Orzotto with fennel, soybeans and lemon

A healthy and vibrant low-effort dish.


An orzotto is versatile enough to work as a side dish or take a star turn at centre stage, depending on mood or necessity. In this case, it's substantial enough to easily hold its own for two hungry people and needs no accompaniment. It's also low-maintenance – 5 minutes' work at the beginning and end – so I wheel it out when time and attention are in short supply and the need for something easy, vibrant and healthy is running high.

Unlike risotto, orzotto – from the Italian for barley, not the pasta shape that looks like barley – doesn't need hands-on work to coax the grains to absorb the stock. You pour it all in, cover the pan and walk away.

Instead of starting with an onion, I soften some fennel for its lovely anise flavour. If your fennel comes with its feathery fronds still attached, save them and sprinkle them over the finished dish for some dill-like freshness.

Cook's tip: I keep one crucial step from risotto-making: sploshing in some wine before adding the stock. For me it's built into muscle memory and will happen almost unconsciously, but you can safely dispense with it if you choose.

My bean of choice for this used to be broad beans, carefully blanched and individually popped out of their skins. Nowadays, and in keeping with the minimal effort of the whole dish, soybeans – of edamame fame – are my go-to. They have the same luscious texture and cheerful greenness of broad beans without the extra business. In another convenient move, they can be added directly from the freezer.

Orzotto with fennel, soybeans and lemon


For 2.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small bulb fennel (diced, for about 100g or 1 scant cup)
125g (¾ cup) pearl barley
2 tablespoons white wine or white vermouth
375ml (1½ cups) vegetable (or chicken) stock
150g (1 cup) frozen soybeans
¼ cup Parmesan, finely grated
3 tablespoons parsley, roughly chopped
1 lemon
sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper

In a heavy-based saucepan, one for which you have a tight-fitting lid, warm the olive oil over medium heat and cook the fennel until it has softened and started to become translucent.

Add the pearl barley and stir until well coated. Turn the heat up to medium-high and add the wine (or vermouth) and stir for a minute or so until the wine has been absorbed or evaporated.

Add the stock, bring up to a bubble then turn the heat to low, just enough to keep a simmer going. Cover and let it cook for 20 minutes, by which time most of the stock will have been absorbed by the barley.

Stir in the beans and cook, covered, for a further 5 minutes or until the beans are tender.

Stir in the parsley and Parmesan. Add the juice of half the lemon to start with and taste before adding more lemon juice, if required, and seasoning with salt and pepper.