Thursday, November 7, 2013

Beef Barley Soup

When the mercury drops and the wool sweaters are finally pulled from storage, my belly knows it's time for comfort food. Suddenly, salads seem unsatisfying and the only thing that will do is something that will stick directly to my ribs and lull me into a food coma.
Soups and stews bubbling away for hours and hours on the stovetop seem the obvious choice when these cravings come calling. The soups are the easiest to master ~ a good quality broth and the right choices of herbs can elevate the most modest fillers almost always guaranteeing a fabulous outcome. Stews however, are not so easy.
There may be nothing worse than a stew chock full of delicious vegetables that have simmered away for hours soaking up the most heavenly flavors. You lift that spoon to your lips, inhaling the tempting aromas as you blow gently on that steaming spoonful in a futile attempt to cool it down. Your stomach begins to growl with anticipation as it is overcome by sense and smell. Then, as you take that first bite, your teeth find themselves stuck in a tough, grisly piece of meat. Ugh. For real???
It's happened to me and puts me off in such a way that I could forgo those recipes that call for red meat. I don't have the time to worry about whether or not I'm buying the right cut of meat and other than the 48 hours I get to myself each week (aka The Weekend) I don't have the time to cook a stew for 8 or more hours just to ensure a tender piece of meat.
A few years ago I found myself searching the internet trying to find a solution to this dilemma and stumbled upon this recipe for Beef Barley Soup from Cooking Light magazine back in 2009. The ingredient list is short, and the cooking directions are exactly one paragraph. The total cooking time? 2 hours. How could this be? Ingredient lists for dishes like this are usually a mile long with step after step after...well, you get the idea.
I made it that first time a couple of years ago and was sold. That piece of paper that printed the recipe has been faithfully clipped to the side of my refrigerator every since. It is wrinkled, stained and even a little smeared. It shows it's age and the fact that this is a winner of a recipe.

Beef Barley Soup
adapted from Cooking Light Magazine 2009

2 turns of extra virgin olive oil
3/4 lb boneless chuck roast, trimmed and cut into 1/2" pieces
*get your butcher to cut and trim for you if possible. Total time saver. I buy a full pound and just ask for stew meat. Because I add more meat mine is much less "brothy" and more stew like in consistency.
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced carrots (sometimes I just use baby carrots ~ whatever I have on hand)
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced celery
2/3 cup chopped onion
1 (8-ounce) package of presliced mushrooms (sometimes I omit ~ my kids HATE mushrooms)
4 cups beef broth
1 bay leaf
2/3 cup uncooked pearl barley
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 teaspoon of black pepper

Pour two quick turns of extra virgin olive oil in a Dutch oven and heat over medium-high heat. Add beef to pan and cook until browned on all sides. Stir frequently. Remove beef from pan. Add carrot, celery, onion and mushrooms to pan; cook for 6 minutes or until liquid almost evaporates. Add beef, beef broth and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. Stir in pearl barley, cover, and simmer another 30 minutes or until barley is tender. Season with salt and pepper. Discard bay leaf before serving.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Weekend In Newport

Escaping the humdrum rhythm of the daily grind is like chicken soup for the soul. Having the chance to flee from the usual obligations and chores and indulge the senses with new sights, sounds and smells for even the briefest moments is so rejuvenating. By 5:30 on Friday evening I was so ready to pack away my 9-5 weekday life, jump in the car and disappear from life as I know it for the next 36 hours. 

We were off in the car as early as I could convince Charlie to be, leaving behind the typical weekend errands, the dogs and the kids for only the fourth time in the past fourteen years. To say we were overdue could be the understatement of the year.
The ride started out with excitement and more than a bit of giddyness ~ mostly on my behalf ~ Charlie can maintain a much better poker face than I, who wears her emotions on her sleeve. After the first hour or so, we, I, settled down enough to just breathe it all in and simply be.

We arrived in Newport, Rhode Island just in time for lunch. Hungry from travel and for adventure, we dropped our bags off at the Adele Turner Inn and wandered off in search of way more than full bellies. The streets were lined with trees ablaze in their autumnal glory, the sidewalks strewn with the fallen bounty causing every footstep to bring forth a glorious crunch and crackle. No one does fall like New England.  

Then there's the homes. Dripping with history, even the most weathered of these historic places still commands a stately presence. You can feel it in your bones. Hundreds of years gone by, but still so evident that past and present collide in an unimitable fashion that makes this place so special. I simply cannot get enough.
This quick getaway was not without reason, Charlie wanted to take me somewhere to celebrate my upcoming milemarker birthday.  We searched and searched for a place to have dinner, somewhere special to mark the occasion. Just when we thought we had found perfection, and a venue steeped in the history that fascinates me, we ended up something terribly disappointed and unsatisfying.

Sunday morning brought grey and brisk weather that was absolute perfection for a stroll on the Cliff Walk. I reminded him that had we lived in the time of the Vanderbilt's or Astor's that an afternoon walk like this would have been considered courting. For a moment in time I could almost see the ladies in their finery, strolling behind Newport's great manses, parasols in hand. The history is rich and very much alive here. Not only rich for the eponymous names that shroud this town. Rich because it is still so evident. So real.
While the excesses of the Gilded Age will always fascinate me, these days I dream more of small cabins and wide open spaces than marble and luxe. 

Perhaps that is why the lunch we shared that afternoon in the small village of Jamestown, at a tiny seafood dive with tables covered in white craft paper was the best meal we had all weekend. It gave me pause for thought as to how much I have changed. All of these years working in the world of consumer excess has made me eschew the need to have more and more and instead be present, take notice of the richness that surrounds us all everyday. The richness that comes from those crunchy, golden leaves littering the sidewalk or a magnificent sunset over a small harbor. That kind of luxe requires no starched white table linens.  

It was ironic as we drove out of Jamestown through it's modest seaside homes that Charlie suddenly announced that this place was much more "us".
It also explains why the drive home was spent basking in the glow of each other's company. Uninterrupted time alone that, in itself, is more valuable than any earthly possession.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Life Lately

Life is busy and even a little crazy, but it's still oh, so good.
Last time I wrote we were on our way up to the Hudson River Valley of New York to go apple picking. We spent a beautiful morning in an orchard with the most breathtaking panoramic views. I just couldn't get enough. We picked almost a full bushel of apples and even tomatoes and peppers.
After that, it seemed like every free moment I had was spent in the kitchen putting up more fruit and veg for the winter. Apple slices preserved in syrup, apple pie in a jar (an incredible dessert filling or topping) and then I turned the bounty of tomatoes from our garden and the ones we picked into jars and jars of salsa.
The weekends in between I spend running from thrift store to thrift store endlessly in search of the next great treasure. Last weekend I came upon a fabulous French mustard crock. A few days later, a quick pop into a thrift store with evening hours turned up another one. I think I'm becoming obsessed and much to my husband's chagrin, they are not going into the shop!
Then in what seemed faster than the blink of an eye, it was Halloween and October was coming to an end. My best girl is obsessed with Japanese anime so she was Kiki  - an adorable witch with a big red bow in her hair and matching red ballerina flats. We trick or treated until her feet hurt too much to keep going so we headed home and sorted through her bounty. There is enough candy in this house to feed a small army.
Now it's November and it hardly seems possible. Every weekend sans one is completely booked with activities, starting tomorrow when we make a much needed trip to Newport, Rhode Island. There will be mansions to see, wine to taste and a quick dose of R&R. It's my consolation prize for the mile marker birthday I have coming in less than two weeks. That hardly seems possible either, but that in itself is a whole other story!

What has your life been filled with lately?