By Alaina Sullivan
Traditional risotto calls for Arborio rice or one of its short-grained cousins; I decided to try it with barley. Risotto-style barley has a more toothsome bite than the rice-based versions, but the process is the same—a ritual of stirring, adding liquid, more stirring, adding more liquid until the consistency turns rich and creamy. The cooking process requires a bit of a watchful eye – a few too many minutes on the stovetop and the grain might get overcooked (you want it to retain a slight crunch). I prepared the barley according to the directions for “Simple Risotto” How to Cook Everything. I folded in a trio of cooked mushrooms (cremini, shitake and portabella), added fresh thyme to complement their earthiness, and finished off the dish with grated manchego to give it that classic creaminess.
You might think it would be difficult to find a cheerful and optimistic farmer the year a hurricane wiped out most of the crop, but I did so in Burlington, Vt., the day after Thanksgiving. I was visiting the Intervale Center, a nonprofit that manages a 350-plus-acre flood plain not far from downtown.
The Intervale, which is on the Winooski River, has been farmland for nearly the entire time humans have lived in this region, not only because land that floods is especially fertile (think of the Nile), but because it isn’t much good for anything else. “The Intervale was always a smart place to grow food,” says Will Raap, the founder of Gardener’s Supply, headquartered in the Intervale. “It’s fertile and flat, and there’s plenty of water. And as Burlington grew it didn’t get developed because it floods.” Twenty-five years ago, part of it was planted in corn and much of the rest had become an informal dump.
Raap happened upon the land back then, saw its potential and teamed with Burlington Mayor Bernie Sanders (the now-heroic Vermont senator, with whom I was touring the Intervale Center) to begin seeding and incubating small businesses and farms in the Intervale. The Center’s goals are familiar ones, but worth repeating: to use the land responsibly and sustainably, to help farmers make a living, and to make needed connections among people, farms and food.
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There are days when it seems — both in and out of the food world — that Everything Is Going Wrong. That makes it easy enough to complain, and I’m not alone in doing so routinely. Nothing tastes the way it used to. Even pricey restaurants have lost their glow. Quality is shot. People die from eating melons. The dominance of hyper-processed, industrialized food (and, more to the point, food-like products) is spreading globally, and we’re all gaining weight faster than ever, while wrecking the planet.
Nevertheless, it’s nearly as easy to find signs of hope — lots of them — as well as people and organizations who’ve been prodding American food back on a natural, sustainable, beautiful track.
Then, of course, there are the things that just plain make you glad to be alive. Aside from the smell of garlic simmering in olive oil, what and whom am I thankful for? In no particular order:
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By Alaina Sullivan
Departing slightly from the traditional dim sum version, this shrimp toast is made up of thick shrimp paste baked (not fried) on top of crusty bread. Scallions, soy sauce and sesame oil provide the classic Chinese flavors (I added some garlic and ginger for good measure.) Sesame seeds, scattered over the top, toast in the hot oven until fragrant and crunchy.
The moisture from the shrimp paste will inevitably leech into the bread as it cooks, so it is important that you pre-toast the bread initially to avoid an overly soggy middle. However, part of the magic of the dish is how some of the juices seep through, forming a delicious glue that fuses the shrimp and the toast into one perfect bite. Recipe from Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express.
Sesame Shrimp Toasts
Heat the oven to 475 degrees F. Slice a baguette in half lengthwise, put the halves face up on a baking sheet, and set them in the oven while it heats. Put shrimp (about 20) in a food processor with some butter, scallions, soy sauce (about 2 tsp), a few drops of sesame oil (about 1/2 tsp), and a pinch each of sugar and salt. Pulse until the mixture forms a chunky paste. Smear the shrimp past all over the bread and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake until the shrimp paste is pink and cooked through and the bread is crisp, about 10-15 minutes. Cool a bit, then cut up and serve with a salad.
Broccoli rabe usually doesn’t make it past a sauté pan with garlic and olive oil, nor does it need to. But the extra step of baking it in the oven with a shower of grated Parmesan on top – which was suggested to me by the chef John Schenk, now at the Strip House, and which I wrote about in a 1997 Minimalist column — is one you should try.
Blanch the broccoli rabe until it’s bright green and nearly tender, then cook it in a pan with golden toasted garlic. From there, put it in a baking dish, sprinkle with cheese, and bake until it the cheese melts, which Parmesan does unevenly — but in a good way. This is a recipe that you can easily start cooking, stop, and pick back up later if you need to, either after the blanching or after the sautéing. You can also serve it at room temp, so despite the three-step cooking process, it’s pretty flexible.
You can use almost anything green and leafy in place of the broccoli rabe, too — spinach, escarole, kale, broccoli and so on — and you can certainly play around with other cheeses in place of the Parmesan. But there’s something about the bitterness of the broccoli rabe combined with the spicy-sweet garlic and rich, salty Parmesan that’s just right.
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In 1969, I ate my first bowl of plain, boiled brown rice, then proceeded to live on it for a week, replicating the diet of a hippie girl to whom I hoped to demonstrate my sex appeal. (It didn’t work.) Twenty years later, brown rice became a minor but regular part of my repertory.
Now brown rice has not only lost its hippie stigma; it has also become sort of de rigueur, though it’s mostly relegated to a dull side dish served underneath or next to something more interesting — stir-fries, stews, chili — a worthy if obligatory “healthful” substitute for white rice.
It need not be this way. There are dozens of brown-rice varieties, because “brown” simply means “hulled but not stripped of bran layers.” Brown basmati has the same nutty aroma as white, with more chew; most brown short-grains release starch, just like arborio; most brown long-grains cook just like “regular” rice; and black, mahogany, purple, red — all those novelty rices are “brown” and can be treated in pretty much the same ways, and those ways are myriad.
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By Alaina Sullivan
Broiling Brussels sprouts evades the risk of turning them mushy by quickly rendering the sprouts crisp and charred. Simply dressed in olive oil, salt and pepper, it takes less than five minutes under the intense direct heat for the sprouts’ edges to crisp up (keep a close eye so they don’t burn). The high heat heightens the spicy-pungent flavor of the sprouts and makes for caramelized leaves that are slightly sweet.
Brussels sprouts have an inherent nutty quality as well, which makes chopped nuts a natural pairing. Hazelnuts work beautifully (in this batch I used walnuts). If you fancy a meaty component, fry some type of fatty pork – bacon, chorizo, pancetta, prosciutto – chop it up and toss with the nuts and sprouts in the final minutes of broiling. You’ll get an intensely savory melding of flavors, at once nutty, meaty, smoky and brightened at the very end with fresh lemon juice and parsley. Recipe from Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express.
Broiled Brussels Sprouts with Hazelnuts
Heat the broiler. Trim about a pound of Brussels sprouts and pulse in a food processor—or use a knife—to chop them up a bit. Spread out on a rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with two tablespoons olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and toss. Broil the sprouts for about five minutes, until browning on the edges. Meanwhile pulse a handful of hazelnuts (or chop them). Shake the pan to flip the sprouts, add the nuts and broil for another three minutes. Sprinkle with freshly squeezed lemon juice and plenty of fresh parsley.