free-form barley salad

A few months ago I stumbled across this quote from Andrew Sullivan, senior editor at The Atlantic. It perfectly captures what I like about blogging, and by extension, cooking. He says

“Blogging is to writing what extreme sports are to athletics.

More free-form, more accident-prone, less formal, more alive.

Blogging is writing out lout.”

Though I love to follow an elegantly-written recipe, free-form cooking offers thrills I just can’t resist from time to time. Just like extreme sports, it’s more accident prone (What if I over spice? What if the flavors don’t mix?), less formal (a pinch of this a handful of that), more alive.  It’s not the product of another’s experimentation, but a process—a story—of your very own.

Spontanous cooking is sexy. Watching anyone at home in their trade shows this ease of skill, this compelling deftness. A lemon is juiced over a salad glistening with oil. The heel of hands push into soft dough. A spoon meets a pink mouth for the first taste.

To cook this way is to be attuned to the senses.

I’ve just returned to Syracuse from almost a month at home in Winnipeg. Spending winter break there is always wonderful, but requires it’s share of adjustments. Life, and eating, is so different there than it is ’round here on our own: There is more accountability. There is more time spent in cars. There is a whole lot more food.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved every minute of it. Every eggnog-soaked, shortbreak-cookie stacked second. Waking up to my mom’s pillowy poppyseed buns swirled with sticky black decadence. Eating proper lunches every day (usually I just healthy-snack all day). Drinking wine almost every evening. Multiple-dish dinners followed by trays of sugar and butter, dressed up ten or more different ways. Around every corner, someone else wanting to please. Love shown in material provision, food preparation, with joy laced through like silver threads.

A journey back into that world always makes me thankful to return to my own kitchen, in control of what and how I eat.  Sure, it’s more work. Sure, it’s not as scrumptiously lazy. But my heart did jump last night when Mark accepted a dinner invite and offered to bring a salad. I was on it. I couldn’t wait to get my hands back on my food.

I put that urge together with some barley, a roasted acorn squash, an apple, some chickpeas, toasted walnuts, cilantro, currants, and other random cupboard samplings. The salad morphed and changed at my fingertips as I pinched and dashed, sprinkled and salted.

Then I stepped back. My welcome-back to your health, probably-not-perfect barley salad stared back at me from the bowl. But in a way, around a small table in very snowy Syracuse, it was perfect.

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mexi-quinoa acorn squash

My love affair with quinoa began a few years ago when a roommate wowed me with amazing salad of the said grain, topped with candied nuts. There was something different about this chewy, fluffy side dish. Something wonderful.

Quinoa (pronounced Kee-No-Wah), is a South American plant whose seeds are often confused with the grain family. The quinoa seeds function like rice, couscous, millet, or barley–more as a grain than as a seed.

The Incas referred to quinoa as the “mother of all grain.” I’m not sure whether this was because they knew about it’s unusually high protein content (12-15%) or that it contains a balanced set of amino acids. My guess is they probably just thought it tasted good and was easy to prepare.

When the little couscous-like grains cook, the germ unfold from the rest of the starch to create a whimsical spiral. I think it’s one of the nicest-looking things a person could eat, and I’m always looking for new ways to prepare it. It’s great in salads, but I thought I’d introduce it to my favorite winter squash: the acorn.

This dish is very easy to prepare and can be thrown together quickly. Since quinoa lasts in your cupboard for months, and acorn squash will wait almost as long, this supper can be adapted to most anything you have lying around: cans of black beans and corn, dredges of peppers and onions in your crisper, spices waiting to warm you.

Plus, any meal served in a one of nature’s edible bowls automatically gets bonus points. You don’t really even need a plate. If you’re a neat eater, that is.

So when you’re done reading the recipe, throw it out and experiment away. Trust me: squash are very forgiving.
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