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By Jessica Roy Whole grains are all the rage right now — as they should be! Incorporating them into your recipe repertoire can be a little intimidating at first, but looking at them as a gourmet side rather than an “earthy crunchy” enemy can open up a new world of restaurant-style meals at home.

Barley is one of the oldest cultivated grains of modern civilization. Most widely known this day in age as a base for brewing beer, and as an essential ingredient in notoriously bland vintage soup recipes, barley actually has a pleasant, nutty taste and slightly chewy texture.

Keeping in mind that since the whole grains have all parts intact, including the bran layer, they will take a bit longer to cook than processed refined grains like white rice, and often require over night soaking. Pearled barley has been through a process to remove the bran layer. It cooks a bit quicker than the full bran version, but still maintains a high protein, vitamin and mineral content making it a good option for weeknight meals.

As you may know from some risotto posts, a true risotto can only be made using the specific Italian grain of starchy rice. However, many recipes are borrowing the name of the technique in order to convey a creamy grain dish that is tender to the bite.

Just like a traditional risotto, this dish can lend itself to pretty much any seasonal flavors you can imagine to incorporate. It’s a great way to use some fresh farmers market ingredients this summer. Cherries are in season at the moment, and fennel is popping up in many local CSA baskets!

Barley Risotto with Cherries and Fennel

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 sweet yellow onion, diced

Olive oil, as needed

1 cup pearled barley

2 cup water

1 cup fresh cherries, pitted and diced

1/4 cup fresh fennel, thinly sliced

1/2 cup goat cheese crumbles

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

Salt and pepper, as needed

Add 1 Tbs. olive oil to a medium sauce pan over moderate heat. Add garlic and onion and allow to sweat for 3-4 minutes until fragrant and tender. Stir pearled barley into the mixture and allow to gently toast for about a minute. Add a pinch of salt, and stir.

Pour in water, and give a good stir. Bring to a simmer. Cover and allow to simmer over medium low heat for 35-40 minutes, until liquid is absorbed and barley is cooked through. Taste, and season with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, pour balsamic vinegar into a small sauce pan. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Allow vinegar to reduce by half until it is thick and syrupy. Remove from heat.

Transfer cooked barley to a serving bowl. Toss with cherries, fennel, goat cheese, and balsamic reduction.

Jessica Roy is a specialty chef and caterer, food writer and chef instructor, and owner of Shiso Kitchen in Somerville, where she teaches classes. Follow her at http://blogs.lowellsun.com/yourpersonalchef.