I spent most of the last couple of weeks in California, first at the Wolbachia conference in Asilomar, and then visiting Devin in Berkeley, and Carolin and Dave in Merced/Nelder Grove/LA. It was one of the most intense holidays I’ve had for a long time, and readjusting to a more quotidian lifestyle has been a bit of a shock. Where is my daily change of scene and people? You mean I’m just supposed to oscillate between the lab and home and do my usual boring stuff? Huh?
I was given a lot of different cooking inspirations during my trip. Various shrimp and fish tacos in Merced and LA. Carolin’s breakfast pancakes made with rye, chickpea and almond flours, with maple syrup and berries. A sweet skinny mango eaten with a spoon, sitting beside a river in Yosemite, after a lunch of bread and cheese. Jon-Paul’s one-dish bliss pilaf with pistachios, artichokes and greens, and his foaming sourdough pancakes the next morning. A slender rack of lamb drizzled with ume plum vinegar, eaten outside in the twilight while listening to the cicadas. Basil ice cream at Ici.
I can’t easily recreate all of these dishes here – not least because I’m missing the company that made them so good – but I’ve been reminded yet again of how much enjoyment there is to be had from cooking with friends, eating good food at each meal rather than accepting bad robot-kibble from the uni refec, spending the half-hour chopping and roasting and chatting at the end of the day for the sake of the pleasure to be had from a proper dinner. I’d fallen into the habit of having pasta or toast for dinner, eaten at the computer all too often, before I left. That was partly the mad rush to finish off some research before the conference, but also partly laziness and forgetting what actually makes me happy.
After summer meals in California, the dish below probably seems like a bit of a contrast. It has the potential for stodge, but it’s warming and comforting rather than lumpen, honestly. I arrived home an hour or so before Ted on Friday night, and pottered around the kitchen, wanting to use up various bits and pieces left in the fridge from the week before. A couple of heels of cheese, half a pot of cream, assorted vegetables rattling around in the crisper. I considered a pasta bake but wanted something earthier, nuttier, more chewy. This dish of baked barley and vegetables, held together with scraps of cream, cheese and egg, was the result. I think it would also do very well with other combinations – maybe mushrooms, spinach and herbs with a smoked cheese? You could also swap the cream for some vegetable or chicken stock, as it’s just to add some moistness rather than creaminess per se.
1 large butternut squash
olive oil (preferably garlic-infused)
salt and pepper
1 large bunch spinach
2-3 cups cooked barley
150 ml cream
a couple of handfuls of grated mozzarella
a smallish chunk of feta, crumbled
coarsely grated parmesan
Peel the squash, cut into 1.5 cm cubes, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast at 180 C until softened and golden around the edges.
Coarsley grate the zucchini, then saute in a pan with garlic-infused olive oil and a pinch of salt for 5 minutes, until softened. Drain and set aside. Wash and chop the spinach, then wilt in the pan, drain any liquid and set aside with the zucchini.
Mix together the vegetables and barley. Whisk the egg into the cream, then mix that into the vegetables together with the feta and mozzarella. There should be more vegetables than barley, and the mixture should be damp and hold somewhat together, but not be runny. Add a little extra cream if needed.
Pour the mixture into a greased baking dish (a lasagne dish works well), smooth the top, sprinkle with parmesan, and bake at 180 C for about 30 minutes, until the top is bubbling and light gold. Rest it for a few minutes then serve.