Starting around late August, the days start to take on a certain sweetness. The light begins to soften, the landscape moves to the muted mauves and golds of late summer’s wildflowers. And in the twilight air, when the sky turns pastel and the first stars appear on the horizon, there is a certain chill that was not there before. Suddenly it is a pleasure and even a hopeful desire to have the oven on in the evenings or a hot pan to stand over and stir, and there is even a sort of gladness when a cool rainy day confines one to the indoors.
It is an altogether different sort of sweetness that one experiences in those early spring days, when the weather can feel so similar. That is the sweetness of beginnings, of possibilities – the same sort tasted in the infant stages of a love affair, in our ambition and in all dreams fueled by hope. The sweetness of the first steps in a journey.
But this sweetness – the sweetness of ripe tomatoes and sweet corn, bunches of basil and the very first apples falling from the trees onto the roadside – this is the sweetness of endings. The sweetness of coming home again, of love that has endured, of gratitude, of harvesting. The sweetness of a seed planted in spring that has now come to fruit and seed again, nurtured by hot sunshine and damp soil and soft summer rains.
This is my favorite sort of sweetness. I do love all the seasons but there is something special about this time of year, this sense of fulfillment and quieting. I always feel in some way that I am settling back into myself again – as though for most of the summer I have been colored outside my own lines, expanded and stretched beyond them. Now I am relaxing back within them, pulled by some invisible tide.
The food of this time holds that comforting, fulfilling sense to me. There is a sense of thrill when the first asparagus comes in spring – but when one holds the first ears of corn and tender fleshed knobbly tomatoes of the year – there is a feeling like a sigh, a sense of relief. As though I have come back to a place I had longed for.
So you can think of this dish as a sort of celebration of that sweetness – sweet, tender corn and nutty barley topped with brightly colored hunks of heirloom tomatoes and tiny basil leaves that stain your fingers with their perfume. A harvest meal to eat in golden late August sunshine, feeling you have come home again, you have made it through another year.
Adapted from a recipe in Bon Appetit
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small onion, diced
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1.5 cups fresh sweet corn, cut from the cob
- 5 cups vegetable stock
- 2 teaspoons salt
- a few tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large onion, diced
- 2 teaspoons dried thyme
- 1 cup Scotch barley (or dehulled barley)
- 1 cup white wine
- 1 cup fresh corn kernels (cut from 1 ear of corn)
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan
- 1 large or 2 small tomatoes, chopped into 1/4 inch hunks
- a handful of small basil leaves
- Salt and pepper to taste
- To make the corn broth, heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the onion and stir occasional until it begins to turn translucent. Add the garlic and corn and continue to saute for another 5 minutes before you add the stock, salt and a pinch of pepper. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a gentle simmer, covered, for 10 minutes. Cool slightly and then puree the broth until smooth using a blender, immersion blender of food processor.
- Once your corn broth is prepared, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet. Add the onion and thyme, stirring occasionally for a few minutes, and then add the barley. Cook for about 5 minutes or so, stirring now and then to prevent sticking, and then throw the cup of white wine into the pan and let it sizzle away until most of the liquid has been absorbed. Once there is very little liquid visible in the pan, add 1 cup of the corn broth. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has been absorbed again - then add another cup of corn broth. Continue in this manner until you have used up your corn broth and the barley is chewy and tender (it won't get soft like the arborio rice used traditionally in risottos, but will retain a chewiness and bite). This should take about an hour. If the barley still has any crunch to it at this point, continue adding liquid in 1 cup increments - you can use stock or water - until it is completely cooked.
- Once the barley is swelled, chewy and delicious - add the corn and the grated Parmesan, along with a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Give it a taste - adding more Parmesan, salt or pepper as you see fit - and then dish up in large shallow bowls. Place a few heaping scoops of tomatoes over the top, sprinkle with the basil leaves and serve.