Barley, Take Two

Over the years, I’ve learned that the first three rules of cooking are ingredients, ingredients, ingredients. If I start with good ingredients and don’t burn anything, chances are the outcome will be fairly tasty.

I found this recipe for Mediterranean Eggplant and Barley Salad on Smitten Kitchen’s blog. The recipe originally appeared in Gourmet, and I can see why. The long list of ingredients was a bit intimidating, but they combine to create an explosion of color, texture, and taste.

This would be a great salad to make at the end of summer with veggies fresh from the garden, but I couldn’t wait another four months to test it out. I could see this being a smash hit at a picnic or potluck.

Mediterranean Eggplant and Barley Salad

Makes 4 (main course) or 8 (side dish) servings

1 1/2 lb eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3/4 lb zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
10 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon hot paprika (or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper)
1 1/4 cups pearl barley (8 oz)
1 (14-oz) can reduced-sodium vegetable broth (1 3/4 cups)
3/4 cup water
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/2 lb cherry tomatoes, quartered
1/3 cup Kalamata or other brine-cured black olives, pitted and halved (I only had green olives in the house, and they tasted fine)
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion                                                                                              1/2 cup chopped scallion
1 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint

Cook barley: Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a 3- to 4-quart heavy pot over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then cook the cumin, coriander, and paprika, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add barley and cook, stirring until well coated with oil, 2 minutes more. Add broth and water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until all of liquid is absorbed and barley is tender, 45 minutes to an hour. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, 5 minutes. Remove cover and allow to cool to room temperature, about 20 minutes.

Roast eggplant and zucchini: Toss eggplant and zucchini in a colander and sprinkle generously with salt. Let stand for 20 minutes to an hour. Rinse with cold water and pat dry.

Preheat oven to 425°F.

Toss eggplant and zucchini with 5 tablespoons oil, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and 3/4 teaspoon pepper in a bowl, then spread in 2 oiled large shallow (1-inch-deep) baking pans. Roast vegetables in oven, stirring occasionally and switching position of pans halfway through baking, until vegetables are golden brown and tender, 20 to 25 minutes total. Remove from the pans from the oven and let the vegetables cool.

Make dressing and assemble salad: Whisk together lemon juice, garlic, sugar, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and 3 tablespoons oil in a large bowl. Add barley, roasted vegetables, and remaining ingredients to bowl with dressing and toss until combined well.

barley saladThe recipe is vegan, but I’ll admit that I sprinkled a bit of feta cheese on top.

barley salad iiAlthough he was skeptical about the chickpea blondies, Jesse gobbled up this salad and wants me to make it again soon. Success!


First Thirteen Books of 2013, Part II

Now that spring is gracing us with abundant sunshine and warm breezes, I have been taking advantage of the rocking chair on our porch. It is my new favorite reading spot. I invited my cat to sit outside with me while I read, but when a school bus passed by she freaked out, fluffed up her tail, and dashed back inside. The term scaredy-cat is apt.

Here are the rest of the books I’ve read so far this year:

7. The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

This is a story about story-telling, one that leaves the reader uncertain which version is true. It is an enjoyable and thought-provoking page turner. This is Jansma’s first novel, and it attracted a lot of attention. I heard a piece on NPR about it and then came across it at the local library. The characters reminded me of the trio from Looking for Alaska, a young adult novel by John Green.

8. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I have never read anything else by this author, but I really enjoyed the movie version of The Remains of the Day. This is a poignant story of friendship and love that endures despite painful conflict and breaches of trust. Although nothing shockingly sad happens, I cried at the end. It took me awhile to realize that this novel is set in an alternate reality and has a dystopian element. It is eerie how Ishiguro drops hints and lets the mystery unfold.

9. Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

I have neither read anything else by McEwan, nor have I seen the movie version of Atonement, but somehow this connection caused me to grab this book of the New Arrivals shelf. Serena is a math major with a love of literature. Always looking for romance, she falls in love with a married professor who refers her to MI5, and her life is never the same. I was eager to see what happened to the characters, but ultimately felt dissatisfied with this book. I can’t quite decide why.

10. The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Set in the same fictional Mine community as Strout’s Amy and Isabelle, The Burgess Boys depicts a family under pressure. When their nephew throws a pig’s head into the local mosque, the Burgess boys swoop in to try to help diffuse the situation. As they deal with the family crisis, tensions that stem from a childhood tragedy are confronted, and each of the three siblings must face the impacts on their current relationships. Strout is a master at creating characters who are flawed and real and feel like people from every day life.

11. Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

I have been a fan of Kingsolver since I read The Poisonwood Bible (although I am also skeptical of anything endorsed by Oprah’s book club), but I never got around to reading all her novels. She reliably provides rich characters and settings while exploring the concepts of home and family. The protagonist of this novel, Codi, lost her mother at age three and her daughter at age fifteen. These losses shaped her life. She drifted from place to place, longing for love, but not feeling she deserved it. When she returns to her hometown to care for her ailing father, she slowly discovers what it means to belong.

12. The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I never jumped on the bandwagon when the book or the movie came out several years ago. I enjoyed reading it, and in fact read the entire thing on one lazy Saturday. There are loveable characters and evil characters and a plot with abundant entertainment value (hence the movie), but The Help does not have the substance of an enduring classic.

I feel like we readers should be cautious. It is convenient from the vantage point of the 21st century to see all that was wrong with the Mississippi of the 1960s. Of course forcing a black maid to use a separate restroom in the garage is de-humanizing and wrong. It would be so easy to close the book and breathe a sigh of relief that things aren’t like that anymore, and to be complacent about the many inequalities that threaten our society today.

13. L’Empire des Loups (The Empire of Wolves) by Jean-Christophe Grange

Although I normally stay away from crime mysteries/thrillers, a coworker lent me this French novel. Again, it was a good motivation for language practice. It’s easy to avoid conjugating verbs in a workbook for thirty minutes, but I actually worked on reading this novel well beyond the time I allotted myself every day. It seemed to be an average quality book for its genre. I don’t think I’ll be watching the film version any time soon, because I really can’t handle violence in movies.

Question of the Day: Where is your favorite reading spot?

First Thirteen Books of 2013: Part I

I think I must be in heaven, because I have a job where I get paid to go to the library.

One of my jobs right now is to mentor Christine (not her real name), a young woman with autism. I really enjoy spending time with her. Christine is an enthusiastic, positive person with many talents. We are about the same age, and we have a lot in common: we both enjoy music and drama, we both watch Jeopardy, and we both get really excited about reading and going to the library. Many of Christine’s activities are held at local libraries, and so far we’ve made multiple trips to three different branches.

Christine strides through the children’s section with purpose. In under five minutes, she can assemble a pile of books that strike her fancy. I’m not quite sure what her decision-making process is, but I can choose books just as swiftly. Although I have a reading list saved somewhere on my computer, this year I’ve mostly just been perusing the shelves and making impulse check-outs.

I’ve also been keeping track of the books I’ve read in a book journal (thanks to my Kalamazoo book club for the going away gift!). This has been a useful tool for reflection. I often consume books quickly, closing one and opening the next one with barely a pause for breath. In the end, I don’t know that I fully appreciate or remember what I’ve read.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, really. Reading is supposed to be fun, and not every book I pick up has to be a great literary classic. Literary junk food is okay in small doses. But I like journaling and making lists (probably to the point where it’s a borderline compulsion), so here is a summary of what I’ve read so far this year, with links to Amazon if you want more information:

1. The Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer

Imagine if, while traveling down the Nile, French novelist Gustav Flaubert met Florence Nightingale, the famous nurse and statistician, and they struck up a friendship. The personality contrasts are obvious: Flaubert was a womanizer and party boy, and Nightingale was a proper English lady–even if she did disregard nineteenth century gender roles. Yet they each possessed sharp intellects and abundant creativity. Shomer brings these great figures to life in her novel. I mis-read the dust jacket and thought that the entire novel was based on a true story. Alas, although Flaubert and Nightingale were in Egypt at the same time, there is no evidence that they met or were friends. This nearly broke my heart.

2. Scarlett Si Possible by Katherine Pancol

I am proud to say that I read this novel entirely in French! I picked up a copy at the airport in Paris in May 2012, started reading it last summer, and finally finished it in January. It is the story of four young women who move to Paris amid the social upheaval of the last 1960s. I would categorize it as fairly light “chick lit,” which is great for language practice. I kept Google Translate open on my laptop while I read, but I tried to only use it for particularly difficult sentences.

3. The Queen’s Daughter by Susan Coventry

I have a deep love for young adult historical fiction. Basically, when I was a teenager I would read anything that had a girl in an old-fashioned dress on the cover. (Okay, I’ll admit it: I still do.) My mom picked this book for a $1 and passed it along to me. It is the story of princess Joan, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine. As a teenager, Joan was shipped off to marry the Norman King  of Sicily, where she learned just how difficult the life of a queen can be. Joan’s husband constructed the cathedral at Monreale, which I was lucky enough to visit last spring. This is not an award-winning piece of literature, but will appeal to fans of the genre.

4. Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett

I have been obsessed with Tudor England since about the sixth grade. So when I came across a novel about the adopted daughter of Sir Thomas More, I snatched it off the shelf. The protagonist, Meg, belonged to one of the greatest humanist households in Europe at a time when religious extremism was tearing nations apart. As society (and her father) grapples with these changes, Meg must assert her own views while attempting to keep her family safe.

5. Ashenden by Elizabeth Wilhide

This novel details the history of an English manor house and the lives of the people who built, occupied, and cared for it. If you like Downton Abbey, you would enjoy Ashenden.

6. The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas

The beautiful cover art made me pick this book up, and the setting in India motivated me to check it out. When her father dies, Mair finds her grandmother’s shawl and travels to India to trace its history. The story flashes back from the present day to WWII. I preferred the character of Mair’s grandmother to Mair herself.

Questions of the Day: How do you decide what to read? What books have you read so far this year that you would recommend?

Surprising Ingredient: Chickpeas

For the second week of my recipe challenge, I used one of my all-time favorite ingredients–chickpeas–in an unusual way.

Chickpeas are versatile. I love curried chickpeas, I love hummus, and I love falafel. I could eat chickpeas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner . . . even dessert. When I came across this recipe for Gooey PB&J Blondies from Chocolate Covered Katie in a VegNews Magazine newsletter, I was intrigued. These are vegan and also gluten-free. I am not vegan, but I try to keep my dairy and egg consumption to a minimum. So when I come across a simple vegan dessert recipe, I am eager to give it a try.

Gooey PB&J Blondies

  • 1 can garbanzo beans (or white beans), drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 cup natural peanut butter
  • 1/4 cup oats
  • 3/4 tsp baking powder
  • 1/8 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 plus 1/8 tsp salt
  • 2/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup jam (Any flavor. I used grape.)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Blend all ingredients (except jam) in a food processor until very smooth. Scoop into a greased 8×8 pan. Spread the jam on top. Bake for 35 minutes.

Note: My blondies started getting brown on top, so I took them out after 25 minutes. This was too soon! I should have covered the dish with aluminum foil and continued baking them for another 5-10 minutes.



The result? Well, I ate them all and didn’t take a picture of the final product. I thought they were yummy. Perhaps more cookie than blondie. If I had done a blind taste test, I would not have guessed that chickpeas were the main ingredient.

Question of the day: What is your favorite way to eat chickpeas?

New Ingredient Week 1: Barley

I enjoy cooking. The methodical process of chopping ingredients is relaxing. Recipes are simultaneously math problems and chemistry experiments. (For example, one time the garlic in my pasta dish turned blue when I added lemon juice. What chemical reaction caused this remains a mystery. Thankfully, my dear friend was still brave enough to eat the pasta, and no one got sick.) I enjoy the medley of colors in a salad or a stir fry. The best part, of course, is serving others and watching loved ones’ plates empty.

But sometimes I get lazy. The thought of dirty pots and pans strewn around the kitchen–and the clean up that entails–causes me to open the freezer and grab a veggie burger. They involve only one plate and are ready to eat in ninety seconds.

And sometimes I get bored. Nothing in the pantry sounds appealing. So I end up going out to eat.

I am going to combat my laziness and cooking doldrums with an experiment. Each week, I am going to choose an ingredient that I’ve never cooked with (or use an ingredient in a non-traditional way) and prepare a dish with that ingredient. Although you readers can’t taste the results, I will share the recipe with you here.

The first ingredient is barley. When I chose this, I was actually looking for millet, but my little grocery store didn’t carry it. In the organic section, I found a bag of pearled barley and tossed that in my cart instead, uncertain what exactly I would do with it.

Barley seems like a fairly ordinary ingredient, but it’s never made an appearance in my own kitchen. What to do with this newcomer? After Googling several recipes, I settled on a risotto. Creamy risotto is traditionally made with arborio rice, and I liked the idea of putting a new spin on this tasty comfort food.

I combined two recipes: Smitten Kitchen’s Barley Risotto with Beans and Greens and this Barley Risotto Recipe on Mark Bittman’s site.

I apologize for the lack of photos. The lighting in my kitchen is often bad, and my food photos frequently come out looking decidedly unappetizing. Also, I often gobble down my dishes before thinking to snap a photo. I promise to work on these issues.

mushrooms ii

Barley Risotto

Serves 4

  • 12 oz. mushrooms
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 5 cups vegetable stock
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 cup pearled barley
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  1. Wash the mushrooms, pat them dry, and slice them.
  2. In a medium skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Sauté mushrooms in 1 tablespoon olive oil. Cook until the mushrooms are browned and soft, about eight minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
  3. In a medium saucepan, bring the vegetable stock to a simmer over moderately high heat. Reduce the heat to low.
  4. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter in a large skillet. Add the onion and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is softened, about 6 minutes. Add the barley, garlic and bay leaves. Cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the wine, stirring until absorbed, about one minute. Add 1 cup of the warm stock and cook, stirring, until nearly absorbed. Continue adding the stock 1/2 cup at a time, stirring until it is nearly absorbed between additions, until the barley is creamy and al dente. This will take between 35 and 45 minutes.
  5. Stir in the mushrooms and cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Serve at once, topping each serving with a few shavings of cheese.

The verdict? I thought it was extremely delicious. Jesse cleaned his plate, but he felt arborio rice results in a creamier risotto.

Be forewarned: making risotto is a labor intensive process. Your arm will get a workout from all the stirring. I usually make risotto on a weekend evening when I have lots of time on my hands. While stirring the barley, I listened to music and sipped a glass of wine, and I was quite content.

Questions of the Day: Do you enjoy cooking, or do you avoid spending time in the kitchen? How do you combat cooking boredom?

Runner’s Low

My past two runs have been disasters. Far from flying along, I hobbled stubbornly for awhile and then was reduced to walking. My affliction? A plain old stitch in my side.

I didn’t sleep well Friday night, so when I set out to run on Saturday, I was prepared to struggle. After a mile, I felt a small pain developing in my right side beneath my rib cage. I tried slowing down and focusing on my breath, but the pain increased until I was nearly doubled over. Defeated, I walked most of the 5 miles route I’d planned.

Sunday was a repeat battle with the stitch. I lost again.

I consulted the infinite wisdom of Google to try to determine what was causing my stitch and how to prevent them in the future. Apparently physiologists don’t know why running causes these pains. Some possibilities are eating right before running, drinking too much water, and not drinking enough water. An article by a Navy Seal suggested that a strong core can help prevent them.

Whatever the cause, I am interpreting my stitch as a warning from my body. If I overzealously run too far, too fast before building up my endurance, then I could injure myself. I enjoy running because it is challenging. If there were no obstacles, then I would probably get bored with it pretty quickly.

Also, I can’t forget the importance of cross-training. I want to take my bike out on the Erie Canal bike trail soon. (It’s been nearly two years since I went on a bike ride.)

A barn by the Erie Canal in March. Soon the bare trees will be sporting leaves.

A barn by the Erie Canal in March. Soon the bare trees will be sporting leaves.

Questions of the Day: Any thoughts on how to prevent the dreaded side stitch?

Runner’s High

On a bright, sunny day in June 2002, I made an oath: I would never run another mile in my life. Ever. Again. Never.

At the time, I was participating in three weeks of torture known as “summer gym” so that I could fulfill my high school P.E. requirement, leaving more time during the school year to take electives. My un-athletic friends and I knew that anyone who showed up with a pulse would receive an A, so we expended as little energy as possible participating in kick ball, tennis, or frisbee golf.

Rollerskating was one of the activities that I didn’t mind, as it did not require teamwork, competition, or the throwing/hitting/kicking of spherical objects. Unfortunately, I still didn’t escape unscathed. I was flirting with my neighbor boy in the cafeteria of the retro roller rink when I lost my balance and fell down–smashing the break of my roller skate into my tail bone.

No permanent damage was done, but the next day my tail bone was sore. That was the day we were scheduled to do the dreaded Mile Run, four arduous laps around the high school track. Grumbling and complaining, my friend and I lined up at the back of our gym group. When our teacher started the timer, we watched the track athletes bound off like gazelles. Meanwhile, I took a few tentative strides and realized that my tail bone hurt with every step. So I decided to rebel and walk The Mile Run. My friend walked with me in solidarity. Fifteen minutes later, we crossed the finish line. My gym teacher had the audacity to role his eyes at me when I explained my rollerskating injury. He gave us a B for the activity, but we still got an A for the course.

And that’s when I made my oath. I was embarrassed by my lack of athletic ability. Even if I had run that mile, I would have still been one of the last students across the finish line. Running made me feel asthmatic and nauseous. I could never compete with those gazelle girls sporting their short shorts and swinging their pony tails.

I now see the value of physical education courses, but years of humiliating gym experiences left me with a feeling of incompetence and a loathing for physical activity.

Several years later, the retro roller rink made the evening news when it burned to the ground. (Arson. I think the owner made a bungled attempt at insurance fraud.) And I broke my oath.

I got into the habit of taking long, rambling walks around my neighborhood. One day, without an awful gym teacher standing by with a stop watch, I decided I wanted to go at a faster pace. I wanted to run. I ran a quarter mile (downhill) to the end of the road and felt like I was going to die. But I kept at it. Eventually I could run two or three miles before my chest felt like it was going to explode.

By the end of the summer, I realized that I liked running.

When I run, I feel like I am flying. Since there is a point in your stride where both feet are off the ground, this isn’t too far from the truth.

As my heart rate increases, I burn off stress as well as calories.

When I run, I escape the distractions of the internet and Facebook. I focus on my breath, soak up some Vitamin D (if I am lucky enough for the sun to be shining in Central New York), and just feel alive.

For a long time, I was a fair-weather runner. If the forecast didn’t predict a temperature between 55 and 75 degrees and sun, then I would probably choose to walk rather than run, go to the gym, or just stay inside. Despite my good intentions of last summer, I stopped running after I started a new job in August, and I never signed up for a 5K.

Then when my friend told me she was running a 5K the weekend we planned to visit her in Boston, I impulsively signed up, too. I had been walking twenty hours a week for my job, so I wasn’t too concerned about training or being in shape for the race. Then I quit my job, was only doing yoga as exercise, and realized that the race day was fast approaching. I had only run once the entire winter, on an unseasonably warm day in January.

So on a frigid day in early March when the temperature was 26 degrees but the windchill was 18 degrees, I laced up my running shoes and set out to run three miles. It was awful. My nose was running, my cheeks felt raw from the wind, and my breath rattled in my chest. I turned back before the halfway point. By the time I got home, I thought I was going to throw up. Or maybe die.

And yet, I also felt good. I didn’t think I could endure such awful weather. But I did. If I could run over two miles in a sub-freezing temperature, then in what other ways could I surprise myself? The truth is, many of the limitations I impose on myself are entirely mental. When I am running and an arctic wind is whipping my face, I don’t feel comfortable or good or happy. But I feel strong and confident. I know that I can conquer any challenge.

On race day,  I was not in great shape. I struggled, but I pushed myself, and soaked up the energy of my friend and the other 5,000 runners in the race. I had fun, and I want to run another race again soon.


Since the race, I have started to get back on a regular running schedule. My goal is to run five days a week for a total of 25 or 30 miles. I am adding mileage slowly to avoid injury. For now I’m not too concerned about time. I am much more like the tortoise than the hare.

I am immensely thankful that the days are slowly getting warmer and that I can wear fewer layers when I run. But I learned a lot in the past few weeks. Previously, on miserable snowy or rainy days, when I (in my warm, cozy car) spotted runners on the sidewalk, I used the shake my head in wonder. What crazies, I thought. Now I am one of those crazies. Having re-discovered the thrill of running, a little inclement weather isn’t going to stop me from seeking out a runner’s high.

Questions of the Day: How did you feel about gym class as a kid? How do you approach fitness today? Do you run?