Somewhat perversely, I hankered for barley. It was a vague hankering. This was about a month ago. I'm not sure I'd ever cooked barley, and may not have actually seen any since my last can of Campbell's Scotch Broth, a thousand years ago (barley is an ancient grain).
As much as we brag in Chicago about the great food, we do not mean the grocery food. Or, I don't. My local grocery is a cruel place that never has anything I want. In fact, not long ago there was no broccoli, no sweet potatoes. Many times there has been no basil. Many times.
No Basil: A One Act Play, by Emily Nunn
Me, to produce manager: Excuse me, sir. Have you any basil?
Produce manager: No! Leave us!
So they didn't have any barley. I looked all over. I found pearl barley--this means the bran has been removed, and the grain has been steamed and polished, according to the Food Lover's Companion; imagine polishing barley for a living--far, far away from my home. I bought it. I treated it like sack of Magic Beans, a treasure. And for a long time, just owning it was good enough for me. Also, I didn't know exactly what to do with it.
Then I found the cookbook "Ten: All the Foods We Love and Ten Recipes for Each" (Workman, $19.95), by Sheila Lukins, which has quickly become a favorite, because the recipes are simple but elegant; they seem like celebration food. She is after all a Silver Palate lady.
Here is Lukins' recipe for Butternut Barley Risotto, which, if you have not tried it, may not sound like a dish to trot out for a party. But that's because you haven't tried it. I've made it 3-4 times, and we ate it for breakfast, recently, too. At the suggestion of Saunders, who is 9. It's that good. And it makes you feel virtuous.
Butternut Barley Risotto, from "Ten," by Sheila Lukins
1 butternut squash (about 1 1/2 pounds), peeled, seeded, and cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, cut into 1/4 inch dice
5 cups chicken or vegetable broth, preferably homemade, or more if needed.
1 cinnamon stick
1 cup diced seeded ripe plum tomatoes (I used canned once; it was fine)
1 cup of pearl barley, rinsed
4 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste.
- Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil Add the squash and cook until just tender, about 3 minutes. Drain, set aside.
- Heat the oil in a heavy pot over low heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until they are very tender, 10 to 15 minutes.
- While the onions are cooking, pour the broth into a saucepan, add the cinnamon stick, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 5 minutes. Discard the cinnamon stick and keep the broth hot.
- Add the tomatoes to the onions and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes.
- Stir the barley into the onion/tomato mixture, coating it well with the oil.
- Raise the heat to medium and stir 1/2 cup of the hot broth into the barley mixture. Cook, stirring frequently, until it has been absorbed into the barley. Continue this process, 1/2 cup at a time, making sure each addition of broth is absorbed before adding the next, until barley is tender and most of the broth has been used, about 45 minutes.
- Carefully fold in the reserved butternut squash, 2 tablespoons of the parsley. Cook to reheat the squash, about 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately, garnished with remaining parsley.