready-made, frozen foods available at very cheap prices.


  • a high supply of convenience food
  • the advent of fast food chains
  • lack of physical activity and
  • an increase in a sedentary lifestyle (brought about with the birth of the computer at work and at home)

resulted in a surplus of energy intake and lack of its expenditure.


How do you gain weight on healthy food?

This is not the whole picture.  A recent study, undertaken by an American insurance company in March 2018, shows that it is not just our lifestyle which is contributing to our expanding waistlines. Our lack of knowledge and awareness of nutritional values is another contributing factor.

The study worked with a sample of 1000 Americans from various walks of life.  They were asked to guess the nutritional values of a number of foods – healthy foods as well as ‘junk’ food.  Results show that, in the majority of cases, the respondents got their facts wrong. Why?

We tend to think that, as long as we eat healthy food – raw almonds, avocados and such like – we can eat as much as we want.  This is not the case.  Weight gain is a result of greater energy (calories) intake than expenditure.  You can get your calories (energy) from healthy food – nuts, fruit, fish, grains, olive oil … the list is endless – however, if you take in more energy than your body is using for your lifestyle, you still gain weight.

Roger Highfield of The Telegraph quotes Jane Wardle, Professor of Clinical Psychology, University College London as saying; “… most obese people don’t overeat by a lot, but an energy excess of only 70kcals a day – no more than a ginger biscuit – adds up to 70lbs (31.75kgs) of extra weight in 10 years; enough to turn a slim 25 year old into an obese 35 year old.”

What is portion distortion?

This brings me to the famous “portion distortion”. You can gain weight on a very healthy diet and you can lose weight on a very unhealthy diet.  Weight loss is all about calorie deficit: energy in < energy out = weight loss.  Similarly, if energy in > energy out it results in weight gain, irrespective of where the energy comes from.

Example:  100g of walnuts contain 654cals whereas 100g of pizza margherita contains 275cals.

Am I suggesting you eat pizza instead of walnuts to lose weight?  No.  I’m just highlighting the importance of moderation and an awareness of the nutritional value of the foods we eat.  Nowadays, food labels are obligatory.  Benefit from them.  Take the time to read what they say.  True, your pizza delivery does not come with its nutritional value on the box, but there are ways to check it out.

Alternatively, go back to roots and base your diet on foods which come from the soil.  Like the pizza, they do not come with a label either, but they guarantee you a smaller waistline.

My thanks go to:

Insurance Quotes and their sources

The Telegraph (online)


The State of Obesity.org

Image:  credit to Insurance Quote who were the inspiration behind this article







Spinach and Chickpea Korma with mushrooms

Does the story of spinach and Popeye ring a bell? I think it’s a good idea for children to be encouraged to eat leafy greens by assimilating to a “strong” persona. Spinach is one leafy green which is truly a powerhouse!


Cooked vs raw spinach is a bit like swings and roundabouts – what you lose on one you gain on the other.  Raw spinach is rich in folate, vitamin C, niacin, riboflavin, and potassium whilst cooked spinach is richer in vitamins A and E, protein, fiber, zinc, thiamin, calcium, and iron. Beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin – antioxidants located in the eye – which are absorbed better from cooked spinach.


On the other hand, chickpeas are a great source of plant-based protein, fiber, iron, zinc, phosphorus, B vitamins and more. I prefer cooking my own chickpeas to avoid preservatives and for the legumes to have a bite to them. Chickpeas are really simple to cook.  All you need to do is plan when you want to cook them and soak them from at least eight hours before.  Drain the soaking water, put the chickpeas in a large pot, cover with 5-6 cms of water and cover with a tight-fitting lid.  Bring to the boil then lower the heat and keep lid partially open.  Simmer for 25-30 minutes.  Turn off the heat and leave to stand in hot water for a further 15 minutes.  Drain, saving the water (called aquafaba) for use in the main dish.


The last star ingredient of this recipe is mushrooms.  The trend these days is to “eat a rainbow” – i.e. vary your diet with colourful vegetables and fruit.  Although field mushrooms are white, they contain plenty of antioxidants as well as selenium, vitamin D and folate. In other words … treat this humble-looking fungus with respect.

Ingredients for 4 persons:

1 kg spinach chopped
250 grms dried chickpeas (cooked)
250 grms field mushrooms quartered
1 large onion finely chopped
5 cloves garlic crushed
4 cm-piece fresh ginger finely chopped
3-4 tsps Korma curry powder
250 grms tomatoes roughly chopped
1 tbsp tomato paste
250 grms wholegrain basmati rice
 salt and pepper to taste (optional)


  1. Cook chickpeas as above.
  2. In a large pan, dry fry the onion, adding a quarter cup aquafaba (see above) to prevent it sticking to the pan. Using the water in which you boiled the chickpeas is a win win: you benefit from any nutrients lost in the water whilst cooking and it gives your dish a delicious, nutty taste.
  3. Add crushed garlic and chopped ginger, stir and continue dry frying for a further two minutes.
  4. When the mixture is fragrant, add the Korma powder and 2-3 tbsps aquafaba. Continue dry frying, stiring continuously to prevent sticking. Add a little bit more aquafaba, if necessary.
  5. Add the chopped tomatoes, the tomato paste and 3/4 cup aquafaba. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer gently for a few minutes.  Stir occasionally to prevent sticking.
  6. Add the quartered mushrooms – stir and cook for 3-4 minutes.
  7. Add the chopped spinach and cooked chickpeas. Give the mixture a good stir and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Stir occasionally.
  8. Simmer gently until the spinach is completely wilted. Turn off the heat and leave to stand whilst the you’re cooking the rice.
  9. Steam the rice – rinse the rice under running water; bring 500ml of water to the boil; add rice and stir well; cover with a tight-fitting lid; bring the water back to the boil; lower the heat and leave the pot to simmer for 25 minutes.  Turn off the heat and leave the rice to stand for 5 minutes.  Uncover and give the rice a good stir.
  10.  Serve the spinach and chickpea Korma with steamed rice.

This is one of those recipes which I knocked together at 6am, before going to the office. It’s so quick and easy to make, especially if you cook the chickpeas from before.

Try it for yourself and let me have your comments.

My thanks go to:

Vegetarian Times

Dr Axe Food is Medicine

Medical News Today


Cooking classes for weight loss

Learn how to cook simple and easy, every day food which helps you lose weight. Join our eight-week programme which looks into the dos and don’ts of eating for weight loss and for long-term weight management.

This programme helps you make the right food choices, motivates and inspires you to prepare food which is good for you and your family.

We meet for two hours, once a week, to find out:

Sessions consist of theory, question and answer, cooking.  The programme includes four practical units which are made up of a short intro followed by a hands-on cooking session. (Cost of ingredients for cooking class included in your booking fee).

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Our round table discussion and cooking class is available for a maximum of six places only.

For further information and to book your place call now on 9985 2647 and benefit from a free one-to-one consultation.

Risi e Bisi made simple

Have you ever tasted the renowned Venetian dish risi e bisi? I stick to variations of it, to avoid the pancetta. Rizi e bisi is a springtime specialty in Venice, used to celebrate the feast of San Marco on 25th April.

Green Garden Peas

Springtime is the season for garden peas.  You can get frozen peas, or even canned, but their taste doesn’t come anywhere close to that of fresh peas. The sweetest peas are the smaller ones, before their sugar content starts changing to starch.

You’d be surprised to find that 100 grams of raw fresh peas provide you with 67% of your daily Vitamin C intake and 15% of Vitamin A requirements. It’s such a simple vegetable (a legume actually), which many people grow in their back garden, yet it’s a powerhouse of nutrients. Peas are low in calories and high in fibre.  They also provide you with calcium, iron, copper, zinc, and manganese.

How to use Garden Peas

Garden peas can be used in a variety of ways.  Paired with fresh mint they make an excellent cold summer soup.  You can mash them or use them in purees or simply use them as a side.  Raw fresh peas also make a great salad ingredient.  The simpler the recipe, the more you get to appreciate the sweet taste of fresh peas.

Here is a simple way of making a vegetarian version of the famous risi e bisi mentioned earlier.  It makes a hearty and filling supper. Quick and easy to make in just over half an hour.


makes two portions as main course

1 Large onion
5 Cloves garlic (in springtime you can replace with fresh garlic)
Pinch Crushed chillies (optional)
2 tbsp Olive oil
1 cup Wholemeal basmati rice
2 cups Fresh peas (shelled)
2 cups Vegetable broth
Grated Parmesan and parsley to serve


  1. Finely chop the onion and crush the garlic. (If using fresh garlic use two / three heads of garlic).
  2. Heat the oil in a heavy-based pan and gently fry the onion until it is translucent. Add the crushed garlic and the chillies (if using) and fry gently for one or two minutes.
  3. Rinse and drain the rice.  Tip into the pan and stir into the mixture of onion, garlic and chillies. Fry gently for a couple of minutes, stirring constantly.
  4. Add the hot broth, and give the rice a good stir.
  5. Bring to the boil and lower heat to minimum.  Cover the pan with a tight fitting lid and allow to simmer gently for 20 minutes.
  6. Add the shelled peas to the pan and cover quickly, without stirring. Continue simmering for a further 10 minutes.
  7. By this time, all the stock should be absorbed.  Turn off the heat and allow the rice to rest (with the lid in place) for a further 5 minutes.
  8. Serve with grated Parmesan (optional) and finely chopped parsley.

For a vegan version, omit the Parmesan.  You may replace the wholemeal basmati with carnaroli or arborio rice, in which case the end result would be closer to a risotto.

One main difference between my version of risi e bisi and the renowned Venetian recipe is that my recipe is eaten with a fork.  The authentic recipe is very similar to a thick soup which is eaten with a spoon.

Feel free to try both, and leave a comment to let me know which you prefer.

My thanks go to:

Food Facts by Mercola and

The Guardian