One pot, or so

December 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

I don’t remember exactly when it started, but sometime after I finished college, soon after I started cooking for myself in my own place, I began writing my menus out each week. I suspect I read about this practice in a magazine somewhere, that doing this sort of thing would help keep you organized, and I am a sucker for anything that promises streamlines.  Fifteen years later, after periodically and temporarily following myriad tips and tricks from organized people about how to organize oneself, I am still tremendously disorganized. But I still make menu plans, using the same college-ruled, yellow legal pads I  used when first began. I still list the intended courses and accompaniments (when there are such elaborations), I still write in cursive. But a few things have changed: I am no longer freakishly disciplined about following them, and my handwriting has gone to crap.

In those days I rarely cooked the same thing twice, or off the cuff. Tried-and-true was not in my vocabulary. I did have a routine I rarely deviated from: Saturday mornings I would go for a long run, early, because that’s how normal girls have fun in their early 20s, I would come home and clean up, and after that I would sit in front of my cookbooks-only bookshelf, my perimeter surrounded by splayed-open books, dog-eared issues of Gourmet, Food & Wine, and Saveur, one of those legal notepads, a grocery list, and a pen. I would plan out my menus for the week, relatively elaborate dinners that would have me in the kitchen for 2-3 hours a night, usually with the Golden Girls, Friends, and Seinfeld reruns going in the background. Then I would drive to the store, our Whole Foods before Whole Foods, or, a few years in, the farmers market, and I would stick to that menu every night of the week. If you’re wondering, no, I didn’t have many friends in those days. The first couple of years out of college, although it certainly wasn’t bullet-proof, I kept from feeling alone by cooking. And I learned a lot about preparing food, living so many hours in the kitchen. If my life was a little unbalanced, I’m grateful, in ways, that I was so adventurous in the kitchen, that I did give cooking such weight. It helped me to build  a repertoire and enough confidence to eventually cook from my own whims.

I still plan meals ahead, to some extent, in part for those days when my brain is capable of synthesizing ingredients only to the extent of bread + cheese (which = delicious grilled cheese if your fiancé is not a vegan), and in part to justify  the ceaseless trickle of cookbooks into our home and the stack of to-read food-centric periodicals that never seems to die. I also find the process entertaining, and it’s a way to record flashes of inspiration that don’t stand a chance if I don’t write them down. But I am less likely these days to follow my notes to the letter. In those early days, I planned menus to ensure that I would try as many new things as possible, to keep track of the so very many things I wanted to cook. I still care about those things, but it’s also important to me now to cook spontaneously sometimes, to use what I know to cook exactly what I have a taste for, in whatever moment it is. I think in cooking there’s little else more gratifying than that.

Flash forward to this soup, which came out of a desire to get back to a book of short stories I’ve been reading as quickly as possible, use up a few things in the fridge that were starting to bark, and mend things with my body, still in a sugar reel from the meringue-topped lemon tart I ate on Friday that was so obscenely delicious I finished the whole thing without swearing at myself. Soup-making is such a fluid, therapeutic process, and we’ve been eating a lot of it lately. It offers big returns for just a little inspiration, and it’s forgiving, usually, unless it is a cream soup that you reheat past boiling because you’re trying to multitask, always unadvisable when reheating pureed soups, in which case it fumes and then holds a grudge. This one was not at all fussy—it came together in about an hour, and it was fairly selfless, asking for only two pots for itself. No wait. Three? Well, that sounds like a lot, but it was worth it. I mean, I didn’t do the dishes, but it seemed that way.

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Barley, lentil, and celery root soup with yellowfoot chanterelles

I had the lentils for this dish already made, leftover from something else, or I might have used a bit more. You could easily double the amount for something even heartier, but the proportions as is were about right to my taste. Otherwise, cooking and steeping the lentils and steeping the porcinis take a little hands-off time, but if you get them started they’ll take care of themselves while you see to other, non-cooking things.

On the chanterelles: I am quickly becoming spoiled by all of the crazy mushroom glory out here. I had never seen a yellowfoot chanterelle until a couple of months ago, and I’m making up for it. They are wonderful, lovely little things, with creamy-tan-colored caps, and more delicacy than the better-known butter-yellow chanterelles. They’re a bit astringent raw, but cooked they translate into something just a little earthy and sweet, with a really wonderful texture that’s just barely chewy. In their place, because they are admittedly not something you go out and buy, more or less something you stumble upon. In their place I would suggest oyster mushrooms. Creminis or shiitakes would add too much game and earth for the other ingredients.
If you don’t have/can’t find celery leaves, use parsley instead, but do try the celery leaves if you can; they add a really wonderful, unexpected layer of flavor.
1/2 cup barley
1/4 cup French green, Spanish pardina or black beluga lentils (these varieties all hold their shape better than our traditional flat lentils
1 sprig thyme
1/4 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1 medium to large celery root
1 large carrot
4 ounces yellowfoot chanterelles, or oyster mushrooms
1 t. caraway seed
1 large shallot
1 t. thyme leaves
2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
sea salt and black pepper
couple of handfuls of celery leaves
Bring the lentils and a pinch of salt to a simmer in a small saucepan with 2 cups water. Simmer gently, partly covered, until just tender, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat, add the sprig of thyme, and steep for at least 20 minutes.
In another pot, bring two cups of water nearly to a boil. When you can see bubbles just breaking the surface, pour the water over the porcinis and let stand for 20-30 minutes.
Strain the porcinis, cut them into small pieces and set aside. Combine the soaking liquid with another cup of water, add the barley, bring to a boil, and simmer until tender, about 30-40 minutes.
While your lentils and porcinis are simmering/steeping and the barley is cooking, mince the shallot, strip the thyme leaves from their sprigs, dice the carrot, trim, peel and dice the celery root, and trim the chanterelles and cut them into halves or quarters.
Then in a large sauté pan heat the oil over medium heat. Add the shallot and sauté, stirring, until it begins to turn translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the caraway and thyme leaves and sauté another minute or two. Add the carrots and celery root to coat with the oil and cook everything for another 5 minutes or so. Add the mushrooms and stir just until they begin to release their juices, a few minutes, then add the barley and its cooking liquid (the porcini broth + water) and the lentils, with enough of their soaking liquid to create a broth as thin or thick as you’d like. I started with about 3 cups and ended up adding about 3/4 cup water to thin it out; if you have more broth than that and want a thinner broth, add more, or dilute later (you can also dilute with water). Season with salt and pepper, and simmer until the vegetables are all tender. Chop the celery leaves and stir them in; cook just a few minutes to wilt completely. Finish with a little extra nice olive oil and more cracked black pepper to taste. We used a little smoked salt, too, just to gild the lily. Hope for leftovers.
Serves 3-4
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