Monday, October 09, 2006

Back to Food

Today is a holiday for the courts. Columbus Day. Probably a day of mourning for the native inhabitants here in SoCal. But I get to cook. And blog.

Despite the apparent tone in my recent post, I am neither against this jury duty business, nor necessarily upset that I got onto a trial. Frustrated at the legal manipulations, yes.

But really, it is mostly this immense feeling of sadness that descends on you in the court house as you cannot help but overhear all the tales of woe from all the people involved in trials there. So many of them involving children and broken families. Kids who maybe don’t even have a chance any more, from the emotional and physical scarring they are receiving. I’m happy enough to participate on the jury, but sad is not a strong enough word.

I should say that given enough time, I am sure I could find a restaurant within walking distance that offered something reasonable to eat while I am on this jury duty. Though the court house is in a pretty rough neighborhood.

I did try bringing some food one day, as there is a nice little green belt surrounding the whole court house and city hall. With some benches, picnic tables, etc. Shady trees. Seemed nice.

I was a bit surprised to find that almost every seat in the park was taken by one of more persons who have evidently camped there for the long run. They seem to be more or less living there, having erected makeshift shelters out of the concrete benches.

I choose one of the few unused benches, and started reading the paper, eating some food I had brought, enjoying the sun. When a new friend sauntered by. Said his name was Albert. Carrying a few bottles of malt liquor, he sat down next to me, and began regaling everyone in earshot, myself included of course, vivid details concerning his daily auto-erotic practices. He offered me a beer as well. Which I declined. As I packed up my lunch and moved back indoors.

Funny story, sort of. True, too. Seems I’ve been leading an isolated life.

Back to food, though.

I mentioned that we are now focused on whole grains. And this causes a bit of a problem. Despite being more nutritious than things based on white flour, not everyone seems so enamored with the taste, not to mention the after effects, of the whole grains.

Looking to mollify all fractions, I announced we were having risotto for dinner. Risotto being a favorite here. When made from short grain white rice, that is. I did neglect to mention that we were making barley risotto.

But the barley had gone over well last time. So I didn’t anticipate too many issues.

The trick to the barley risotto, as I saw it, was to get some flavor into the dish. I decided to try adding flavor from four directions:
1. toast the barley grains before cooking
2. roast the vegetables in olive oil before adding them to the risotto
3. add some herbs to the chicken broth used to make the risotto
4. sauté the onions very slowly for a long time, until they were deeply caramelized, before adding them to the risotto

For vegetables, we used cauliflower and eggplant. We tossed the cauliflower and eggplant in olive oil, cumin and red pepper flakes, then roasted them in the oven for almost an hour. That really adds some color and flavor.

For the broth, we heated chicken broth with thyme and sage added to infuse those flavors throughout the risotto.

And for the onions, I just sautéed them at a very low temperature for about 30 minutes in olive oil, till they were a deep golden brown.

The barley got toasted right in the cooking pan prior to adding the broth.

The result of all this effort was a super rich, complex, deeply flavored ‘risotto’. The flavor just exploded in your mouth with every bite. The barley combined with all those caramelized flavors to create a thick creamy brown ‘sauce’ that enveloped every kernel.

In keeping with the roasted fall vegetable theme, we roasted an acorn squash as well, and arranged the risotto over a slice of the squash for presentation. A sprinkle of sage on top, and the dish was as dramatic to look at as to taste!

Despite being surprised, everyone seemed to enjoy the dish. Maybe a bit more elegant and complex than our usual fare. After some initial hesitation, a satisfied silence enveloped the table. If few direct complements were forthcoming until after dinner, no criticisms were offered either. That’s a definite success for this tough crowd!

Toasted Barley Risotto with Roasted Fall Vegetables
Recipe by surfindaave
Serves 4

1 head cauliflower, broken into flowerets
2 medium eggplants, cut into large cubes
olive oil
red pepper flakes
salt, pepper
1 acorn squash, cut into quarters, seeds removed
2 onions, sliced thin
2 cups barley
2-3 tbsp rice vinegar (or 1/2 cup white wine)
8 cups chicken broth
fresh thyme
fresh sage
2 cups parmesan cheese, grated
additional fresh sage, chopped for garnish, if desired
additional grated parmesan, for garnish, if desired

Preheat the oven to 450ºF.

In a large roasting pan, toss the cauliflower flowerets and eggplant pieces with some olive oil. Sprinkle with cumin, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Toss well. Roast for 30 to 45 minutes, depending on how dark you like your vegetables. Remove from oven and let cool.

Reduce the oven temperature to 400ºF.

Place the acorn squash slices in an ovenproof dish. Rub with olive oil. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until tender. Remove from oven, and keep warm.

In a small skillet, heat several tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, toss well, and reduce the heat to medium low. Sautee the onions very slowly, tossing often, until they are deep golden in color, about 20 to 30 minutes.

While the squash is baking, make the risotto. In a pot, heat the chicken broth with a few sprigs of thyme and some sage leaves. Bring to a boil, and keep at a bare simmer, covered. In a large heavy pot, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil. When hot, add the barley kernels. Toast the kernels, stirring often, until the kernels begin to brown. Do not let the kernels burn. When they are browned, reduce the heat to medium. Add the rice vinegar, and a few ladles of chicken broth to the barley, stirring. Continue to add the broth, a few ladles at a time, stirring frequently, until the barley is tender, and the mixture has thickened somewhat, about 30 to 40 minutes. Add the onions, the vegetables, and the cheese, stirring gently. Add additional broth to keep the mixture slightly soupy. Cook over low heat, stirring, until the vegetables are just heated through, adding additional broth if necessary.

To plate, place one slice of roasted squash on each plate. Spoon some risotto over the squash and onto the plate. Garnish with grated cheese and chopped sage, if desired. Serve. Enjoy!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

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Great Fitness

9:20 AM  
Blogger Dick Margulis said...

On the "not everyone seems so enamored with the taste" front, there really are times when the assertive nuttiness of whole wheat is an unwelcome addition. When I used to bake commercially for a health food store (back when they were called health food stores), whole wheat muffins and quick breads were richer than their white counterparts, and the whole wheat was a positive addition. But pound cake was another matter. The expectation with pound cake is that it will be mostly sweet, rich, and eggy, not wheaty. The same goes for some kinds of cookies, piecrusts, and other pastries.

The solution is the judicious use of orange. In some types of goods, a little frozen OJ concentrate does the trick; in others, a few drops of orange extract or some orange zest is the preferred ameliorant. It takes a little trial and error to get the balance just right; but when you hit it correctly, the result is something that has the neutral taste of the white-flour version and tastes neither wheaty nor orangey.

9:23 AM  
Blogger burcu said...

I love barley, but could never find a good way to use it. Your recipe has been inspirational. Thank you!

7:22 PM  
Blogger surfindaave said...

Wow! Thanks for all the comments! I appriciate the support!

Dick - I like the suggestion regarding orange and whole wheat, and will give this a try soon! Thanks!

10:05 AM  

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