I wonder what it says about my demographic that nearly everyone I know is embroiled in self-deprivation of one kind or another this month.
Sugar, coffee, alcohol, credit cards, television, sloth – all of these, and more, are being abandoned with Lenten fervour in favour of a brisk and tidy start to the new year.
And although I am no stranger to the New Year’s detox, I also have to tell you that I am not completely sold on the concept. I am all for a fresh start, and yes, December’s excesses do take their toll, but I can’t help feeling that we owe ourselves a little more kindness at this point in the calendar.
A gentler beginning.
I think we should all be slinking through the rest of this month (and much of the next one as well) with a piece of runny cheese and a glass or two of wine – and just possibly a spontaneous shopping trip – at the ready, both to acknowledge the utter joy that the holidays brought and to shore us up until the evenings are a little brighter, the Mondays a little less blue.
I am not really one for resolutions – I cannot be relied upon to keep them, ever, and I feel that there is enough opportunity for falling short of one’s own expectations in the day to day life of any mother – but if I were to make just one this year, it would involve neither the clenched teeth of self-denial nor the fleeting comforts of extreme gluttony.
If I were to make a wish for all of us this year, I’d say let this be the year that we find and take comfort in the middle ground.
Elusive and lovely as a sliver of winter sunshine.
Happy new year!
January’s Healthy Lunch
I made this a few days after finishing my January detox, and the sweet, smoky, salty pancetta was enough to make me swoon with delight. The rest is pretty healthy. If you cook the barley ahead of time, it all comes together fairly quickly, but if you start with raw barley you need to give yourselves about an hour’s lead time.
5c cooked barley (about 350g raw, cooked according to package directions)
150g cubed pancetta
5 sticks celery, thinly sliced crosswise
2 cloves garlic, chopped not too finely
1c roasted almonds, coarsely chopped
roughly 1/3c olive oil
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
1 tbsp dijon mustard
sea salt and pepper to taste
If barley is fridge-cold, leave it sitting out to get the chill out before putting the rest of it together. If the barley is still warm from cooking, all the better.
Cook pancetta in a cast iron or other heavy skillet, over medium heat, until just beginning to crisp. Using a slotted spoon, transfer pancetta to a bowl and set aside. Drain all but 2 tbsp of fat from the pan, and reserve.
Return pan to heat and add garlic and celery. Saute, stirring occasionally until garlic is very fragrant and celery has lost most, but not all, of its crunch.
Meanwhile, Pour reserved pancetta fat into a glass measuring cup, and top up with olive oil to reach a scant half cup. Whisk in vinegar and dijon to emulsify.
Place barley in a large bowl and toss with almonds, pancetta, celery, and garlic. Add vinaigrette and toss well to combine. (At this point, if you were more organized than I, you might chop some italian parsley and stir it in before serving)
Serves 4 as a hearty main course, with enough leftover that you can sneak spoonfuls from the bowl for the rest of the afternoon or 6-8 as a side dish.
Not only did it encompass everything that makes me happy in a food (butter, wine, starch, meat, cheese); making it was a process that I found thoroughly enjoyable, especially if I had friends around. The risotto dinner routine from those days goes something like this:
Heat broth. Pour a glass of wine for everyone. Start the butter, the onion, the rice. Start talking. Splash some wine into the pan. Splash some wine into the glasses. Ladle broth into the rice, and start stirring. More wine, more gossip, more broth, more stirring.
Eventually everyone sits down, flushed from the steam and the stirring and the wine. The conversation doesn’t really slow down, because another advantage of risotto is that it is completely uncomplicated to eat.
These days, while I still love the uncomplicatedness of eating risotto, still love the wine and the conversation, the risotto dinner routine has had to evolve somewhat.
It may seem hard to imagine, but I have discovered (necessity being the mother of invention) that a really creamy, delectable and soul-satisfying risotto can still be had without my standing over the stove for half an hour and coaxing it into being.
Friends, I have given up the stirring.
And it has changed my life.
Risotto for a New Reality
By some miracle, my daughter, who has an aversion to vegetables and doesn’t like her food to be mixed together, devours this dish. I also buy my squash already diced, and my pancetta already cubed, which adds considerably to the ease of making it on a weeknight (well, any night really) and thus also to its soul-satisfying cred.
2c arborio rice
1/4c olive oil
2c (450g) diced butternut squash
1/4c white wine (optional – if not using, increase broth to 5 1/2c)
5 1/4c chicken broth
150g diced pancetta
2c frozen peas
1/2c grated parmesan
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
In a deep, heavy-bottomed skillet with a tight-fitting lid, combine rice, oil, squash wine, and 5 cups broth over medium-high heat. Stir once, bring to a boil, then clamp the lid on and transfer to the oven. Cook 25-35 minutes (I find it takes a little longer if you’re using frozen squash), until rice is al dente and broth is mostly absorbed.
While rice is in the oven, cook pancetta cubes in a small heavy skillet until crispy. Drain on paper towel and set aside.
Return rice to stovetop over medium heat. Stir rice well, scraping up any crispy bits that may be stuck to the bottom of the pan; stir in pancetta, peas, and remaining 1/4 cup broth. Cook until peas are just tender, maybe 2-3 minutes. Beat in grated parmesan.
Serve immediately, with a generous grating of black pepper.