As I sit here in my toasty, light-bathed kitchen, my mind keeps creeping to another place. To that chaotic landscape of darkened homes, screaming generators, huddled gas-can armies, and shell-shocked faces. I can go on and on, like I'm sure countless others can, about the amazing people who fed us and housed us throughout this brave new chaos and about how so many people suffered far more than we did and are still struggling while we happily return to life as we know it. But you've probably heard that song already.
So, what I will talk about is the the thing I missed most through all of this nuttiness...more than Internet, my own bed, or clean underwear. It was my kitchen. Leaky appliances, off-kilter cabinets and all. No surprise, then, the first thing I did upon my return was throw a turkey in the oven, whip up my my mom's barley casserole, and celebrate Thanksgiving early.
In this post, I present to you the aforementioned barley casserole. It's been part of my life since I was in pigtails so I sort of take it for granted. But when I serve it to friends, it never fails to win raves. And in this age of grain obsession, it has gained near-rock-star status. I mean, when's the last time you ate barley when it wasn't in soup? How cool is it to pull a new carb out of your bag of tricks that pleases discerning vegetarians, suspicious kids, and reactionary Jewish grandparents alike? Way cool, I think.
Anyway, you should really give this recipe a shot. It nuzzles up perfectly against just about any roast meat. It also happens to be a superb out-of-the box side for Thanksgiving dinner. Not just because it's earthy and bird friendly, but because you can easily double the recipe, cook it in advance and warm it up (with an extra splash of broth to keep it moist) when the time is right. Yeah, yeah. You'll also be serving stuffing and it, too, looks sorta mushroomy and brown. Don't worry. Your diners will dig the variety.
There are only two things you need to know: First, you'll ideally want to make this in a covered pot that can go from stovetop to oven. I've always used the old, chipped turquoise Dansk pot my mom used for her barley casserole and eventually passed down to me. I can't personally picture this dish in any other vessel. If you don't have a pot that serves double duty like this, you can easily do the first step in a saucepan, then transfer the barley to a covered baking dish when it's time to move to the oven.
Secondly, you really should use dried mushrooms for the full, earthy effect. Again, true to tradition, I have always used this quirky brand of mushrooms my mom uses. They are kind of like porcini, but are far less expensive and tend to loiter in the low-rent canned vegetable or condiment aisle of some supermarkets. They don't really have a name but the cap says, "Genuine Imported Dried Mushrooms. Imported by the Kirsch Mushroom Company." I know my A&P carries it and if they do, there's a good chance your own supermarket has them tucked into some random aisle somewhere. Ask your grocer if you don't see them. And if you can't find them, don't stress. You can splurge a little, shell out for some fancier dried shrooms, and say a quiet little "thanks" of your own when people tell you how happy you've made them.
Have a great and peaceful holiday.
Mom's Amazing Barley Casserole
1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter (please, PLEASE use butter. It's nutty warmth is key here)
2 medium yellow onions
2 handfuls dried mushrooms (if you are really really in a pinch, you can use 3/4 pound sliced, fresh button mushrooms)
1 1/2 cups barley
2-3 pimientos, chopped (Goya sells them in jars. I don't personally know the difference between jarred pimientos and jarred red peppers. Guessing you can substitute if need be. But don't be afraid of pimientos. They are only scary in cheese.)
2 cups low-sodium chicken or (if you must) vegetable broth
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Place dried mushrooms in a bowl. Pour about 1 1/2 cups of boiling water over them and allow to stand while doing other stuff.
Chop onions either by hand or in food processor. When mushrooms are fully reconstituted and soft, lift from soaking water and squeeze out any extra liquid with your hand. Place mushrooms on cutting board and roughly chop. SAVE SOAKING LIQUID!!! DON'T THROW IT OUT!!!
Gently melt butter in an ovenproof, covered casserole dish over medium flame on stove. Stir in onions, and drained, chopped mushrooms. Saute until tender. Add barley and cook until barley is light brown, stirring constantly. Off the heat and add chopped pimientos, chicken broth, salt and pepper. (If using dried mushrooms, pour off some of the reconstituting liquid and substitute 1/2 cup of it for 1/2 cup of the chicken broth. Don't use stuff from the very bottom of the bowl, though, because it can be gritty.)
Cover dish and transfer to oven. Bake about 50 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Add more broth if barley becomes dry (it never does for me, unless I'm reheating.) Enjoy. And thanks Mom.
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