Friday, October 18, 2013

One Pot Barley Faux-Sotto

It is officially fall in my book despite that we haven't reached the autumnal equinox, or have "fallen back" for daylight savings: the leaves are turning gorgeous colors, reminiscent of apples and squash, and falling from their trees (cue the Mama's and the Papa's song now!). The air is cool and crisp. There are apples, pumpkins, squash replacing the late-summer produce at markets and stores, and school is reaching a plateau for most in terms of exams and homework. This is a time that I am thankful to be done with undergrad, but I know I still have a long road ahead of me with my research.

As an update, "plan B" is being explored. This entails looking at why late lactation goat's milk forms protein aggregates when cooked into caramel sauce, or "cajeta" (dulce de leche's goat-y cousin). So, I will be making cajeta in the very near future, subjecting it to varying levels of baking soda, and tracking pH as I cook it. I will probably perform an informal sensory on the cajeta, and get into a fight with my lab's pH meter.

With the cold, and all that class/work nonesense going on, laziness once home is bound to sink in. Never fear! Here is simple and quick one-pot meal to use up the rest of your late-season tomatoes, and introduce your pallet to the hearty grains of fall and winter. I call this a "faux-sotto" because the finished dish is reminscent of a risotto: pearls of al dente grain suspended in a starchy, cream-like sauce. The obvious difference is that it is not the traditional starchy-rice (typically arborio) dish.

You shall impress yourself, or friends with this oh-so-frickin' easy dish! It will also warm your heart with hearty grains and yummy 'matos!
This recipe has been modified from the original quite a few times, so I am claiming this one as my own. The most finicky part is slicing the onion and garlic in thin slices-but you could be more lazy (rustic!), and slice them in thicker chunks (as I often do...). The flavors will eventually all mellow together, so don't sweat it. However, I have to admit with my trials, I have found that the onions are best when sliced very thin, as they melt together with the starchy sauce, and create a savory background for the toothsome barley. The onion flavor is not pronounced, so even if you hate onions, I encourage you to try this. Or, you could omit the onions all together, and just use garlic. And a note about the semi-pearled barley: you must use "semi-pearled" here, and not just "regular" barley. Semi pearled is a term meaning that some of the outer bran of the grain has been removed (think brown vs. white rice), and will cook a bit faster than the un-pearled variety.

This dish is filling by itself, topped with a sharp and salty cheese and more herbs. Or, serve with green beans, and/or some of your favorite sausages (real meat or veggie sausages will do!).

Barley Faux-Sotto
Makes 4 generous servings, or 6 to 8 sides if served with additional vegetables or sausages

1 cup semi-pearled barley
3 to 4 cups water, or stock of your choice
1 onion
4-6 cloves garlic
4 sprigs fresh thyme, or 1 TB italian seasoning, or 2 teaspoons dried thyme (any earthy-herb will work)
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
red pepper flakes
2 cups (about 9 ounces) tomatoes (small cherry or grape tomatoes are great, but any ripe red or yellow will do)
2 to 4 TB tomato paste (this is entirely optional)
Parmesan or Percorino Romano cheese, or a semi-hard or hard salty, aged cheese
Fresh parsley, basil if you can find it, or additional thyme

A large, heavy-bottomed (such as cast iron dutch or french oven) pot
Cutting board
Wood Spoon
Cheese grater or Microplane
Measuring cups (or good eye-balling skillz)
A French oven has a rounded top, whereas a Dutch oven has a flat lid with a lip to help hold coals. Dutch ovens were traditionally used as open-fire vessels, often covered in hot coals or embers to help cook the contents! Hooray!
First, heat your heavy-bottom pot (a french-see the red one above-or dutch oven would work here, or even a cast-iron skillet that has deep sides) on medium heat. Add the 1 cup of barley and 3 cups of liquid. Allow the barley to soak in the warming liquid. Meanwhile, thinly slice (as thinly as you can muster) your onion: chop off ends and peel, then slice in half along the lateral (longer) edge of the onion. With each half, slice half-moons.Then, gently smash to coax the peels off the garlic cloves, and slice. See below!

If using fresh thyme or herbs, de-stem (but some stem is ok if it is not terribly woody), and roughly chop. Add a dash of olive oil to the warm pot, enough to coat the bottom of the heated pan, then add everything, as well as salt, pepper and the crushed red pepper flakes. Halve or quarter (or chunk larger tomatoes into smaller pieces) the tomatoes, and throw them in the pot.

Bring the heat up to medium-high, and let the contents come to a low boil. Meanwhile, prep the fresh herbs and cheese for topping: finely chop fresh parsley and/or thyme. If available, rustic-ly rip some basil, or you could chiffonade by gathering leaves in a stack, rolling, then thinly slicing along the longer length of the leaves with a knife (or scissors!). Grate your salty, delicious cheese (leave the cheese and grater out-you will inevitable fall into the "I need more cheese!" trap once you start gnoshing).

Pecorino for grating, and fresh basil and parsley. Bowls for landing, and additional salt for seasoning. This dish is just way to simple-you will find yourself organized while preparing it. Really...I mean it!

Now, turn the head down to a gentle simmer, give the mix one last stir, put the lid on and walk away. It may be good to set a timer for about 30 minutes. You can, like me, come back and check mid-way to be sure the liquid level is good. If it gets too low, the barley may stick and scotch to the bottom of the pan (less likely to happen with a heavy bottomed pan!). Adjust the liquid to your taste: I find that I need to add about 1/2 to 1 cup additional for my taste. Let your preferences guide you: if you want a more soupy-dish, add more. If you want more of a risotto, add less. It is up to you!

The barley will be done when it still had a slight toothy-hardness to it. You can simmer for longer with more liquid if you want it a bit softer, but it will retain a bit of hardness no matter what. At this point, you can stir in a few tablespoons of tomato paste if you want a deeper tomato flavor (reminicent of a hearty vegetable stew), and some more fresh herbs if you desire. Serve in bowls, sprinkled with the fresh chopped herbs and a generous sprinkle of cheese. Also, this dish makes excellent left-overs, and the flavors as well as textures improve with a rest in the fridge. I find that the barley softens a bit as well!

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