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TODAY

Monday, May 20

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I'm a sucker for odd ingredients. I can walk into a specialty goods store, ethnic grocer or even just a quickie mart and find a food item that I've not cooked with before. Once finding something, I'm likely to purchase it, take it home and then assume I'll figure out what to make with it.

And then these ingredients often sit in my cupboard until I finally break down and go recipe spelunking on the Internet. Sometimes I'm happy with what I come up with, sometimes I wish I'd ordered pizza instead.

Here are a few ingredients I've stumbled across and what I ended up making with them — they actually ended up making a great cohesive meal, an accidental meal if you will. So read along and follow my accidental success.

It all started one random Wednesday evening while wandering through a grocery store looking for something interesting to make as a side dish. After a short spell I decided to give up and just buy some pasta, my default for when I'm feeling uncreative. But there on the shelf was a package of chocolate pasta. I was intrigued and hungry enough to be highly susceptible to marketing. So I bought it and put it in my cupboard with the rest of my pasta and there it sat.

A little while later I was wandering a Polish grocery in Elmwood Park when I saw a bag of barley. A simple ingredient that has sustained hundreds of thousands of people all over Europe and North America. I remembered my mom making a wonderful beef and barley soup when I was younger and thought that I'd make a huge vat of her soup, so I parted with less than $2 and brought home 8 ounces of barley. I read through the recipe my mother used and saw that I needed 1/4 cup to make enough soup for 4-6 people. Which meant I had enough barley to last me a small handful of years. I figured I could use it to make some other dish. Someday.

Lastly, while looking for a spinach alternative recently, I came across a package of mustard greens that had been washed, trimmed, chopped and packaged for my convenience. Even though I normally blanche at paying extra for vegetables that are cleaned and chopped, I was intrigued because greens are often so dirty that it takes several washes. And I admit, I was feeling an episode of amazing laziness overtake me, since I was stressing about all the things I had to do in my life other than make dinner. So I grabbed it.

Having these ingredients in my larder, staring at me every time I opened the cabinet or fridge, and knowing that the life span of the greens was limited, inspired me to finally sit down and research what my recipe options were. Which weren't as limited as I feared.

To go along with the barley, I decided to use some of the mushroom powder I had purchased recently from The Spice House. Originally intended for soups and gravies, I thought it would make a pleasant addition to a risotto-like dish, since it's cheaper and faster to use mushroom powder than it is to use dried shiitake mushrooms.

Since most of the times I'd had greens in the past, they'd been cooked long and slow with ham hocks, bacon or some other delicious pig product thrown in for flavor, I decided to try something a little different and make a purely vegetarian vegetable dish. Like most leafy greens, the mustard greens cooked down quite dramatically. Seven cups of raw chopped greens (1 bag) cooked down to be about 1 cup of cooked vegetable. And even though the bag said they were washed, I decided to wash them again. I didn't get much dirt or grit off of them, but I got enough to be glad that I cleaned it again. A salad spinner is perfect; placing them in a colander and shaking them several times would also work. Once they were clean, I turned them into a tasty dish flavored with cumin, onion and balsamic vinegar.

The chocolate pasta was the most intimidating. I knew that simply boiling it and pouring a sweetened cream sauce over it was a possibility, but I wanted something a little more creative and I wanted something baked so I could put it into the oven when I sat down to eat dinner and pull it out of the oven just in time to serve and still have it be nice and warm. I knew that raspberry sauce goes well with chocolate, as does ricotta cheese, so it seemed like combining the ingredients together and warming in the oven would be simple enough but delicious.

Barley Risotto with Mushrooms, Onions and Carrots
1 tablespoon of olive oil
3 medium carrots, peeled and diced (about 1 cup)
1 chopped medium yellow onion
6 ounces of chopped white mushrooms
1/2 cup vermouth, dry white wine or vodka
1 1/2 teaspoons of dried thyme (or two tablespoons of fresh)
1 cup of barley
1 1/2 teaspoon of dried mushroom powder
4 cups of chicken or vegetable broth (about 2 cans)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, or 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh chives
1/2 cup of grated Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy stockpot over medium heat. Add the onion and carrots and sauté till everything is soft and the onion is starting to brown, which should take about five minutes. Add the button mushrooms and sauté them until they're tender and they begin to brown, about another 10 minutes. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the wine, thyme and barley. Stir until the wine is nearly evaporated, which should take about 3-4 minutes. Add the broth and bring everything to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer. Stir occasionally until the liquid is absorbed and the barley is tender, about 30 minutes. Stir in the chopped parsley, or chives, and cheese. Taste before adding salt and pepper, and serve.

Spicy Mustard Greens
3 tablespoons of olive oil
2 coarsely chopped medium onions
6 cloves of chopped garlic
1 tablespoon of cumin seeds (or 1 teaspoon of ground cumin)
1/2 teaspoon of dried crushed red pepper
1 bag or 2 large bunches of mustard greens rinsed thoroughly, veined and chopped (about 7 cups)
1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar

Bring a large skillet to temperature over medium-high heat before adding the olive oil and onions. Saute until the onions are very soft and starting to caramelize which should take about 7 minutes. Stir in the garlic, the cumin, and the crushed red pepper and cook for another 3 minutes. Add the mustard greens to the pot in three or four batches, about two cups at a time, and stir until each batch starts to wilt before adding the next one. batch. Change the heat to low and cover. Stir frequently until the greens are very tender and cook for about 30 minutes. Taste before seasoning with salt and pepper and stir in the vinegar. While best served hot, it isn't bad at room temperature either. Makes about six servings.

Baked Chocolate Pasta with Ricotta and Raspberry Cream Sauce
1 10-ounce package of chocolate pasta
3 cups of ricotta cheese
1 cup of light cream
1/2 cup of raspberry sauce 1/4 cup of fresh raspberries, rinsed and set to dry

Preheat the oven to 425° F. Bring a pot of water to a boil and cook the pasta for a minute or two less than suggested on the package since it will continue cooking in the oven. While the water comes to a boil and the pasta cooks, combine the cheese, cream and raspberry sauce in a bowl. Grease a glass casserole dish. Once the pasta is cooked, drain it and pour it into the bowl, stir slightly to combine and then pour everything into the greased dish. Using a spatula or spoon, spread the contents evenly in the dish. Place it in the middle of the oven and let it cook for about 20-25 minutes, or until the top is golden-brown. Remove it from the oven and let it cool for about 10 minutes before serving. Place a few fresh raspberries on top of each dish for garnish and serve.

Sometimes the best way to kick away a food rut is to just wander the aisles of your favorite grocery store and look for something you've never seen or eaten before. Even your large chain store is likely to have something unusual and interesting that will get you researching and eating differently. Variety in your diet is very important, after all.

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About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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