Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Basque Style Barley with Cheese & Spring Vegetables

I was of two minds whether to post this recipe or not. It's based on a dish we ate in Spain, at the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. Like many great museums, it has a restaurant with the quality (and prices) to match the artwork and it was our most expensive meal of the trip. This was a dish of Spanish rice swimming in a rich cheese sauce, garnished with vegetables. Alas, I failed to note what cheese it was, although all through Basque country we were eating some wonderful firm cheeses made with a mixture of sheep, goat and cows milks. I resolved to try making it at home, since it was really a very simple dish. They used asparagus (green, for the first and only time of the trip - Spaniards think asparagus ought to be white) and artichokes for their vegetables.

This was served as the "primero" of a typical Spanish meal, consisting of a primero, a segundo, and a postre, or dessert. It is so very rich that I recommend it as an appetizer in small portions, although you could surround it with good leafy, astringent salads as a main course.

Mine was such a pale shadow of the original I was embarrassed. On the other hand, I decided it does have potential. My big problem was I was in a bit of a rush when shopping and had to settle for a decent but fairly standard commercial cheese, which I shall not embarrass by naming. This is a dish which is ALL about the cheese, and it just didn't have what it took. So my question, dear readers, is what Ontario artisanal cheese would you recommend for this? I'm looking for something intensely rich in flavour with a wonderful melty texture. I hear there are people out there making Gouda cheeses on a small scale, and I rather think one of those would be excellent, if I only knew where to get my hot little hands on some. Any other ideas?

I also have to admit the Spanish rice was better than the barley. Barley was fine, and if the cheese had been better I'd have been happier about it. But if you can get some good Spanish rice, by all means; this would be a good place to use it although I really can't give you any advice on how to cook it. It cooks more like an arborio rice than most rices and my first couple attempts at cooking it for a non-paella or risotto type dish were not particularly successful. Perhaps the old English style of cooking rice, where it is boiled in plenty of salted water then drained, like pasta. Or perhaps I just don't know the correct proportion of liquid to use. I would be happy to receive advice on this topic as well.

6 to 8 servings
30 minutes prep time, not including cooking the barley

Basque Style Barley with Cheese and Spring Vegetables
3/4 cup raw barley or Spanish rice
1/4 teaspoon salt
200 - 250 grams (1/2 pound) excellent melty cheese
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups milk
salt to taste

250 grams (1/2 pound) asparagus
125 grams (1/4 pound) fiddleheads
125 grams (1/4 pound) button mushrooms
2 teaspoons unsalted butter

Cook the barley (or rice) with the salt until tender. I used the rice cooker for my barley; but I'm not at all sure it would work for the rice (see above.) This can be done in advance, and probably should be, just to keep life simple.

Cut up the cheese into smallish pieces. Make the cheese sauce by cooking the flour and butter together in a heavy-bottomed saucepan until well amalgamated. Reduce the heat to medium-low and slowly, bit by bit, mix in the milk to make a smooth sauce. Once it's in, reduce the heat a bit more and add the cheese. Continue stirring frequently until the cheese is melted. Taste and adjust the salt if necessary. Leave uncovered on the back of the stove while you finish the vegetables - hopefully not too long.

Meanwhile, have your vegetables prepared in advance. The asparagus should be cleaned and trimmed, and cut in half. The fiddleheads should be very well washed to remove any grit and bits of papery husk which may adhere to them. Soaking in cold salted water is probably not a bad idea. Clean the mushrooms and slice them in half.

Put the fiddleheads in a pot with water to cover. Boil them for 5-8 minutes, then drain and generously re-cover them with water. Bring them back to the boil, and add the asparagus; continue boiling for another 5 minutes until the asparagus is tender. Drain well.

Also meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 teaspoons of butter in a skillet, and sauté the mushroom halves until golden brown. Three arms will be useful here, and three burners and pots absolutely required. Sorry.

Dish up the barley into individual serving dishes, and garnish each with their share of the vegetables, pressing them in slightly. Serve at once.

This will not reheat particularly well, especially if you use barley. The starches from the grain will make the sauce gummy as it sits.

Last year at this time I made Stewed Rhubarb Compote with Apples or Strawberries.


Laura McF said...

I don't have a specific recommendation for the cheese to use, but there might be some useful suggestions in this National Post article: http://network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/theappetizer/archive/2009/04/24/cheese-me-k-233-nogami-soft-rind-cheese-grand-champion-of-6th-canadian-cheese-grand-prix.aspx

Joshua said...

Monforte cheese curds are a most wonderful thing.

Ferdzy said...

Thanks guys!

That nogami sounds so good.

And hm, I just bought a share in Monforte... I never did have their curds before they went on sabbatical, but it's something to look forward to.

carplake said...

You can find some delicious Gouda and other Dutch cheeses nearby Thunder Bay, Ontario.