Thyme Wild Mushroom Barley-sotto and the importance of acid

Thyme Wild Mushroom Barley-sotto

I've been thinking a lot about acid lately.

We sat down for a lunch of this barley-sotto today, and while the flavor was nice, it felt like it needed just a little something to make it sing.  As much as I love the flavor of mushrooms, dishes that are mushroom-centric can seem a little muddy, especially those that cook for a long time.  JJ reminded me of my discussion with him about the importance of acid in food, and suggested we add a few drops of lemon juice.  That was it.  Perfect.

Acid's role in balancing out a dish has been proven to me again and again in the kitchen as I am playing with food during recipe development.  Taste:  does it need more salt?  Taste again: more of a certain herb? more spice?  more pepper? It needs something...but I'm not sure what.   If this has ever happened to you, as it has to me hundreds of times, the chances are good that the missing component is acid.

I add acid to my borscht soup once the textures are perfect and just after I turn off the heat.  I use a mixture of lemon juice and red wine vinegar because I like the balance the combination these two acids provide against the otherwise heavy backdrop of cabbage, tomato, beets and beef.

I was making Asian Chicken Salad for a party the other day, and after tasting the dressing multiple times, I finally realized that it didn't need more ginger or chili or sesame oil.  The missing ingredient was acid.  I added the juice of two limes and the dressing suddenly became 5-star.

I'll add a bit of lemon juice to chicken noodle soup sometimes.  The cassoulet I made with Touluse Sausage didn't taste right until I added lemon juice - the pre-acid version was simply too cloying.

Here are some other examples where acid enhances the flavor of your food:
Be careful not to overdo it on the acid, though:  a little makes the food sparkle; too much can ruin the dish.  Add a little and slowly, tasting carefully, and add more only if it really needs it.  For example, the barley-sotto recipe below calls for just one tablespoon of lemon juice for the entire dish.  

Try your hand adding acid to food with this recipe below.  Taste it first before you add the lemon juice and again afterward.  You'll be surprised at the subtle but important difference.  Acid is definitely your friend in the kitchen.

Thyme Wild Mushroom Barley-sotto
This dish doesn't look very exciting, but don't let looks fool you - the flavor is really nice with a lot of depth.  We really enjoyed it on this lazy, rainy Saturday.  It requires no chopping apart from the onion and garlic, and will be ready to eat in about 35 minutes.  The advantage of using barley over rice is the nutritional value, but brown rice can be substituted (increase cooking time to 45 min for brown rice) if you don't have barley but want to try these flavors together.

Get your pots out and start playing with acid!

Thyme Wild Mushroom Barley-sotto

As you can guess from the name, this dish is based off the Italian risotto, but made with barley instead of rice.  Maybe my Italian-speaking friends can help me come up with a more appropriate name, but for the moment, I'm sticking with this one.  I used crushed barley here (rikotettu ohra), but you can also use pearl barley or the regular whole grain version.  If you use the whole grain, the dish will take slightly longer to cook.

In a small pan, bring to a simmer
1 quart/liter of chicken or vegetable broth

In a large pot over medium heat, combine:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
3 green onions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced

Cook until the onions are soft and translucent, 3-4 minutes. 

1 cup / 2dl crushed barley / rikotettu ohra or pearl barley
1.5 cups / 3 dl fresh wild mushrooms or 1 cup / 2dl dried (I used yellow foot chanterelles/suppilovahvero)
1 cup / 2 dl hot chicken or vegetable broth
2 tablespoons of fresh thyme, and tough stems removed and chopped fine 

Simmer the mixture, stirring occasionally, until the broth is mostly absorbed, about 10 minutes.  Add the remaining broth and allow the mixture to simmer for an additional 30 minutes.  Taste and add salt and pepper if needed (this will depend on the saltiness of your broth).

Remove from heat and add:
1/4 cup / 1/2 dl fresh, shredded parmasan (do not use dried parmesan)
2 tablespoons light cream
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Stir well and divide into bowls.  Top each serving with shredded parmesan and a few sprigs of thyme. 

Serves 4.

Thyme Wild Mushroom Barley-sotto

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