Zinfandel -- Batamt!

Years ago, I lived in the Mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles near what was called "the bagel belt" of Fairfax Avenue. Mostly Jewish, it was a friendly neighborhood with many grandmas who loved to stop me on the street to chat about their children and their childhoods, sometimes with harrowing tales of escaping Poland or Germany before Hitler's iron fist descended. Fairfax was and is populated with wonderful mom-and-pop restaurants, including the famed Canter's Deli with its Art Deco style, pink-bouffant waitresses and comfort food of matzo ball soup, mile-high pastrami sandwiches, and potato pancakes. My mother had Jewish friends and passed down her knowledge of cheese blintzes and chicken soup, and her love of the culinary tradition which encompasses foods from many countries. When Israel was formed after the second World War, Jews came from around the world to populate the new nation. From Greece, Turkey, Spain and northern Africa came Sephardic Jews bringing food from their homelands—such as stuffed grape leaves, baklava, and paella. From Eastern Europe came Ashkenazi with borscht, knishes, challah and kugel. From northern Europe, Jews brought bagels, pretzels and pickles. Local Middle Eastern food like falafel and hummus were folded into the mix. I was thinking about the mushroom barley soup I used to order on Fairfax when I made the following recipe. This barley pilaf has versatility: top with nuts for a vegetarian main course, serve without cheese for a flavorful and light side dish, or serve it as follows, as I did, with grilled garlic-y mahi-mahi, a salad and a fruit-forward, robust Zinfandel.
This week's recipe is a symphony of flavors: the savory umami taste of mushrooms, the nut-like taste and texture of barley, and the creamy, sweet taste of melted Gouda. It's delicious paired with a bold, spicy, fruit-forward Zin like this week's special 2008 Shannon Ridge Zinfandel, Ranch Collection.
1 cup pearl barley
3 cups water or stock
1 bay leaf
4 Tbsp. butter
8 oz. button mushrooms, sliced
2 cups spinach leaves, washed and dried
1 tsp. thyme
1/8 tsp white pepper
salt to taste, start with 1 tsp.
4 oz. grated Gouda
Wash barley, then put into a pot with water or stock and the bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then cover tightly and simmer over low heat for 40 minutes. Melt the butter in a saucepan and cook the mushrooms over medium heat, stirring to cook evenly. Add the thyme, pepper, salt and spinach leaves and turn the heat up to high. Stir continuously to avoid burning the vegetables, the heat should be high so the spinach wilts and the liquid evaporates. When the spinach is wilted, add the vegetables to the barley and mix completely. Taste and adjust seasonings. Put into a baking dish and sprinkle the Gouda on top. Put under the broiler to melt the cheese. Serves 4-6, depending on whether it is the main course or side dish.

Beet borscht is most common, but borscht can be made without beets.
1 lb. flank steak
1 bay leaf
1 onion, quartered
3 large ripe tomatoes, halved
1⁄2 medium head of cabbage, sliced lengthwise into fine shreds
1⁄2 cup Zinfandel
3 Tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. salt + more to taste if needed
1/8 tsp. pepper
Put the flank steak and bay leaf in a heavy pot with tight fitting lid and cover completely with water. Add the bay leaf, bring to a boil then turn heat down to simmer and cook for a 1 1/2 hours with the lid on. Check occasionally to skim off any foam and add water if needed to keep the meat covered. Add the onion, tomatoes, salt and pepper and continue to simmer for another 1/2 hour. Remove the meat so you can strain the broth. Chop it or pull it apart with two forks into bite sized pieces. Put the strained broth and meat back in the pot. Add the cabbage, sugar and Zinfandel and cook until the cabbage is tender, about 20 minutes. Adjust the seasonings and serve hot. This borscht will taste better the next day--put into a glass storage container, cool in an ice bath, then refrigerate overnight. Reheat in a pot or microwave and serve with whole wheat bread and sliced Gouda and a glass of the 2008 Shannon Ridge Zinfandel, Ranch Collection for a hearty meal.

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