With yet another rush to the head last summer, I offered to cook a celebration lunch for eight, as a ‘promise’ in aid of the Donhead St Mary fête. When the (very generous) winning bidder cashed this promise in, I was tasked with designing a simple three course menu that was special enough for a ‘Girlies' Celebration Lunch’, light enough for those who still had the school run to do, and most importantly, didn’t have me slaving over a hot stove for too many days beforehand. I believe I achieved the first two of these, although I was somewhat misguided about the latter.
‘Simple food’ is probably the sort I agonise over most. It is easier to have a disaster with a simple dish. That last little adjustment; too much fussing and tweaking and the invincible recipe that defies failure, but they still happen. I was determined none of my dishes would fit this description.
I arrived, reeking of organisation and cool confidence to find no one home. Heaven’s, it was today, wasn’t it? I let myself in and joined the dogs in the kitchen. To my great relief the hostess arrived from town, laden with flowers and wine. All was going to be fine as long as we could get rid of the dogs, which I caught eyeing up my creations.
The meal started with roasted figs, stuffed with a local cheese - Win Green from Cranborne Chase Cheese - deserved winner of the Gold award for British cheese 2009, available in Ludwell Stores. These were wrapped in prosciutto and drizzled with balsamic vinegar before roasting for 8-10 minutes. I made some flowerpot bread with poppy seeds to mop up the warm juices, sliced, and then served back in their pots. Very rustic. Still trying to think ‘simple’ you notice. All okay so far.
To follow, they had poached chicken breasts with pistachio and parsley mousse on braised pearl barley with leeks, tarragon and lemon butter. Topped with sweet potato crisps (shaved length ways and deep fried) - they were bright orange - fantastic. Served together with a warm green bean salad. This was followed by an assortment of puddings, Orange Bavarois with rose petal shortbread; Fruit tarts with crème anglaise and Chocolate, hazelnut and cinnamon meringues with warm ‘Venezuelan Black’ 100% Cacao chocolate sauce, (from Willie’s Chocolate Factory recipe book).
The star of the meal was the ‘low-brow, truly simple peasant food’ - the braised pearl barley. It has real substance with fresh and deeply satisfying flavours. So here it is. If you choose to make this with hulled barley, whilst more nutritious, it may be a little chewy and will take longer to cook. I would stick with the pearled barley myself. Incidentally, there were no disasters although I broke my own rule about keeping it simple. Would you have noticed? Okay, …maybe. aif
Braised Pearl Barley with Leeks, Lemon and Tarragon (after Gary Rhodes) Serves 3-4 as an accompaniment / 2-3 as a main course Around £0.60p per portion, when all ingredients purchased at Ludwell Stores.
1 large onion, finely chopped
175 g unsalted butter, softened but not melted
900ml vegetable or chicken stock (Try Marigold stocks if not homemade)
1 leek, sliced finely
100g pearl barley – (best to give it a quick rinse)
1 teaspoon fresh chopped tarragon (try thyme or dill if preferred)
1-2 lemons; juice of…..(one is enough if large)
Glug of Marsala or sherry (optional, but adds a wonderful sweetness)
1. Cook the onion, without colouring but just softened, in 50g of butter.
2. Bring 600ml of your stock to the boil and add the leeks, cooking for 30 seconds only. Strain the leeks reserving both the stock and the leeks.
3. Add the rinsed pearl barley to the onions and cook gently for 2-3 minutes, stirring to coat the grains.
4. If using, add a glug of Marsala or sherry, and let it bubble, stirring for a further minute. (Breathing deeply to enjoy the vapours).
5. Add the hot stock that you cooked the leeks in. Cover the pot and simmer, stirring often, until the barley becomes tender and creamy – approx 30 – 40 minutes. (Up to 60 minutes if using hulled not pearled barley – this will be chewier but still good).
6. If, at this stage there is excess stock in your pan, pour this off into your remaining stock, of which you will have about 300mls.
7. Mix the remaining butter with the lemon juice and tarragon. (At this stage you can cool the barley mix and refrigerate everything, ready to finish before you serve)
8. To finish the barley, add a knob of your tarragon and lemon butter with all the leeks, and warm through, stirring vigorously to ‘froth-up’ a little.
9. Re-boil your remaining stock, reducing it by a third, then gradually whisk in knobs of the lemon and tarragon butter, until you have a smooth sauce consistency. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. (Watch for salt content if you have used commercial stock cubes/powder).
10. Spoon the barley into the centre of warmed plates and pour the sauce around, before topping with roasted squash or mixed vegetables, grilled chicken or fish or a couple of Buttling’s award winning pork sausages, or simply enjoy as it is.
Once you have mixed the flavoured butter with the barley, it is not so great reheated, however if you must, just keep whisking it to stop the butter turning to oil, which would be horrid.
A truly, truly scrumptious, deeply satisfying dish.
These musings and recipes are gleaned from The Donhead Digest with the permission of AIF, their author.