Nigel Slater’s Pearled Barley with Bacon, Peas, and Taleggio

Nigel Slater, the food editor of the Observer/Guardian, still rolls out good ideas for satisfying grub. Recently, I noticed a recipe of his that calls for boiling some barley, adding it to bacon still frying in its fat, tossing in some peas, and, at the end, mixing in cubes of Taleggio cheese. I decided to adapt the recipe — easy enough — for one. I decided to make it even more Spring-like. I made just enough for dinner with enough leftover for lunch.

For 1.5 or 2 servings

About a pound of fava beans removed from their large pods (a cup or so)

100g pearled barley

A couple of slugs of olive oil

2 strips of bacon, cut into lardons

Half a leek, sliced

Half a cup of fresh or frozen peas

2-3 oz Taleggio cheese, cubed

Put a pot of lightly salted water on to boil. Add the fava beans and blanch for a couple of minutes. If you have a spider scoop, fish them out of the water and let cool. Meanwhile, add the barley to the water you’ve just removed the favas from. When the water returns to a boil, reduce the heat to medium low and cook 15-20 mins until the barley is still firm but soft enough to chew.

While the barley is cooking, heat olive oil in a medium skillet and add the bacon lardons. Fry until almost crispy. While the bacon is frying, remove the outer skins on the favas and reserve to the side.  Add the sliced leeks and stir to combine in the bacon fat.

Drain the barley, shake off the excess water, and add it to the bacon and leeks. Add the shelled favas and the peas. Stir so that the bacon fat coats all the ingredients. Season according to your taste. When the peas and the barley are hot and well mixed with the bacon, scatter the cheese over, stir, and let it melt. Adjust the heat so that the cheese doesn’t burn. When the cheese has melted through the barley, turn off the heat.

If you’re eating alone, scrap half the contents of the pan into a bowl and leave the rest to cool. I ate it with a salad.

Vegetarians will omit the bacon. I imagine that olive oil on its own with a drizzle of walnut oil at the end might be very nice.

Stretching: Beef Cheeks Four Ways

A few months ago, at the urging of my sister, I signed up for Crowd Cow, an online delivery service that connects cattle farmers to consumers. The company’s promise to offer only beef sustainably raised, all or partially grass-fed, and humanely slaughtered appealed to me. I periodically receive an email from them to let me know that a particular cattle farm in my region has cuts of meat for sale. First come, first served. If customers pay attention to the flavor of what they eat, they can develop preferences for one farm or another. So far, I’ve developed a fondness for beef from Hutterian Farms in Reardan, Washington, but I’m very curious to try the Oregon-produced Wagyu cuts I ordered that will be delivered this week. Just recently Crowd Cow has expanded its offerings to chicken and pork. As for cost, I don’t mind that it’s more a bit more expensive than what Taylor’s Market charges, because Crowd Cow’s required minimum $75 order goes a long way with me and I’m in a position to pay more for my principles.

I’m down to the last of the beef in my freezer: 4 beef cheeks. Since I’ve never before cooked this cut, I’ve decided to prepare them as simply as possible in order to make four different meals from them. I followed the basic recipe that the northern California chef, Daniel Patterson, offers through NYT Cooking. When the cheeks were fork-tender but held their shape, I set aside one with about a quarter of the liquid and aromatics and stored the other three in freezable containers. I look forward to figuring out how to use those extras. At the moment, I’m considering adding Dijon mustard and new potatoes to one, tomato and polenta to another, and spring vegetables to the third.

But I kept the first portion much simpler. Patterson’s recipe calls for:

  • 4 beef cheeks
  •  Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, sliced
  • 1 stalk young garlic, thinly sliced (or 3 cloves of garlic, sliced)
  • 2 carrots, peeled and sliced
  • 4 sprigs rosemary
  • A handful of thyme sprigs
  • 1 cup beef stock
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1 T butter

Patterson calls for a 180 F oven. My miserable oven doesn’t calibrate that finely, so I started off at 200 F.

The day before I braised the cheeks, I put the four of them in a rectangular pyrex dish, salted them, and placed the dish in the refrigerator. I brought them to room temperature about two hours before I seared them. I poured about 1/4 cup of olive oil in my biggest cast iron skillet and set the flame to medium-high. To brown well, the cheeks needed room. That took about 5-6 mins. Once browned, I transferred them to a plate and added the onion, the young garlic, and carrots (which I diced instead of sliced) to the pan. After about 5 mins of sautée, I returned the cheeks to the pan, adding rosemary and thyme sprigs tied up in cheesecloth and then pouring the combined stocks into the pan. I put the lid on my Le Creuset braiser. Into the cool oven it went.

Here’s where I diverged a bit from Patterson. Four hours later, I looked inside the braiser. No bubbling at all. The meat looked like it was barely cooking, but my oven is so bad that I wasn’t sure it was cooking at all. So, I took the pan out of the oven. On my stovetop, I brought the liquid in the pan to a simmer and then returned it to the now 250 oven. And then I left it for 6 hours, turning the cheeks over in the broth twice.

Ten hours later, the meat was fork-tender and the stock slightly reduced. Once the cheeks had cooled, I divided them up with the braising liquid. Three were destined for the freezer. I kept one for that evening’s dinner.

 

 

 

Right away, I put a pot of salted water on to boil. I crumbled the cheek meat into flakes with my fingers. There was too much meat for one dish, so I apportioned out the remainder among the three extra cheeks cooling prior to freezing. While the water was coming to a boil, I warmed the crumbled cheek meat in braising liquid. The fresh fettucine dove into the boiling water and I added a tablespoon of butter to the cheek meat. Within 3 minutes, the pasta was done, in the warmed pasta bowl, with the cheek meat and broth poured over it. The taste and texture of the cheeks reminded me of uncured brisket or even a well-cooked pot roast with better flavor. In the picture, the amount you see on the pasta (only 3.5 ounces despite appearances) was a little more than half a cheek.

The result was a very tasty, stew-like meal. Beef cheeks turn out to be a good braising cut that delivers flavor reminiscent of uncorned brisket, but without the usual fat. It’s a relatively lean cut, despite what looks like marbling in the photo at the top. Crowd Cow trimmed the cheeks of the fat that is usually found on them.

Now I have to figure out what to do with the other three. Now I’m thinking, definitely croquettes.

 

 

 

Chad Robertson’s Sourdough Bread

In little over a month, my sourdough starter turns one year old. For much of the past year, it has slept in the back of my refrigerator. I don’t eat bread often. When I make it, I usually expects dinner guests.  Having mastered the famous No-Knead Bread, which I first started making about five or more years ago, I grew bored with making it and found it sometimes boring to eat.

In the past few months, every two weeks or so, I wake up my starter and feed it for a few days until it’s fully woke, as those who support taking a knee try to be. Anticipating a 3-day process, I begin by making the leaven and then putting 200 grams of it through the grueling process of becoming the bread that the Tartine owner-baker, Chad Robertson, makes. The Basic Country Bread recipe in Tartine Bread take practice, but it is well worth it. In all the times I’ve made the bread, I’ve learned that the quality of the flour, good spring water, and a healthy leaven count just as much as the technique.

Fortunately, Robertson gives a very detailed explanation of the process. He offers options for immediate or deferred baking. Now that I’ve tried both ways a few times, I am now resigned to the Deferred Method. It’s nearly a three-day process. A tricky part was calculating when I’ll actually get to bake. But once it’s out of the pan, the crust is hard, the crumb is moist and full of air holes, and the taste is decidedly but pleasantly sour. This bread is definitely superior to the No-Knead version.

In making the bread, I introduced one key innovation. I bake the bread on my Weber gas grill. I live in northern California, where heating an oven to the max is not comfortable. What’s more, I have a small (24″ wide) wall oven. Manipulating scorching hot cast iron within such small space is hard and dangerous. So, to make bread, I had to take it out to my little patio, where the propane and the charcoal grills live. I have one more challenge to perfect the process. Baking the bread in the cast-iron pot had resulted in the bottom of the bread charring, as you can see below.

I have tried many different ways — adjusting the heat, turning down or off the middle of the three burners, moving the loaf to a cooler tile once it’s jumped, not preheating the base of the cast-iron pot — no matter what I do there is always some char. It’s never enough that it ruins the loaf (I cut off the char, slice up the loaf, and either save it for toast or shred it for croutons). But it’s annoying.

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I’m still not sure what other options I have. However, the crumb is consistently excellent. I use Anson Mills Mediterranean White Bread Flour and mix in a modest amount of King Arthur’s Whole Wheat Flour. I know, the carbon foot print. But it makes a difference.

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This is just a sampler of an experiment I will explore in the next post, which will be a breakdown of Robertson’s rustic bread recipe. I also plan to experiment with my new Instant Pot. Two experiments have already pleased me. Stay tuned. Feedback appreciated.

While Rome burns…

 … I am fiddling around in Somerset, England. I have opted out of news updates from home. After sixteen years in London, my friends have sold up and moved out to the countryside. For less money than what they earned from their one bath, 3 tiny bedroom flat, they bought a large, rambling 17th-century converted court house on a couple of acres in a small village on the edge of the Mendip Hills. The landscape has an ancient beauty about it.

The countryside in the western counties is to food afcianados in London what the Napa and Sonoma Valleys are to those in Northern California. Both regions are known for restaurants that steward the ingredients used in their food. But the restaurants in Somerset, Wiltshire, Devon, Dorset, and the other counties succeed much better than Napa. The chefs of Napa Valley need to up their game. Few of them run establishments that offer meals that are grown or husbanded on the spot. Few of them serve meals as interesting as the one I had at The Pig Hotel (@thepig_hotel).

A Georgian house that now houses a hotel, restaurant, and small pig & vegetable farm, The Pig presents itself in the lobby and sitting rooms like an old fashioned country house. The dining room is a conservatory, whose window ledges and tables are covered with small potted plants and seedlings, many of them destined for the soil in the kitchen garden. I sat a table for one next to a strawberry plant.

I was surprised to see on the menu only one dish containing pork. The Pig Hotel owns two adult pigs who enjoy the privilege of not being slaughtered. All the others are destined to suffer One Bad Day. When I was there, only the two permanent pigs were in residence. These two specimens were the most spherical pigs I’ve ever seen. One was sound asleep, sprawled flat as a sphere can get, with feet outstretched. It snored so loudly that I feared it had apnea.

My lunch consisted of a starter, a midway dish, and a closer. No dessert. First up was freshly made beet chips, or crisps as they’re called here, with smoked cod roe, reminiscent of a taramosalata but made so much more interesting by the smoky roe. 

After that delectable snack, I tucked into asparagus whose stalks were rolled in panko crumbs and fried, a poached pheasant’s egg, and a marvelous hollandaise sauce flavored with a mysterious (to me, anyway) mixture of herbs. Luscious.  

For my last course, I ordered goat belly on curried quinoa with pickled red onion, which was great. Another smokey flavor, the goat belly neither too unctuous nor too stringy. But I should have stopped at the asparagus. 

When I arrived on foot at 12:15, the dining room was empty, just the way I like it for at least the start of a meal. Slowly, the room filled up. Outside the glass walls of the conservatory-dining room, a herd of deer stood gawking at us, in envy no doubt, on the far side of a low fence. A gardener emerged from the walled-in vegetable garden with a plastic container and foraged through the high grass by the fence.

The wait staff was solicitous and friendly. They did not hover. European fine restaurants are oases of soft-spoken diners. I love it. I wish California restaurants would promote peaceful environments without the solemnity of church (I’m talking to you, French Laundry). And the bill they presented me was a pleasant surprise. £51 ($69 on my card) for three courses and two glasses of decent wine. That’s a Napa meal without the trimmings.

Close to two hours after I arrived, I waddled out to look at the vegetable garden, the pigs, and the view. Then, I turned into the road with the fields of mustard at its peak. The two and a half miles did little to offset the meal, but completely sold me on the west country. O Somerset!

The Pig Hotel near Bath

London, Week 13: Four Things I Learned This Trip

London offers a ongoing and ever-updating curriculum of on how to live well in a city that is too expensive to live in. No other city I spend time in offers as many free or nearly free diversions for families as London does. Granary Square, the South Bank, the Tate Modern, Regent’s Park, the list of public spaces that make you feel like a circus is always in town goes on and on.

This trip, I learned that…

1. …bubble gum on the sidewalk can have redeeming value. Ben Wilson (whose Wikipedia page will explain his mission) looks for gum squashed on all kinds of pavements and transforms them into miniature works of art. On the corrugated metal path of the Millennium Bridge, which spans the Thames between Tate Modern and the area around St. Paul’s, Londoners have commissioned him to create memorials to dead family members; schools have sponsored little emblems; newly-engaged couples pay him to commemorate their troth. Children and adults walk across the bridge bent at the waist in search of his little gems.

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2. …the World War I memorial art installation at the Tower of London is best seen from an aerial perspective. 350,000 ceramic red poppies on stem-like stakes flood the moat around the Tower’s outer precincts to symbolize the number of lives lost in the Great War. From the parapet surrounding the walls, the poppies stand in striking contrast with the green grass growing underneath. But why does it flow from the Tower? What is the intended symbolism? And why skimp on the number of poppies flowing out the window, leaving the rickety scaffolding supporting them in plain sight? I was more impressed by images taken from above.

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3. …London’s closest beach town, Broadstairs, would be recognizable perhaps to Charles Dickens but definitely to  Graham Greene. With the original Bleak House in the background, a brass band played Elgar’s “Nimrod” under cloudy skies. I hoped in vain the crowd of mostly seniors would break into “Underneath the Arches.” A round of mini golf finished off a wonderful day spent on the sandy beach in our cardi’s.

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4. … and finally, the Anchor & Hope restaurant is as good as it was the last time I ate there seven eight years ago. This place puts the lie to the worn-out notion that British food is bad. Worth every penny. Check out their menu.

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And now, off to the airport. Next stop, New Jersey!

 

 

 

Bordeaux, Week 12: Time to Go

DSC02526As of today, Sunday, I’ve been in Bordeaux for twelve weeks. Tomorrow I fly to London, where I’ll spend nine days. This morning, I stayed in until I could check-in online and then ventured out for my last major tramp around the city. The entire bordelais population seems to have had the same idea. At the market along the Chartrons quai, I bought my last dinner in Bordeaux: sliced magret de canard and roasted vegetables. I sat down for one last plate of oysters with a little glass of white whine. Then I took the tram back to Place Victoire. Along the way, the pretty 19th-century look of the city charmed me again as it has every day since I’ve come here. I will miss the wine seller in Be the Wine (who has sold me some really excellent whites lately), the two guys who own Books & Coffee, and the very friendly people who work in Bon, C’est Bio on cours Victor Hugo. But I have finished what I came her to do and it’s time to go. I’ve been too immured in my comfortable studio flat. Time to go play with my fairy godchildren in London. A short stop in New Jersey and then off to northern California.

But what was I thinking? Getting out of France on September 1, the Grande Rentrée? Clearly, you should not take travel tips from someone who books her own travel on what is reputedly the busiest travel day in the French calendar.

P.S. I took the photo above a couple of weeks ago. But it captures how the city looks today.

Bordeaux, Week 9: Books and Coffee

Books & Coffee, 26 rue St James.

Four times last week, I packed up my laptop and took it to this café on rue St James. Three very gracious and attentive youngsters in the twenties work their butts off to offer coffee, tea, modest pastries, and a limited lunch menu for reasonable prices. I ordered tea most days, but I saw other customers order coffee in all forms, from an espresso to the bulbous glass beakers that look like they’re do equally well for cooking crack.

The wood floors and metal shelving, the leather sofa and seats, and the tables of the interior gives the place a soothing library feel. A counter runs along a big side window and has books, children’s books, and toys to keep children occupied while their foot-weary parents recharge their batteries. I’ve had lunch there twice: a very good, custardy quiche and small salad the first time and a chicken-burger with bacon the second time. Unpretentious, tasty, and satisfying.

IMG_0084I’ve noticed that tea shops and cafés all over Bordeaux and in Biarritz carry two brands of ironware teapots made in Japan. The better quality brand, Oigen, does not seem to be widely available in the States. The design of these pots is beautifully simple. A cast iron Oigen teapot weighs around three pounds and is glazed on the interior. The ones I’ve seen here (and the one I bought at left) are priced around 98.50euros. On US sites, if you can find them, the pots run about $150. They eliminate the need for a tea cozy, because they retain the heat.

Iwachu teapots are less expensive, noticeably lighter, and the varieties of designs less appealing — to my eye, anyway. Far more examples of this brand show up on Amazon.