I’ve had the man-flu recently, and I can tell you it was a very serious case – I was touch and go for a while back there.
As any fellow sufferer will tell you, a prescription for a few days sofa-surfing and plenty of sympathy is required in order to ward off this potentially life-threatening illness. That, and a lot of comfort food.
When we’re unwell, there are certain things we seem to crave more than at any other time. For some it’s a big bowl of tomato soup and some thick toast, for others it’s the comfort of a big bowl of creamy pasta. Others require the smooth, filling tastiness of a few scoops of buttery mashed potato, perhaps accompanying some fat, crispy pork sausages or a thick wedge of super-savoury meatloaf.
Sweet sugary things are also much-prized; a steamed sponge loaded with thick custard, or a slice of crisp-edged jam roly-poly. Something to fill, and to nourish the soul, whilst not being too taxing on the palate, which, at these times, suffers not only from a lack of taste, but from the bombardment of endless mentholated, strong-tasting medicines and syrups.
Carbs appear to loom large in the comfort food camp, and it’s not hard to see why – their slow-release energy and satisfying filling effect serve to make us feel full and happy, and the body gets to work converting all that energy into recuperative powers.
As I slowly drifted back into the land of the living, I was still thinking of deep, comforting food, and combined this with a forage into the freezer, where I discovered a pheasant (a gift from my Suffolk-based mother-in-law) and a couple of bags of wild mushrooms.
I had some girolles, the beautiful orange-hued almond-scented forest mushrooms that chefs adore cooking with, and a bag of small ceps, some of the tastiest wild mushrooms around – their strong, deep scent and meaty texture are perfect for stews and pasta dishes. I had been toying with the idea to make a nice rich risotto; buttery, creamy and full of those autumnal scents of mushroom, with a little added Madeira and the powerful touch of fresh thyme.
Sadly, we were out of Arborio rice, but I did discover a bag of pearl barley, and thought that I’d give that a whirl – barley makes a nice sort-of-risotto, with added cereal-y flavour and a terrific bite. It doesn’t quite give the creamy texture that risotto rice does as it cooks and thickens, yielding a more gelatinous texture, but it’s absolutely brilliant, especially as a foil for other tastes and textures.
I looked up a recipe for a basic barley risotto in a book, and set about tinkering, eventually coming up with a simple little method for a delicious, filling and incredibly satisfying barley risotto, crammed with mushrooms, root vegetables, fortified wine and that tasty pheasant.
Feel free to tinker as you like – chicken would work just as well, and any selection of mushrooms would be fine if you can’t forage or find any wilds.
Please don’t pick mushrooms you’re not sure of – many wild mushrooms look similar to some pretty nasty poisonous doppelgangers, so consult an expert or a well-reviewed guide book. Or see what your greengrocer has in stock.
Either way, here you have a rich, soul-satisfying supper that’s ready in just about an hour. Aprons on!
For the risotto:
4 pheasant breasts (use corn-fed chicken if you prefer)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 sticks celery, finely chopped
1 small bulb of fennel, finely chopped
1 small carrot, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
450g wild mushrooms (or regular mushrooms)
500g pearl barley
1 sprig fresh thyme
120ml dry white wine
120ml ruby port
1 litre chicken stock
3 tbsp freshly-grated Reggiano Parmesan
Extra-virgin olive oil
In a large, heavy, oven-proof casserole dish, gently heat a generous knob of butter and a little olive oil.
Sear the pheasant breasts to get the skin a good deep golden colour, then turn over and cook them for a further few minutes until the meat is just cooked through.
Remove from the pan, allow to cool a little, and carve into large chunks. Add a little extra butter and oil to the pan, and gently sweat the onion, celery, fennel and carrot for 20 minutes, then add the garlic plus a little chopped thyme, and cook for a further 5 minutes.
Raise the heat, add the mushrooms and toss them in the butter quickly until they soften slightly. Add the pearl barley and cook, stirring constantly, for a minute or two until the grains are glossy.
Tip in the wine and stir until it is almost totally absorbed, then do the same with the port and Madeira.
Pour in the chicken stock, turn down the heat as low as possible and cook for about 40 minutes, or until the barley is just tender but with a little firm bite.
Stir the mixture occasionally and top it up with more stock or water if it looks to be drying out too much.
Then, when the barley’s just right, remove the pan from the heat and beat in a little extra butter and the grated Parmesan until you have a thick, creamy sauce clinging around the ingredients.
Serve immediately in warmed bowls, with a sprinkle of fresh thyme leaves and perhaps a little extra Parmesan.