October 2, 2012

Warm Barley Salad with Sweet Potatoes, Brussels Sprouts and Chard

For me, it is autumn, not spring, which speaks to new beginnings. 

We often speak of foods that take us into our past -- the roast chicken on our grandmother's table, the first time we tasted a just-picked tomato, the feel of cookie dough in our second-grade hands. We reminisce about the way a certain dish recalls a certain place and time. The lobster bake which invokes  sand in your toes and the taste of sea spray in the air. The way turkey salad sandwiches taste like college. The way the right kind of BBQ can taste like home.

But food can also bring us to the future.

I'm not talking about freeze dried ice cream or Willy Wonka's food pills. At least I hope I'm not. Food -- good food, the right food -- can sweep us towards things to come. Food anticipates the changing of the seasons. Food forecasts moods. It anticipates relationships. It envisions things to come. Food not only remembers, it predicts.

Dishes that predict.
The right meal can set off the next chapter in someone's life. The right soup has the potential to heal, to predict better things to come. A good coffee can turn around a day (let me tell you, a Frappachino's  ability to turn around a day is quite remarkable).  A long lunch can predict a new friendship. A dinner party can commence a new story, a new beginning. A perfectly baked loaf of bread might forecast good things to come. And a new dish which comes together serendipitously and with little planning, which has all the qualities of a well thought out meal but which was created with little planning or forethought -- which, when finished, is hearty and filling, balanced and bright, calm, smooth, sweet, and bitter -- that is a dish which foretells. That is a dish which sets a rhythm. That is a dish to get your steps in stride. Put your marbles in order. Set your cats meowing. Whatever.

It's exactly the dish that came to be as I slowly added ingredient after ingredient into an old wooden mixing bowl until I had myself the most delightful warm barley salad I ever did see. I was making dinner for my mom, my sister Laura and her friend Mattie. Laura helped me chop as I searched through the pantry and fridge finding ingredients to throw her way. The oven sat quietly roasting. Pans filled all four burners, working away to separately cook the many ingredients. There were thinly sliced brussels sprouts lightly caramelized on the stove, tender cubes of roasted butternut squash, smooth and bitter chard, toasted hazelnuts crushed beneath a knife, slices of red onion and radish, a light soy vinaigrette with cider vinegar.

I cannot tell you precisely what this dish foretold except that it spoke to the coming together of things. To the gentle and harmonious way in which many parts form a whole. The way in which, for me, it is autumn, not spring, which speaks to new beginnings. The way the falling of the leaves and the chill in the air, and sweet potatoes and brussels sprouts, set things in order. That is the power of food, not only to speak towards the past, but towards the future.

Warm Barley Salad with Sweet Potatoes, Brussels Sprouts and Chard
Serves 4 as a main

-3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
-1 cup barley
-2 large sweet potatoes
-1 bunch chard, washed
-2 cups brussels sprouts
-1/2 small red onion
-4 radishes
-1/2 cup hazelnuts
-about 1 cup olive oil
-4 tablespoons soy sauce
-1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
-1/2 teaspoon honey
-salt and pepper

1. Preheat your oven to 425.

2. Start by preparing the barley. Bring your stock to a boil in a medium pot. Add the barley and partially cover with a lid. Reduce heat to medium, maintaining a slow boil. Allow barley to cook for about 40-45 minutes, adding more stock or water if necessary to keep the barley covered in liquid at all times. When the barley is finished cooking, it should be tender but still have some bite (the "al dente" version of barley). Drain off the extra liquid and keep warm, covered, in the pot.

3. Meanwhile, prepare your vegetables. To prepare sweet potatoes, peel the sweet potatoes with a vegetable peeler. Cut sweet potatoes into 1/2 inch cubes: Start by slicing the sweet potatoes lengthwise into 1/2 inch sections. Cut each section into 1/2 inch strips (they should look like sweet potato fries at this point). Finally, cut each strip into uniform cubes. Place on a sheet tray and cover with a few tablespoons of olive oil and a good dash of salt and pepper. Use your hands to coat the cubes evenly with the olive oil. Place in the oven for 20-30 minutes until they are cooked through. Keep an eye on them as they will cook quickly at 425, and need to be checked often so as not to burn. Remove from the oven, allow to cool slightly, and place in a large serving bowl.

4. Take your bunch of chard and slice or tear into 1/2 inch strips. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil. Add the chard and cook for about 5-7 minutes, seasoning with salt and pepper throughout. Remove to your serving bowl.

5. Slice brussels sprouts into thin, 1/8 inch rounds. In the same pan as the chard, heat another few tablespoons of olive oil on high heat. Add brussels sprouts and cook, stirring frequently and seasoning throughout, until they are well browned and cooked through, about 10-12 minutes. Remove to your serving bowl.

6. Thinly slice your red onion. Halve and thinly slice radish as well, and place both onion and radish in serving bowl.

7. Heat a small skillet on medium heat. Add hazelnuts and toss frequently for 2-3 minutes until lightly browned on the outside. Remove to a cutting board and chop with a large knife into smaller pieces. Place in serving bowl.

8. Prepare your vinaigrette. In a small bowl, mix 6 tablespoons olive oil, soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, honey and a dash of salt and pepper.

9. When barley is ready, add it to your serving bowl on top of everything. The heat from the cooked vegetables and the barely will lightly cook the onion and radish. Pour over the vinaigrette and mix everything thoroughly. Enjoy, at once, thoroughly.