Saturday, November 25, 2007

Saturday morning is heavy cleaning time, and every week I rotate through the apartment, so that each room can get a special scouring. Today tackled the kitchen, and since I was going to be in it all morning, I thought I'd cook something at the same time, something with barley. Until recently, I hadn't done much with barley for several years. However, I have a box of "orzo" pasta on my snack shelf waiting for the day I feel inspired to make a kind of Italian fried rice with it. I've always thought of orzo as pasta mimicking arborio rice, so it came as surprise when I found out that "orzo" actually means "barley" in Italian.

Why learning this fact should make me want to start cooking with barley is a bit of a puzzle. Perhaps a tiny nudge was all it took to make me think, "Hey! Barley!" and go out and get a sack of the stuff at the local organic grocery. In any case, that's what I did. I don't know much about barley, apart from the fact that the brewing kind doesn't make the best eating kind. I assume what I scooped out of the plastic bin was the latter sort, but it definitely wasn't pearl (or husked) barley. This was the healthy, natural, takes-forever-and-ever-to-cook kind of barley.

There was a note to this effect on the plastic bin at the store, which promised that if I had the foresight to soak the grain overnight, it would take a mere 30 minutes of cooking. Cue hysterical laughter—oh, you joker, you. I'll reveal the actual cooking time further on; the point here is that the overnight soaking is a very good idea if you plan to eat the barley as anything other than a midnight snack.

So, before breakfast, I set the stuff simmering in lightly salted water with a large bay leaf, and nipped over to the Stop & Shop for some mushrooms, some beef bones, and whatever else might seem worthy of this culinary effort. Because of Thanksgiving (or the usual supermarket perversity), there weren't any loose portabella caps available, so I had to buy what they call "baby bellas." Despite what they say, I don't really believe that these are immature portabellas at all, but rather what might be more accurately called crimini mushrooms, which aren't as full flavored as the big fellows. So, anyway, I bought two package, some trimmed beef rib bones, a yellow turnip (rutabaga) the size of a grapefruit, three big carrots, and two sticks of celery. Everything else I needed I had at home.

The moment I got back I turned the oven on to 250°F. Then I seasoned the bones with salt and finely ground New Mexican chile, put them in a baking pan, and slipped them into the oven. Then I made some coffee and scrambled some eggs, and geared myself up for the seasonal task of washing the kitchen windows, inside and out.

An hour or so after the bones went in, the meat clinging to them (a nice amount of that, actually) was medium done and still juicy, and some of the fat had been rendered. I trimmed the meat off, cut it into bite-size pieces, and set it aside. The browned bones went into the barley pot.


At this point, around 11:30, I decided I had better get the vegetables roasting. My approach to this sort of stew is to cook everything separately to just the doneness I want and then mix it all together and let the flavors mingle a bit for a bit before serving it up. This is an especially good idea when you're not really sure when one of those ingredients will actually be ready—in this instance, the barley. At this point it was barely edible… sort of like eating chopped gristle.

Now I took an hour break to start the cleaning. When I returned to the food, I started by turning up the oven to 350°F, then heating two tablespoons of olive oil in a Calphalon Dutch oven, a regular workhorse in this kitchen. I wanted to sauté the mushrooms first, because I was worried that they wouldn't have much presence, and browning them would help with that. So, too, would the half tablespoon of Chinese mushroom-flavored soy sauce I added to the oil. Rather than slicing the mushrooms, I broke them apart with my fingers. This gives their surface a rough texture, which isn't all that noticeable when you eat them (and certainly not in a stew!) but means that they don't sop up the oil like so many little sponges. I had enough to fill the bottom of the pot, and as they sweated their liquid I regularly poured this in with the barley. This added more flavor to it and meant that the mushrooms really were sautéed and not just stewed.


While the mushrooms cooked, I peeled and cut up the turnip, then scraped and cut up the carrot. (By "scrape" I mean that I turned the knife so that it was perpendicular to the carrot and pushed it down the vegetable's sides. This gets rid of the dried outer layer but doesn't remove nearly as much as a peeler would.) The celery stalks and (a single large) onion were prepped in the usual way, reserving the celery leaves for later. Finally, I minced a large clove of garlic.

When the mushrooms were toasty brown, I turned them onto a plate, added another tablespoon of oil to what remained, sprinkled in a teaspoon of kosher salt, and added the vegetables, stirring them up so that they were all coated with the olive oil. Then the Calphalon went uncovered into the oven. I tasted the barley for doneness—it was coming along, tasting now like boiling hot Gummy Bears.


Back to the cleaning, this time I tackling the windows. I was pretty much free to work on them full time, as long as I remembered to stir the vegetables every 10 minutes or so. They took about 45 minutes to reach the point where both the carrot and turnip pieces were tender. I set the Dutch oven over a low flame on the range, fished the bones out of the barley pot, and poured everything else in with the roasted vegetables. The barley was now almost tender! After only four hours of constant simmering!

Here, if I had been planning to feed a football team, I could have turned all this into beef and mushroom barley soup, since the grains were now mucilaginous enough to thicken the contents of a stockpot. In fact, I had to add two cups of water so that we would have stew, not sludge. At the same time I stirred in the reserved meat and mushrooms, as well as a good amount of Italian parsley minced with the celery leaves. The windows were sparkling and the kitchen clean—including everything I had used to make the meal apart from the pot that held the stew. It was time to eat.


Afterthoughts. Matt and I both enjoyed this stew a lot, but we both decided it wasn't great. Despite what I said above, it turned out that I had forgotten the garlic, and that was a minus right there. Also, there was the issue of the portabellas, and one other thing. I had wanted meaty soup bones, and when I found none, I should have asked the butcher for some. They would have had less meat on them, but the the bones would have produced more flavor—which was really the point.

There's probably some other aromatic or spice or herb that could have helped, too, and I'll be thinking about what it could be (mustard seeds? thyme? a few anchovies? a dollop of Bovril?) But the dish was promising enough to deserve such thought, and I'm sure the next time, or the time after, I'll get it right.

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