Leafing through the untidy pile of notebooks I call my "kitchen diaries" I am struck by the wealth of grain and bean suppers that turn up on the slow route from New Year to Easter. Arborio, basmati, quinoa and couscous, spelt, bulgur and barley fly in and out of my recipes quicker than I can tip them from their flimsy packets into airtight storage jars. Of course, there is nothing new about this. We have always relied on dried goods to take us through to the start of the growing season.
Such starchy additions to my own cooking are more out of a desire for economy, warmth and sheer deliciousness than a lack of supply, even if this is the start of the annual "hungry gap" for kitchen gardeners. In our house baking a handful of rice in warm milk to produce a nannying pudding, or stirring steamed quinoa into a tomato stew is done as much for the pleasure of eating it as for making up for an empty allotment.
As well as eking out a meal, starchy ingredients enrich the texture of the cooking liquids of the dishes we add them to. The unfashionable pearl barley we tip into the thin liquid of the most basic lamb stew introduces a velvety quality that is a snip at the price. Stirring orzo, the barley-shaped pasta, into a vegetable soup thickens it delectably. And like these, potatoes allowed to collapse into the depths of a quietly bubbling pot au feu will do more than simply fill us up – they improve the texture of the sauce.
The new-found value attached to rice, grains and other starches is one of the things that pleases me most about modern cookery. (I remember when bringing any form of grain or bean dish to the table was eyed with suspicion.) The pilau made with bulgur wheat, the barley risotto, the couscous stuffing for an aubergine or beefsteak tomato, have all brought the subject to the everyday table. That said, I wish I liked quinoa more than I do. I make the occasional salad with its curious, bobbly grains, stirring it through with loads of herbs, but it still doesn't quite float my boat as much as I want it to.
For the past couple of years I have used spelt in breadmaking and cakes, but I have recently been won over by pearled spelt, too. Spelt risotto with chard and another with peas and parmesan have become regular visitors, but the cereal works as a thickener, too. The grains soak up the sauce like hungry sponges, thickening the dish but becoming plump and rich in the process.
This week I stirred pearled spelt into a mushroom stew. It had the effect of turning a side dish – whose destiny had been an accompaniment to a rump steak – into a main course. The feel of it in the mouth – a sort of soupy risotto, but with the nubbly quality of the spelt – proved pleasing and curiously calming.
A LITTLE STEW OF SPELT AND MUSHROOMS
For economy you could replace the dried mushroom broth with vegetable stock. The flavour will be less intensely mushroomy, but still good. Fancy mushrooms are a possibility if I am pushing the boat out, but everyday brown mushrooms of various sizes are fine. Add them according to their size, ending with the small and delicate. Serves 4.
dried mushrooms 1 tbsp or 8g
pearled spelt 250g
onion 1, medium
olive oil 4 tbsp
garlic 2 cloves
assorted fresh mushrooms 850g
tomato purée 1 tbsp
plain flour 1 tbsp
dried chilli flakes ½ tsp
Put the dried mushrooms in a heatproof bowl, cover them with 500ml of hot water from the kettle and set aside. Boil the pearled spelt in lightly salted water for 15 minutes and drain. Peel and roughly chop the onion. Warm the olive oil in a large pan, add the onion and when it is pale gold – after 10-15 minutes – add the peeled and crushed garlic, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes.
Finely slice the fresh mushrooms. Stir them into the onions and continue cooking for about 5 minutes until they are starting to colour. Stir in the tomato purée. Leave on the heat for 2 or 3 minutes then stir in the flour. Pour in the dried mushrooms and their soaking water and bring to the boil.
When the liquid boils, lower the heat, season and stir in the chilli flakes. Simmer for 10 minutes then add the cooked spelt. Cook for a further 10-15 minutes, until the mushrooms are soft and silky, and the sauce is rich and lightly thickened.
Serve in shallow bowls.
VANILLA RICE WITH FIG COMPOTE
Of all the ways to make a rice pudding (and there are many) I find the method that involves partially cooking the rice on the hob produces the most tender results.
This recipe is for those who like their pudding thick and creamy: 45 minutes in the oven will get you a truly creamy result, a further 15 minutes, a really thick one. Serves 4.
vanilla pod 1
full-cream milk 500ml
double cream 250ml
pudding rice 90g
caster sugar 2 tbsp
nutmeg 1, for grating
For the fig compote:
soft-dried figs 180g
raisins or sultanas 2 heaped tbsp
soft brown sugar 2 tbsp
Marsala 2 tbsp
Set the oven at 150C/gas mark 2. Split the vanilla pod in half and scrape out the seeds with the point of a knife. Put them into a flameproof 1.5 litre baking dish with the empty vanilla pod, the milk and cream and set over a moderate heat. Once the milk approaches the boil, pour in the rice and sugar, bring almost to the boil, then turn down the heat and leave to simmer gently, with the occasional stir, for 10 minutes.
Turn off the heat. Grate a small amount of nutmeg over the surface. Slide the dish into the oven and leave for 45 minutes to an hour depending on how firm you like your pudding and until the surface has turned to a freckled, golden crust. Serve with the compote below.
While the rice is baking, cut the figs in half and put them into a small saucepan. Scatter over the raisins and the sugar and pour in the Marsala and 200ml water. Bring to the boil then turn the heat down to a simmer. Cover and cook over a low heat for 15 minutes until the fruit has soaked up most of the liquid. Serve warm or chilled with the rice.
Email Nigel at email@example.com or visit guardian.co.uk/profile/nigelslater for all his recipes in one place