Tuesday, December 05, 2006


There are plenty of annoyances (some of which have been mentioned by readers in comments to earlier posts) associated with joining Weight Watchers, but if you can get past the cloud of estrogen at every meeting and the truly bizarre recipes (and you don't know how close I was to using the dreaded scare quotes around that last word: I deserve great credit for my forbearance) and the icky pre-packaged foods and instead focus on the healthier eating approach and the unlimited allotment of vegetables, you can derive some benefits (in addition to the obvious benefit of losing weight and having the, er, opportunity to replace your wardrobe).

For example, consumption of the usual complex carbohydrates (pasta, potatoes, rice) is eliminated or severely limited, but (on my plan at least) I can eat lentils, beans, and corn to my heart's content. I'm also allowed as much barley as I like.

At first blush, it doesn't make a lot of sense that I can have barley but not rice: the caloric values for uncooked rice and uncooked barley are very similar. On the other hand, a cup of barley has a great deal more fiber than a cup of rice, and, more importantly, a cup of rice will absorb about two cups of liquid while a cup of barley will take four, so you end up with about twice as much.

When I was planning my Thanksgiving dinner, I was staring at some barley and thinking that maybe it could be used for something like a risotto, so I put some oil in a saucepan and sweated some onions and heated up some stock in the microwave and cooked my barley in the oil and added the stock a half-cup or so at a time and put in a big pinch of saffron, and I ended up with something that was very good. But then I tried it again with bouillon instead of stock and turmeric instead of saffron and by adding the simmering bouillon all at once instead of bit by bit, and I ended up with something very good. More to the point, the texture of the barley really wasn't any better when I took lots of time and did lots of stirring so that while I started out feeling very virtuous for having followed my diet and having done all that stirring, I came to realize that half of my virtue had been wasted. Which, I reckon, is about par for the course, in all aspects of life.

Anyway, I've grown very attached to barley, and most weekends will find me making both a batch of curried lentils and a batch of barley risotto. I package them in one-cup containers and bring one of each for lunch, along with a cup of nonfat yogurt.

I cannot emphasize enough just how cheap that is. Even if I'm using a store-bought box of chicken stock for the barley and a can of coconut milk (I have, by the way, tried the light coconut milk with the curried lentils and found it sadly lacking: much better to use a third as much of the regular variety), and even if I can't find the yogurt on sale (and I almost always can), and even if I use nice mushrooms (I get portobellos from Costco and dice them and keep them in a container in the frig) I don't think that lunch is costing me much more than a buck. Along those lines, I will mention that if you see a box of barley in the aisle that has most of the dried beans, you might also find a bag of barley in the international foods aisle, and the bag of barley might run you about a third of what the box does. It seems a bit silly to care about spending $0.55 instead of $1.59 for a pound, but the box is also likely to be pearled barley, and I prefer the un-pearled sort. It does take longer to cook, but your barley will still be just right in under an hour.

Barley Risotto

Olive oil, 1 tablespoon
Onion, 1 medium-small, diced
Garlic, 1 clove, minced
Portobello mushrooms, 1 cup, diced
Barley, 1 cup
Chicken stock, broth, or bouillon, 4 cups
Saffron, 1 large pinch OR
Turmeric, 1 teaspoon
Salt and pepper, to taste

Bring the chicken stock, etc. to a bare simmer either on the stove or in the microwave.

Put a saucepan over medium heat and add the olive oil. Add the onion, stir, and cover. Cook for three or four minutes, until softened but not browned. Add the garlic, stir, and cook for a minute. Add the mushrooms, stir, and cover the pot until they have given up their juices. Remove cover and cook until the juices have nearly evaporated. Add the barley and saffron or turmeric, and cook, stirring constantly, for a minute. Add the stock, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook until tender, about forty to fifty minutes, stirring occasionally. Correct seasoning.

Those of you who are not watching your weight can see where I have made adjustments because I'm watching mine. If you want to use more oil and saute rather than steam your mushrooms, please feel free. I don't think I'd like the end result any better if I did those things, though.

You do want to be careful not to overcook your barley, but I generally find that when it's absorbed almost all the liquid, it's cooked just right. There is a little bit of liquid left over, which makes the end result somewhat creamier, like a real risotto. The creaminess is enhanced by a period of resting and survives reheating.

You can easily omit the mushrooms or replace them with just about anything you like. For example, last week, I used some of my staple puttanesca-esque tomato sauce to bake some mahi fillets in, and I used the leftover liquid from the baking pan to flavor the barley. Delicious.

If I'm making my own breakfast on a morning when I have more than five minutes, I like to take a non-stick skillet, put a cup or so of the cooked barley in it, heat it to bubbling, and add a whole egg on top. Then I cover it and cook until the egg is as done as I want it to be. It's one of my favorite breakfasts.


Anonymous Rebecca said...

Hey, thanks for this recipe! I just joined Weight Watchers myself and am having a hard time figuring out what to eat. I would rather starve than eat their prepared foods!

6:13 AM  

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