Fennel and Kale Pearl Barley Risotto


It’s been a big week. This is the sort of dish you should make at either the cusp or close of such a window in time.

It’s been a period pocked with frantic packing and unpacking. I used to be very good at packing. I’ve perhaps hurt my mother’s feelings a little in the past by stating that one reason I’m quite good at packing were the adolescent years of shuttling between her house ( Wednesday morning- Friday) and my father’s  (Monday morning- Wednesday)- with every second weekend alternating. I was well trained in thinking ahead of whether I’d need my maths textbook in three days time, or sneakers for Saturday. I don’t think of this as a negative. I think of it as excellent training for life.

That earlier skill base was then honed during our years of scuttling off for weekend minibreaks. I got so good at it, I think I even wrote a few missives about the key items for keeping it all under control here.

But packing with a wee one, is a whole other kettle of fish. Will and I spent last Monday to Thursday down at my mother’s in the country, in an effort to slay as much of the writing of the book as possible (three week countdown- wish me luck).

But who knew one little person required so much stuff?

And then we spent Thursday and Friday contemplating our next adventure- to Hartley, in the Blue Mountains, for a vows ceremony between two of my favourite people.

Except, on Thursday some of the worst bushfires in NSW history began to stalk the Blue Mountains.

Cue two anxious days of continuously checking the Rural Fire Service updates (their Facebook engagement is rather terrific) and the RMS app to see what roads were open. There were multiple hours spent googling the effects of smoke on a nine week old respiratory system.

On Saturday morning Will and I woke to news that there had been frost overnight in the valley where the ceremony was due to be held. The weather was looking cooler and calmer. And at 4.30 am, the highway was open. And so the packing began again. My bridesmaids/Bushmaids dress went in. Sensible shoes. Champagne. Two muslins to cover Will’s pram and help filter out any nasties. Sunscreen. Back up bottles of formula in case of traffic snarls.  And so, off we went.

It was magical. I got to watch the woman who has been one of my rocks for more than 16 years now; who introduced me to my husband, who came with us to discover Istanbul, showed me the delights of Brooklyn, drafted the ‘adventurer’s travel essentials‘ and was the inspiration for the kangaroo shepherd pie in ‘A Suitcase and a Spatula’ take vows with a most terrific of gentlemen. (Nb, for anyone who is at all interested in communication strategy- do be sure to check out his blog and sign up to his newsletters– they’re fantastic).

But it’s hard to muffle the anxiety in a new-ish-mum when you sense there are hazards over the hill.  As much as we knew we were fine in the valley, rattling nerves wound their way into my every pore. So, knowing that the weather on Sunday was going to turn blazing and fierce again, we opted not to stay at the stately house we’d all rented up the road.

Instead we drove home through the dark, back to Sydney. Home to clear air and certain safety.

And yesterday, despite the unseasonably warm weather, I found I needed a bowl of this. There was just still too much excitement and adrenaline buffeting around inside. It had been a big 48 hours.

This pearl barley risotto is a dish that makes me think of my best friend. It’s is essentially a steadying hand on your shoulder, assuring you that everything is going to be ok. Pearl barley is a resourceful and nifty grain. It feels rustic and real, grounded and stable.  If cooked in stock it unfurls like risotto into a satisfying and sustaining mound, yet it can easily be made zippy depending on what you want to add to it. This is a base recipe that can be easily adapted- swap the kale for swiss chard or spinach or throw in some frozen peas. If fennel isn’t your thing, then go for some leeks and sautee them until they resemble sweet threads. And depending on what your ethical stance on eating meat is these days,  feel free to either add some organic chicken or bacon.  On its own it also sits beautifully with a collection of roasted chicken legs for a crowd.  A roast shoulder of pork would also do nicely as a main event. Add some mustard and creme fraiche and you’ve got all the excitement you need on the plate.

This week is going to be quieter. We’re staying put. I’ve got some people coming by to keep an eye on Will for a few hours so I can try and put some more of this book to bed.

But with every moment I’m working today, I know my best friend will be winging her way back to the other side of the world. And when I inevitably get blue, I’ll reignite some of the memories of Saturday – and perhaps pull out another portion of this.

Fennel and Kale Pearl Barley Risotto

Serves 6


2 tbsp olive oil
2 brown onions, finely diced
1/2 fennel, finely diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
300 grams of pearl barley
3/4 cup/175 ml of white wine
1 litre of chicken or vegetable stock
2 double handfuls of chopped kale (or silverbeet or swiss chard)
3 tbsp of creme fraiche or double cream
1/2 cup of flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped

Here’s how we roll

1) Finely dice the onion, fennel and the garlic.

2) Put a large, heavy bottomed pan on a medium heat. Add 2 tbsp of olive oil and sautee the onion and fennel for 5-7 minutes until soft and translucent. Add the garlic and sweat for another minute.

3) Add the pearl barley and stir to coat lightly in the olive oil.

4) Add the white wine and turn up the heat to bring to the boil and reduce by half.

5) Then add the stock and cook on a burbling simmer with the lid off  for 45 minutes. When most of the stock has been absorbed, and just before serving add the kale and stir through to allow to soften (don’t do this too far ahead of time and then reheat, as the kale will lose some of its attractive vibrant colour in the reheating).

6) Just before serving stir through the creme fraiche and chopped parsley. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

7) Serve on its own for a vegetarian supper or as a base for roast chicken, or roasted chicken marylands/legs (just place the legs in a 200 C/392 F oven for 40 minutes).


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