I’ve been trying to make more of an effort to dive into German cuisine. It’s a cuisine that brings to mind monstrous mounds of meat. There’s Schweinshaxe or pork knuckle, a dish that looks like something Fred Flintstone would nosh on. Not to mention every corner of Germany has its own take on the sausage from the Leberwurst (liver sausage from just about any animal with a liver) to the Currywurst of Berlin.
But just as I’ve found a treasure trove of vegetarian recipes from the catalogue of Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine, I have to imagine the Germans aren’t always stuffing their gullet with whatever once lived. After all, Berlin itself is something of a vegan paradise.
The first German restaurant on my list was Kantine Kohlmann in Kreuzberg. There’s a chic, Weimar Republic vibe inside –– dark blue tiling that blends into sandpaper-colored walls that you can barely make out in the evening chandelier glow. I’m expecting a fast-paced, jazzy bob to start up any minute with everyone kicking back their chairs, grabbing a partner, and flailing about doing the Charleston.
I came for one thing and one thing only –– the Perlgraupen Risotto (pearl barley risotto). Now, I hear what you’re saying. “Risotto? That sounds pretty freakin’ Italian, you dummy!”
First of all, that’s not nice. I’m a relatively competent adult (I think… But really, who’s really nailing it these days?).
Second of all, I’m in it for the Graupen, which is something typical of German cuisine (and Polish and Russian, Google tells me). I got into making orzotto and risotto this past summer thanks to a recipe from Samantha Seneviratne with summer squash, so I wanted to see how this dish came out with pearl barley. It’s also a grain I’ve used a number of times for cholent and kasha varnishkes. I figured if I tried to recreate it, I could use what’s left in the cupboard (it turns out, just enough for this dish).
Kantine Kohlmann’s rendition includes Hokkaido pumpkin (also a wildly popular veggie around these parts) and both the zest and juice of an orange, plus Parmsean cheese. I loved the flavors and texture of the dish. I decided to try to recreate some version of it within the next week.
Flash forward and I’m in the kitchen with my pearl barley, balancing my memory of the dish at Kantine Kohlmann and the fundamentals I adapted from Seneviratne’s recipe. Like a typical risotto or orzotto, the pearl barley soaks up the stock but it rolls around my tongue differently. I can feel it sliding down my tongue and off the edges like marbles on a track.
The flavors are complex. There’s the burst of the mandarin juice on the first bite (a flavor that grows only more intense once it’s packed away for leftovers). After swallowing, the spice of the cayenne pepper grows on the back of the tongue, popping up like someone showing up fashionably late to the party. (The cayenne pepper was my addition. I likes my heat.)
Overall it’s wildly creamy––and that’s before adding a handful of cheese. I would’ve been skeptical of adding mandarin slices into a dish like this before having it at Kantine Kohlmann. But as long as they’re fresh and juicy, it all comes together like a symphony where two wildly different instruments end up complementing each other by the crescendo.
Pearl Barley Pumpkin Mandarin Risotto
- 1 dutch oven or skillet
- 3 tbsp butter or olive oil divided
- 1 onion finely chopped
- 4 cups Hokkaido pumpkin shredded
- 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp black pepper freshly ground
- 1 cup fresh oregano roughly chopped
- 2 tbsp dried basil
- 2 tsp cayenne pepper add more for additional spice
- 1 1/2 cup pearl barley
- 1 tbsp mandarin zest freshly grated from one mandarin
- 2 to 4 tbsp mandarin freshly squeezed, to taste
- 5 to 6 cups vegetable broth
- 3/4 cup Parmesan cheese
- Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a large heavy-bottomed pot. Add the onion and cook, stirring until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the pumpkin and cook until it has softened, about 5 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, oregano, basil, and cayenne pepper.
- Add the peal barley and toss to combine. Cook until lightly toasted, about two minutes.
- Add the broth, about a cup at a time. Continue to cook, adding broth a little bit at a time and stirring often until the pearl barley is cooked and the mixture is creamy, 15 to 20 minutes.
- When the pearl barley is ready, remove from heat and add the mandarin zest, juice, and Parmesan cheese. Stir to combine.
- (Optional) Cut an extra mandarin into eighths and add a couple of slices to your dish.