Italian cuisine is known for pasta and risotto and polenta and, to a lesser extent, for farro. But did you know that Italians also enjoy barley? Here is a simple, basic Italian barley soup—zuppa di orzo— that is both healthy, appetizing and, if made in a pressure cooker, can be prepared in under 30 minutes.
Makes 4-6 servings
For the soffritto:
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1 stalk of celery, finely chopped
- 1 medium carrot, finely chopped
- A small chunk of pancetta, finely chopped
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
For the soup:
- 200g (8 oz) barley
- 2 liters (2 quarts) water or broth, plus more water as needed
To finish the dish:
- More olive oil
- Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Begin by sautéing a soffritto of onion, carrot, celery and, if you like, a little pancetta in olive oil, seasoning as you like and taking care not to let them brown.
When the vegetables have softened, add your barley. Allow the barley to insaporire as you would for a risotto, then add water or broth to cover generously. (NB: Barley absorbs a lot of liquid as it cooks, so you will probably need to top it up with more water; check the pot from time to time.) Simmer covered for 45 minutes or until tender, stirring from time to time and adding water or broth as needed. The result should be a very thick soup, almost a porridge, but not entirely dry.
Serve your Italian barley soup immediately, topped with a drizzle of olive oil—un filo d’olio. Have some grated cheese on the side for those who like it.
If using a pressure cooker, bring up to pressure, lower the heat to a minimum and cook for 15 minutes, then release the pressure. When you open the cooker, check for liquid: if it has been entirely absorbed, add more water or broth and let simmer for a few minutes more. If there is too much liquid (less likely, given barley’s aborptive qualities) then just let is simmer until you have reached the proper consistency.
This is the very basic ‘mother’ recipe for Italian barley soup. There are lots of variations you can try, including the use of fresh herbs of your choice in the soffritto—parsley, rosemary and sage are particularly nice. Some recipes call for the addition of other vegetables, perhaps most commonly potato or pumpkin but also with leafy winter vegetables like kale or cabbage. Beans of all kinds—cannellini, borlotti, ceci, lentils, even peas—are also a very common addition, and turn this primo into a perfectly rounded piatto unico.
Beef broth is the best choice for making Italian barley soup, in my opinion, but it is perfectly lovely with vegetable broth or even just water. Chicken broth, on the other hand, while a possible choice, in my opinion does not really pair very well with barley. Some recipes call for soaking barley for a few hours before cooking to soften it. I find this step entirely unnecessary, at least with the barley that is sold commercially here in the US.
For this particular soup, instead of pancetta, I used a ham bone that I had left over (believe it or not!) from Christmas dinner. It gave a wonderful porky flavor to the soup. If using a ham bone, fish it out of the soup before serving and scrape off any meat. But the meat up into small pieces and add it to the soup.
Besides this stick-to-the-ribs winter soup, barley also appears on Italian tables in the warmer months as a salad. It’s quite a versatile grain!
Orzo, by the way, is also the name used in the English-speaking world for a popular soup pasta, so be careful if Googling for recipes.