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Classic Cookbooks: Barley Casserole

Book Cover"Melt the butter and sauté the onions and mushrooms until soft. Add the barley and brown it lightly." These two sentences raise so many questions for an inexperienced cook with OCD: how high should the flame be? How long might this take? Mushrooms are already pretty soft, and barley is already pretty brown—how will I know when I’ve reached the end point? Commenters in cooking forums usually scoff at the notion that anyone could be puzzled by such simple instructions, but the truth is that some people are. (I know I was when I started cooking.)

Now that I’ve built up some experience, I feel comfortable winging it but still prefer recipes that are as precise as possible in terms of instructions, visual cues, and possible cooking times. Every recipe in Sunday Suppers at Lucques specifies how long to heat the pan and then the oil before adding food (and it’s a lot longer than I ever would have guessed on my own; now I actually know how to brown meat). Ina Garten tells us how much salt and pepper to add to most dishes, which I love—“seasoning to taste” is hard, and it’s good to know about how much should work. Nevertheless, some people consider such specificity to be the height of culinary philistinism. My husband and in-laws definitely look at me as if I'm insane when I carefully level off a half-teaspoon of baking powder or use my kitchen scale.

The James Beard Cookbook assumes that its readers who are beginners will be able to dog paddle to shore even if they’re tossed into the middle of the lake without floaties. I’m sure this works well for some people (and that those people later become the types who boast, “Oh, I could never follow a recipe without tweaking it. I like to make things mine”); it’s just one of the ways life in the kitchen reveals personality. Some are born to sink while awaiting instruction or contemplating every option, others to swim confidently whether towards success or failure. Even ditherers, though, can learn to jump in and try try again. Me, I might have been intimidated by this recipe for barley casserole seven years ago, but the other night I made it without blinking an eye, even adding extra mushrooms and fiddling with the fat.

You can reduce the amount of butter (I think I used 2 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil). I used vegetable broth made from powdered bouillon. He specifies a “casserole” as the cooking vessel, and I never know exactly what this term means. In my mind, a casserole is a 9 x 13 inch Pyrex baking dish, but in a (more old-fashioned?) usage a casserole is a kind of stove top-to-oven pot. Anyway, the top layer of my barley was still unpleasantly crunchy, so next time I think I will use a 2-quart soufflé dish or similar and perhaps even give it a stir when I add the second dose of broth. And there will be a next time; this was a relatively fast, easy, healthy, tasty side that also makes a nice vegetarian dinner with some sautéed greens.

About the author: Robin Bellinger recently escaped a career in book publishing, which was cutting into her cooking time. Now she's a freelance editor and can bake bread on Tuesday afternoon if she feels like it. She lives in Midtown Manhattan with her husband and blogs about cooking and crafting at home*economics.

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