Saturday, December 20, 2008

Winter Comfort Food

Happy Winter Solstice! Starting tomorrow, the days will get a little longer as we start the long climb back out of the depths of winter into spring. Regardless of that, most of us probably see winter stretching out before us long and dark and very cold.

While I am not overly fond of the cold and dark, I like the foods of winter- I like one-pot meals and dishes with lots of complex carbohydrates. I like the things that are harvested in the fall and store well into the winter- sweet potatoes, apples, winter squash. The inspiration for this wintery side dish came from a wide variety of places; my friend Julia, Iron Chef America and my mother.

I've been reading about the health benefits of barley recently. According to World Healthiest Foods (read about it here) barley is better than oatmeal for lowering cholesterol, is good for intestinal health, terrific for heart health AND it's low glycemic index is perfect for those with Type 2 Diabetes. Breakfasting on barley may help regulate blood sugar spikes. I was trying to figure out a way to breakfast on barley, and came up with the idea of making a sort of granola like substance out of it that I mixed into my morning yogurt. Then my friend Julia mentioned that her husband Robert made excellent barley, "light and fluffy, like good rice" she said. She went on to tell me that they had eaten warmed over barley with a fried egg on top for breakfast. I was entranced- this would never have occurred to me. Usually I am the one eating something that has everyone else peering and commenting. I determined to do something more with barley than put it in soup.

How did Iron Chef America and my mother come into this? Well, the other night I watched Battle Cranberry on Iron Chef, and I dearly love cranberries. And my mother told me that if I put a acorn squash in the microwave for a minute, it would peel more easily. I figured, if it works for an acorn squash, why not a butternut.

This recipe is adapted from one on

Butternut Squash Barley Risotto with cranberries
1 small butternut squash
1/2 cup apple cider
1 onion, chopped
2 TBSP olive oil
2.5 cups chicken broth (vegetable broth is OK too)
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp rubbed sage or 1 TBSP chopped fresh sage
1/2 tsp Kosher salt
1/3 c pearl barley (you can use unhulled barley, but it does not release starch like the pearl barley does and may not be as creamy)
4 oz crumbled goat cheese
2 TBSP dried cranberries

Put the butternut squash in the microwave for 2 minutes. This makes it very easy to peel and chop into 1/2 in chunks.

Pour the apple cider into a skillet, add the squash chunks, cook covered until the squash is not quite fork tender. Remove 1 cup for the recipe, and reserve the rest for another time.*

In a small saucepan, add the broth, the sage and the bay leaf, bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover.

Put oil in a skillet, saute the chpped onion until transparent. Add squash and stir briefly. Add the barley, stir for about 2 minutes.

Pour 1/4 of the broth into the barley and stir until it is absorbed. Be sure the bay leaf stays in the pan with the rest of the broth. Add remaining broth, 1/4 at a time, stirring after each addition until it is absorbed. Cover and cook on low until the barley is tender but not mushy. Stir occasionally and be careful not to burn.

Add the goat cheese crumbles and stir to melt. Dried cranberries may be added now, or may be sprinkled on top as a garnish.

This was relatively sweet. You may prefer to skip the apple cider cooking step, adding the uncooked squash to the onion, cooking until fork tender before adding barley.

*The left over squash can be mashed and used in a pumpkin muffin recipe. Here's a good one. Or try it mashed like potatoes with a little butter.

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