Mother of Pearl

Spring has now officially sprung. The days are gradually getting longer, the sun seems to have woken up from its slumber and is more frequently casting down its beaming smile and the faint smell of blossom and budding leaves lingers quietly in the air.

For Marge, who has always loved spring and the cheeriness it brings, the change of season meant a change of drug and that itself shone a ray of hope down on our family. Having previously received FEC chemotherapy, known for having particularity unpleasant and sicky side effects, the course of treatment has now moved on to docetaxel. Although by no means a walk in the park, the chemo nurse explained that though this drug may increase fatigue and lack of strength, it should also not cause as much nausea as FEC. This news was a huge relief for all of us as sickness was the side effect that Marge was struggling with the most and that induced the most concern within the family. Basically we were all counting down the days until the nausea would FEC off!

Chemo treatment number 4 came round as quickly as the others. It was, of course, accompanied by the familiar flurry of nerves and angst, yet this time these feelings were accompanied by mild optimism, an inkling that perhaps this time things won’t be so bad. In reality, our hopes and expectations were wholly understated. On the evening following treatment, I came through the front door to be greeted by Marge, in true seasonal style, bouncing up to greet me like the Easter bunny, all bright eyed and bushy tailed. Given that after the previous round she was confined to her bed and barely had the strength to lift her head off the pillow, the difference was almost implausible. Fantastic, but completely mind-boggling.

In fact, she was whizzing round the house like she was on steroids (which she was, and this had a lot to do with her amazing energy for the 36 hours or so following her treatment). I messaged her from work checking that she was feeling OK the following morning, only to be greeted by a long list of spring cleaning that she had completed – a list that included scrubbing the back of the fridge. It was 10.30am!

Unfortunately, this hyperactive state was only transient; as the effects of the steroids wore off, fatigue slowly draped itself over her and a persistent, dull ache swelled in her joints. Yet, as her nurse advised, the nausea remained absent. The meals following her chemo were not limited to childish comforts and plain, easily digestible dishes. Of course, this added another dimension to my glee, as it meant I could dive straight in with filling her up with minerals and goodness, rather than put my plans on hold for her stomach to stop its protest.

Although I adore spring, with its fresh optimism and cheerful tones, I do love the comfort and depth and colour and flavour of winter ingredients. So on one rainy weekday during chemo week, when it seemed weather appropriate, I took what was probably my final chance to use the best of the winter vegetables in a Butternut Squash and Kale Barlotto. I came across the recipe on one of my favourite vegan/veggie blogs – The Veg Space – and not only is it exceptionally easy but it is wonderfully hearty and flavoursome. Using barley instead of rice really adds to the comfort-factor of this dish. The nutty little pearls greedily absorb the cooking liquid, soaking up an abundance of flavour and swelling to almost double their size. This results in a gorgeously gelatinous and chewy texture. It is a pure delight to both eat and to look at, with the vibrant orange of the squash and deep green of kale working in perfect harmony. A pearl of a dish for a pearl of a woman.

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Healthy Ingredients

Barley has a number of brilliant medicinal properties. Due to its high fibre content (one portion provides almost half the daily recommended amount), it is fantastic at improving digestion and removing excess fat and cholesterol from the bloodstream, lowering the risk of hypertension and hardening of the arteries, thus improving heart health. Its fibre also feeds the good bacteria in the gut and, in turn, helps maintain a healthy colon. As a slow-release carbohydrate, its low glycemic index helps to improve blood sugar levels and reduce the risk of diabetes. 

Recipe: Butternut Squash and Kale Barlotto

Serves 4.

  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 600g butternut squash, peeled and chopped into 1cm chunks
  • 250g pearl barley
  • 150ml white wine
  • 750ml vegetable stock
  • 100g curly kale, stalks removed
  • salt & pepper
  • 1 tbsp thyme leaves
  • zest of 1 lemon, juice of 1/2
  • handful pine nuts, toasted in a dry frying pan for a minute or two
  • Sprinkle of sumac (optional)

Method.

  1. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan, and cook the onion  for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and the butternut squash and cook for a further 2 minutes.
  2. Add the pearl barley and white wine to the pan, turn up the heat and cook for 3 minutes until most of the wine has cooked away.
  3. Add the stock and season with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil then reduce to a simmer and cook for 25 minutes, stirring every few minutes.
  4. Add the curly kale, and cook for a further 5 minutes until the pearl barley is tender, but still a little bit squidgy and chewy. Remove from the heat, stir through the thyme, lemon juice and lemon zest, then divide between bowls, scatter with the pine nuts and sprinkle with the sumac to serve.
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