Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mushroom & Barley Risotto

Since it has been steamy and rainy in Philadelphia for about a thousand straight days, it doesn't quite feel like fall just yet, and I kind of wish it would just hurry up and get here. Still, I'm keeping the faith and since the sun actually did come out today, I felt like cooking a fall favorite that I started making at just about this time last year.

You'll be happy to know that this dish is much less annoying than your average risotto. Not that I'm hating on risotto; I respect and admire anyone with the patience to make a good one. Still there is really no need to stand over this, the barely version, adding the liquid one eye-dropper at a time, so you can do other things instead. Like call all your friends and tell them how yummy this smells while it's cooking, and how jealous they are that they're not having dinner with you tonight.

1 8 oz. box of mushrooms, sliced, or 8 oz. assorted varieties
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup pearl barley
1/2 large onion, finely chopped
2-3 tsp fresh thyme leaves, plus one single sprig for serving
1 14.5 oz. can or about 1 1/2 cups vegetable stock or chicken stock, low-sodium
Salt & pepper
2 tsp butter

grated Parmesan for sprinkling (optional) 
about 1/4 cup of wine, white or red (optional and recommended)
Toasted walnuts or pine nuts for sprinkling (optional and recommended)

1. In a medium frying pan or sauce pan over medium-high heat, melt butter and saute onion and mushrooms until they release their juices and the juices have mostly evaporated. Add salt and pepper. Add wine, and continue to cook for about 2 to 3 minutes. (This is my favorite part. It smells so good you practically want to climb inside).
2. Add barley and bay leaf, and stir to toast the grains for about a minute. Once the barley soaks up the juices, add stock and thyme and bring to a boil. Turn heat down to low, cover and let cook until barley is tender and liquid is absorbed, about 20-25 minutes. (About halfway through, check to be sure more stock is not needed.)
3. To serve, plate and garnish with a single spring of fresh thyme and Parmesan. Serve with freshly ground pepper.

I'm sure some people would yell at me for opening a lidded pan while it's cooking, but those people weren't around this evening. If there is too much liquid and the barley is ready, just simmer uncovered for a couple of minutes at the end.

It might seem weird to use red wine in a risotto, but it's what I had on hand so I tried it out, and it was completely delicious. There might be a rule against this, but if you're anything like me (meaning that you like things that are delicious), the rules are irrelevant. White wine might be better, but I'm not disappointed with how this turned out. I believe wine is necessary for a really great risotto, but I've made this dish without it in the past and while it's less attention-grabbing, it's still yummy. If you're not the boozing kind, don't fret; I'm pretty sure all the alcohol cooks off anyway.

The original recipe that I read for this dish many moons ago called for thyme and dried marjoram. Since then I've tried all thyme, mostly thyme and a little marjoram, and thyme and marjoram with a dash of dried, ground sage, and all have been delicious. The rich flavor of the sauteed mushrooms with the hearty chewiness of the barley and the herbs... Yum! You can't lose.

Quote of the Day: In the age of acorns, before the times of Ceres, a single barley-corn had been of more value to mankind than all the diamonds of the mines of India." ~ Henry Brooke

P.s. Good luck finding a quote about barley that isn't from the Bible. Weird.

Note: To veganize, use veggie stock, olive oil instead of butter, and obviously skip the Parmesan - but not the wine! You really need one or the other.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Savory Dinner Oatmeal with Mushrooms & Herbs

For those of you who started reading this blog before I entered my current existence as a solo-living, studio-apartment-dwelling graduate student, I'm sure you've noticed a trend in the posts I've made since. Generally it's simple, easy, and basically-healthy comfort food that appeals to the cook in me these days, and since it's a gross rainy day here in Philly (and, okay, I'm a little depressed at the prospect of not seeing Brady for another five weeks), I surely was not about to deviate from this theme tonight. So in the spirit of semi-wallowing in my school readings and Netflix reruns, I thought I'd take a stab at using a super basic whole grain as the base for this vegan main dish. If this idea seems a little weird to you, keep an eye out for my mushroom barley risotto, coming soon. It combines very similar flavors but bypasses any potential is-this-breakfast-or-dinner confusion.

1/4 large white or yellow onion, diced
1/2 cup mushrooms, sliced
1/2 zucchini, sliced
2 tsp Italian herb mix
1 cup rolled oats - not instant or "quick-cooking"
About 3/4 cup water or vegetable broth
1 small clove garlic, smashed
Fresh parsley, diced avocado, or toasted pine nuts, for sprinkling (optional)
Salt & pepper
Olive oil

1. In a medium saucepan, heat about 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Saute mushrooms until they release their juices, and the juices evaporate. Add garlic and onions and cook until softened before adding zucchini. Saute for about 1 minute then salt (generously if you're using water, less generously if you're using veggie broth), add a drizzle of water (a few teaspoons) and stir. Cover to cook for a few minutes until the vegetables are very soft.
2. Add oats, pepper and herbs. Stir, and gradually add about 3/4 cup water or vegetable broth. (You may use slightly more or less, but add it gradually so you know if it's getting too liquidy). Turn heat to low and cover to cook for a few minutes until oats are well softened. (I also added a dash of ground sage, dried marjoram and dried thyme just for fun).
3. Serve sprinkled with diced avocado, fresh herbs or pine nuts.

I won't act like this is my favorite thing ever, but it is somewhere between "not bad" and "pretty good, actually." So I'm not gonna hate on it. Just like for breakfast, oatmeal for dinner is low-glycemic, filling and heart-healthy, and with all the herbs and veggies, it ends up more like a thick risotto than "oatmeal" per se, which is probably the best outcome that I could expect.

Quote of the Day: One of life's best coping mechanisms is to know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem. If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire, then you've got a problem. Everything else is an inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy. A lump in the oatmeal, a lump in the throat and a lump in the breast are not the same kind of lump. One needs to learn the difference. ~ Robert Fulghum

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Lentil & Pumpkin Chili, or The Triumphant Autumnal Return of Guerilla Kitchen

As the first day of Fall, this turned out to be the perfect pumpkin-themed day for the triumphant return of Guerilla Kitchen. If you can say that a two-week hiatus warrants a triumphant return. Whatever. Anyway, I love anything with pumpkins in it, which is just another reason why Fall is my very most favorite season of the year. Apparently that cranky lady Irene has created the specter of a pumpkin shortage here on the east coast, but I intend to enjoy them while they last.

1/4 large onion of any color, chopped
1 clove garlic, smashed
1/4 green bell pepper, chopped, and/or 1 medium carrot, chopped
1 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes (with or without green chiles)
1 14.5 oz can vegetable broth
3/4 cup pumpkin puree
1/2 tsp salt
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 pinch allspice
1/4 tsp cumin
1/2 cup dry brown lentils, rinsed and sorted
Olive oil
Fresh cilantro leaves for topping, cleaned and torn (optional)

1. In a medium saucepan, saute onions, pepper and garlic in olive oil until soft.
2. Add all remaining ingredients, and stir. Cover and simmer until lentils are soft - about 90 minutes, give or take.
3. Serve and top with fresh cilantro, if desired.
I realized at that just-too-late moment that I forgot to pick up a green pepper in my shopping trip yesterday, so I subbed in carrots, which might make first impressions of this dish more of a "stew" than a "chili," but a rose by any other name, and all of that. If you find yourself in the same position, or if you're just feeling adventurous, I think the earthiness of some chopped mushrooms would also be delicious.

Overall this was a super yummy chili, and though I don't think that the pumpkin flavor was as pronounced as I might have hoped, I think it has a nice balance. To do it over again, though, I think I would skip the cilantro, since its brightness somewhat overpowered said pumpkin.

Between the tomato and the pumpkin, this might as well be called "antioxidant chili," but that doesn't sound so appetizing. And it is. So that would be unfortunate.

Quote of the Day: Only the knife knows what goes on in the heart of a pumpkin. ~ Simone Schwartz-Bart

Monday, September 5, 2011

Guerilla Kitchen in Aruba Part 2, or Sauteed Swordfish with Avocado & Green Salad

Our second full day in Aruba, today was our designated "do nothing" day. After a couple of hours at the beach, we took a break for lunch in our suite (delicious egg salad sandwiches made by Allie) before heading down to the pool for a couple more hours and the all-important pool happy hour. We've got a snorkeling adventure planned for tomorrow, and given the whitey white-white state of my skin before this trip, I was quite committed to building my tolerance in preparation for several hours on and around a catamaran. I've done fairly well so far.
A bit sheltered from the more high-traffic areas of the pool, this is a little slice of heaven where we've spent the last two afternoons.

 After some much needed showering (WHY must sunscreen be so hard to get off?) and a little chill-time, we considered the evening ahead. So, with our swordfish steaks busy marinading in Italian salad dressing, we headed back down to the beach to take in something Aruba is quite famous for, and which surely did not disappoint: A gorgeous sunset.
If this view (from under one of the beach huts, or palapas) weren't beautiful enough...

... This boat appeared at the last moment to make quite the photo opportunity.

I know, right now you are probably thinking "I thought this was a food blog. Why all the stuff about Aruba?" to which I don't really have an answer, except that these sights are too lovely for me not to share, and this experience too fun for me to keep quiet about. So I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

As far as the actual cooking of tonight's dinner goes, I cannot say that I strayed very far from last night's grouper, except to say that I did use lower heat for a longer period of time owing to the thickness of the fillets. I used the same Italian salad dressing marinade, and pan-sauteed the swordfish, serving it with lemon. With it we had a salad made by Allie and some sliced avocado as well as yummy multi-grain rolls. For me, avocado sprinkled with a little salt is one of the loveliest things around.
The paperwork to my right is our tickets for snorkeling tomorrow. Excited!

Before yesterday's grouper, I had basically zero experience with cooking fish. I've cooked seafood, sure - shrimp, scallops, what have you - but delicate, flaky fish has always been a bit intimidating to me. I think this is because I love it so very much. Who wants to be responsible for ruining something so naturally wonderful, let alone something they have a deep affinity for? So, putting aside my anxiety about it, Allie was willing to step aside and let me try it out, which I am grateful for. I've discovered for myself what I've always known to be true: Beautifully fresh, local fish, with just a few basic additions, speaks for itself.

Quote of the Day: Soup and fish explain half the emotions of human life. ~ Sydney Smith

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Guerilla Kitchen in Aruba Part 1, or Pan-Seared Grouper with Couscous & Green Salad

Hooray! Vacation!
The "huts" are available to rent for the day, and are free if you grab them same-day. Thank goodness - shade is very necessary here.
 I realize I forgot to warn you all, but as you may know, the GK (meaning me, Genevieve) is visiting Aruba this week! I am here with my fabulously fun big sister Allie, and could not be happier about the whole thing. Thanks to my parents' investment in a Marriott timeshare many years ago, my Dad was able to offer Allie and I his hotel week this year. Obviously, this was very generous and we intend to make the most of our time here. There is much local food to try, and we intend to sample much of it, but Aruba is an island, after all, which means high prices on just about everything. This is especially true for the restaurants. Truthfully, cost was the motivation for us to cook some meals in our suite, but now that we've fully embraced it I think there is still much fun ahead in cooking and eating in the comfort of our hotel.

Last night, after a travel-weary but totally delicious experience with some Caribbean barbecue, we put together a few necessary breakfast items from a shop in the hotel: Just-add-water pancake mix, coffee, milk, butter and honey. (The honey was in lieu of maple syrup, which to be honest is what I prefer with my pancakes anyway.) This morning we had our pancakes before heading out to one of the big grocery stores in the area, Ling & Sons. This was surprisingly fun. The store carries many brands and products familiar to us Americans, along with some extremely foreign Dutch, Venezuelan and Portuguese items.

Our plan is to have breakfast in our suite, a few lunches, and a few dinners, so that we can save some money and still get a chance to taste (and cook!) local fare like super fresh fish, which is what we put together for tonight. After coming off the beach for a leisurely stay at the hotel pool (and, erm, pool bar), fish seemed like the perfect thing.

We made some iguana friends at the pool.
I have complete vacation-brain at the moment, which is probably to be expected. I say this because while I am very happy to tell you what went into these dishes, there won't be much in the way of ingredients or detailed instructions in this or future Aruban posts. But that's a pretty fair reflection of what I'm doing.
It's all very yellow to look at, but it was highly delicious.
I marinaded two grouper fillets in a combination of a basic Italian salad dressing, a little extra olive oil, a bit of salt and garlic & herb Mrs. Dash, adding a sprinkling of black pepper on top once the fish was coated with the marinade. I cooked them in olive oil (heated until smoking) for about three minutes per side, and served it with a piece of lemon. I made a yummy "toasted pine-nut" flavored couscous, and Allie made a lovely salad. And, because Aruba totally has the right idea and I totally do not understand any country or state in which it is unlawful to sell alcohol and food under the same roof, we enjoyed our dinner with some chardonnay.

The fish was extremely fresh, tender and juicy, and exactly what I had hoped for from a local catch. I wasn't sure at first how the pine nut couscous would be with the mild and lemony fish, but they ended up being quite tasty together - perfect counterpoints. We enjoyed it all and still have some beautiful swordfish that awaits us in the refrigerator.

Quote of the Day: All groupers are members the sea bass family, Serranidae, and are found in tropical and warm temperate waters world-wide. ~

P.s. Some of you may recall a resolution I made not long ago to limit my meat and seafood consumption for my own health as well as the health of the planet. But experiencing the best of local produce is also high among my priorities, and I can't ignore the abundance of beautiful fish caught right outside my window. So I won't! You could call this wishy-washyness, but I just call it smart.