Spinach is available throughout the year, but two varieties are currently at their peak: delicate early spring spinach in our farmers markets, grocery stores and co-ops, as well as a winter variety with large, sturdier leaves and longer stems. The latter is seeded in the late fall and grows slowly through the winter in unheated greenhouses where the lower temperatures concentrate its flavors. It’s slightly sweeter, with complex mineral notes. If you see this type of spinach, buy it!
Do not overcook spinach (of any variety); it turns swampy fast. (The only advice from my grandmother I’ve ever ignored is to “boil greens until there is no fight left in them.”)
At the market, look for fresh spinach that is bright green, without spots or holes. Do not wash it until ready to use and be sure to spin or pat it dry with paper towels. Store spinach in plastic bags in the refrigerator; it won’t keep long so plan to use it right away.
Although risotto is traditionally made with Arborio rice, the technique works beautifully with other grains, such as barley, farro and oat groats. In the pot, barley is far more forgiving than rice and much easier to work with. It maintains its shape and texture even when your timing is off, and it can be prepared a day ahead and rewarmed before serving. Its nutty taste works especially nicely with greens such as spinach.
You can store cooked barley in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to a week or freeze it. Make a big pot ahead to add to soups, stews and salads.
I prefer the “hulled” or “hulless” barley that is minimally processed and considered a whole grain. Pearl barley has had most of its bran layer and hull removed so that it cooks in a little less time. Both are available in bulk at food co-ops and in the pasta and rice aisles of most supermarkets and grocery stores. Either will work nicely in this risotto recipe.
Barley risotto is so substantial and satisfying that it doesn’t need as much butter and cheese to make a hearty main dish. Using a lighter hand with those ingredients allows the flavor of the grain and the greens to shine through. This dish is light and creamy (yet creamless), a fresh taste of spring and good things to come.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.