Sunday, March 6, 2016

TWO Recipes of the Month: Barley and Mushroom Pilaf and Lentil Soup with Coconut

We're not even a full week into March yet, but we've already tried not one, but two new vegetable recipes. On Tuesday, we had the Barley and Mushroom Pilaf out of Nava Atlas's Vegetariana, and on Wednesday, we made the Lentil Soup with Coconut from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything.

Trying the first one was kind of an impromptu decision. We had found a good deal on mushrooms at Aldi the previous week, and after making a batch of our favorite Mushroom Barley Soup (see the comment on this post for the recipe), we still had some mushrooms left that needed to be used up before they got too bedraggled. We have several mushroom-based recipes in our regular repertoire, including the Giant Mushroom Popover from Molly Katzen's Vegetable Heaven, pasta tossed with sauteed mushrooms and cheese, and mushroom omelet. But it seemed like we'd been leaning pretty heavily on all of these recipes recently, and I thought maybe it was time to expand our collection.

So I started browsing through the cookbook shelf, looking up "mushrooms" in the indexes, and found a recipe for Barley and Mushroom Pilaf that I'd never taken note of before. Most of the ingredients it called for—barley, olive oil, onion, celery, garlic, mushrooms, canned white beans, soy sauce, honey, and black pepper—were ready to hand. The others, fresh parsley and fresh dill, weren't available this early in the gardening year, but we figured we could safely leave out the parsley and substitute some dried dill. And thanks to our impulse-purchased pressure cooker, we could have the barley cooked and ready to go in just 10 minutes, and the entire recipe in about 15 minutes after that.

The finished dish was certainly both hearty and healthful, and the taste wasn't bad, but to me, it seemed a little lacking. Maybe it was the absence of the fresh herbs the recipe called for, but it just didn't seem quite as flavorful as I would have hoped. I remembered that years ago, when I was single, I had improvised a somewhat similar dish based on what I happened to have available in the pantry at the time—half a box of Quaker quick-cooking barley, a packet of Lipton onion-mushroom soup mix, an onion, and a can of mushrooms—and it seemed to me that this hodgepodge mixture had come out more savory than the undoubtedly healthier version I was eating right now. I wasn't sure exactly what it needed, but I thought more garlic would have made a good start, as the recipe calls for only two cloves, which is pretty mild for my taste. Brian fished some powdered garlic out of the pantry, and sprinkling a bit of that over the bean-barley mess did seem to help the flavor somewhat. So I think if we were to make this again, I'd want to at least double the garlic content, and possibly experiment with some other flavors as well—perhaps cooking the barley with some of our favorite Penzey's vegetable soup base rather than plain water, for instance.

The second new dish we tried, by contrast, was a planned one. Brian had come across the recipe for Lentil Soup with Coconut some time ago and flagged it as one to try, and we'd actually gone and bought a can of coconut milk and some shredded unsweetened coconut specifically to use in the recipe. However, the recipe also calls for sliced fresh okra, which we didn't manage to find at any of the stores in our area, so Brian had to improvise a bit. He bought a pound of green beans and substituted those for both the okra and the zucchini in the original recipe, and since okra also serves as a thickening agent, he threw in a tablespoon of cornstarch as well to make up the difference. All the other ingredients we needed—vegetable oil, onion, garlic, fresh ginger, black pepper, turmeric, curry powder, diced tomatoes, lentils, and veggie stock—were ready to hand. The recipe also called for "fresh curry leaves, if available, or fresh basil leaves," and Brian was planning to use some of the salt-packed basil leaves we had in the pantry, but he actually ended up forgetting and leaving them out entirely.

Not that it really mattered, because this soup had plenty of flavor without them. The curry powder Brian used was not our usual homemade variety, but a McCormick blend someone gave him that contains rather a lot of fenugreek, a spice we seldom use—and one that turns out to be not much to my taste. Moreover, the recipe calls for you to put the curry powder into the dry pan and toast it a bit before you add the rest of the ingredients. Brian suspects it was this step that caused the smell of fenugreek to permeate our kitchen so thoroughly that even now, four days later, we're still catching a faint whiff of it every time we enter the house through the kitchen door. Between this and the other spices in the soup, it had a very powerful, pungent flavor, and although I normally like curries that aren't too fiery, I couldn't finish my bowl of this stuff. Fortunately, Brian liked it fine, so he was able to take care of the leftovers. But still, I don't think we'll be making it again—or at least, if we do, we'll make sure to use our regular curry powder and run the ventilation fan on high while cooking it.

So all in all, neither of our Recipes of the Month for March was a smashing success, and we wouldn't make either of them again without some modifications. But the barley-mushroom pilaf, at least, shows potential, and I think we might be able to turn it into an enjoyable dish—perhaps even a staple dish—with a bit of tweaking.
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