I've been thinking about recipes lately. I have a love/hate relationship with recipes, and cookbooks. On the one hand, I adore pouring through the pages of a new cookbook. I love reading ingredient lists, envisioning some new flavor combination that I've never thought of, being transported to foreign lands simply by reading about their foods, drooling over gorgeously styled food photos. But then, we have the other hand. My rebellious hand, I suppose. And this hand despises being told exactly how one must prepare a meal, with exactly this type of cheese, sliced or diced using exactly this tool and this technique. This hand much prefers to use recipes as inspiration, or guides. (And this hand also does not style food gorgeously. We eat family style, and I haven't yet discovered an inner desire to toil over arranging food just so, in order to get a good shot. People are hungry here.)
There are rather a lot of italics in this post today, aren't there? Strong feelings here, people, strong feelings.
Anyway, this inner struggle with the whole recipes-as-rules thing kind of defies logic, as pertains to this here blog. I mean, here I am, in all my hypocritical glory, pushing recipes on you fine folks, while I contradictorily proclaim a disdain for them. Add to that my self-awareness that I am not some genius chef, just a woman who likes to feed people...what right have I to tell anyone how to cook? Hm. Ponderous.
(Just so you know, that was the rebellious hand speaking up there, the other one does enjoy recipes, especially for baking, and as long as they're not too incredibly stringent.)
Cue the perfect book to read, for this conflicted state of mind:
I have raved incessantly about Tender, and now you'll have to bear with me and my new-found passion for Appetite. This book predates Tender by a good few years, but the gist is the same: Cook creatively. Simple as. Mr. Slater generally gives brilliant suggestions for meals and foods that work well with one another, leaving precise amounts up to you, the cook, to decide. He outlines pantry ingredients, spices, equipment, with the main point being: You don't need every single damn gadget and fad food in your kitchen. You don't need to revere those cookbooks that claim that theirs is the only way of doing something. Instinct is key, and the way to develop that instinct is to spend some time playing around in the kitchen.
I think that's what I love most about cooking...aside from the obvious practicality of feeding myself, my family, and my friends, it's an amazingly creative outlet. If you allow it to be. If you ignore that inner voice that tells you to follow the rules, because so-and-so knows what they're doing, and you don't. (I think my "inner child" is an uptight, anal-retentive tattletale, who still fears getting grounded for breaking the rules. Delve into that one. Actually, don't.) A meal that turns out well is so satisfying, when you're using ingredients that you have on hand, and cooking with all your senses. Smelling...touching...tasting...It's a pretty sensuous gig, cooking. Get into it.
My uptight hand would like to interject here, and say that the rules are there for a reason. Certain foods need specific cooking times, in order to not only taste good, but to be safe. Some spices marry well with others, while some decidedly do not. This is where recipes come in handy: there's a wealth of wisdom to be gained from other cooks. There is also a wealth of wisdom to be gained from experience. From getting your hands dirty. And it's a heck of a lot of fun.
Here's what I came up with last night:
One rather un-styled photo, of a barley pilaf. I probably should have removed that cinnamon stick, but oh well. By the way, there is no mention of barley in Nigel Slater's book, but I had some in the pantry, and went with it. I will give you the ingredients and amounts that I used, but please, for the love of all that is right, play with your food! If an alternative spice or veggie sounds more appealing, use that instead. Hard and fast rules have no place here.
Barley Pilaf - serves 4, as a generous side
1 cup pearled barley, rinsed
chicken or vegetable stock (I used chicken), or water, about 2 1/2 cups
1/2 large onion, chopped
1 cinnamon stick
4 or 5 cardamom pods
1/4 to 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/8 to 1/4 tsp ground coriander
bay leaf ( I used fresh)
grated lemon zest from about 1/2 large lemon
sea salt and black pepper to taste
couple handfuls fresh or frozen peas (if frozen, defrost under cold water in a colander)
few handfuls baby spinach, to serve
dill, or another fresh herb, minced, to serve
In a medium sized pot, heat a tablespoon or two of butter, over a moderately low heat. Cook off the onions, with a bit of sea salt, until they're softened and translucent, about 10 or so minutes. Add the spices (cinnamon, cumin, coriander, cardamom), and stir over a medium low heat, for about a minute, until you can smell them. Add the barley and stir to combine. Add in your stock or water, a bit of salt and pepper, and bay leaf, and bring to a boil. Cover and lower heat to simmer. I started off with 2 1/4 cups of chicken stock, and added more as cooking went on, and the grain was getting dry, but still not fully cooked. Just keep an eye on it, and top up with a bit more liquid, if needed.
Grains don't follow exact rules with cooking times. I suppose this can depend on the age of the grain, and who knows what other factors. My barley took about an hour, yours could take anywhere from half an hour, to an hour. If your barley finishes cooking before the rest of your meal is ready, simply turn off the heat, and cover with a lid. It'll stand just fine, for a while.
Once the barley is cooked to a texture you like, it should still have a nutty bite to it, turn off the heat, and leave covered for 5 or 10 minutes. If, near the end of cooking time, you still have a substantial amount of liquid left, remove the lid, and turn the heat up a bit, minding that it doesn't burn, so the extra stock cooks out.
Stir in the zest, dill, and peas, and check seasoning. If you'd like a richer dish, throw in another tablespoon of butter, or a glug of olive oil. I served our pilaf up over a bed of baby spinach, which wilted down nicely from the heat of the barley.
We really should eat barley more often. It is so dang tasty, and good for you. For leftovers, this can be served at room temperature with a squeeze of lemon juice over it, or reheated, maybe with a grating of parmesan.
Get your hands dirty.