No-fuss dishes for when mobility's an issue

October 06, 2009|By TARA DUGGAN / San Francisco Chronical

A couple of months ago I injured my back. The actual cause is a little unclear, but it probably had something to do with a day I tried out a couple of ambitious yoga moves I hadn't attempted in about 12 years.

A couple of doctor visits and an MRI later, I found out I had a herniated disk. Though it has certainly been painful, what's been almost as hard is not being able to do much of anything, including cooking.

Since being injured, I've cooked a few times and realized that most kitchens are designed to ruin a back.

I don't have many cabinets in my kitchen, and my heavy pans and bowls are stacked on low shelves that require awkward bending. The fridge is the standard kind, with the freezer on top, which means most of the time I have to lean over to find things. And now I understand why some people choose to install their oven in the wall rather than having one under the range, which leads to awkward maneuvers to check on things or move pans around.


I'm sure I look ridiculous waddling between the sink and the counter with my back brace on, kicking the oven door open and shut to prevent bending at the waist, but I miss cooking terribly. Since I've had to keep things very simple when I do cook, I've come up with some recipes that are especially efficient.

One night I tossed some chicken legs with what I could find within an arm's reach: an open bottle of red wine, olive oil, salt and pepper. I added some sliced onions and herbs, and put the pan in the oven at moderate heat so I wouldn't have to check it often.

In the cupboard, I found a little bit of whole-grain barley and simmered it with some broth made from dried porcini mushrooms. That type of barley takes about an hour to cook through, so it was done about the same time as the chicken. I added some toasted almonds to enhance the earthy quality of the barley.

The next day, we made a salad from some of the leftover chicken. The barley turned out to be delicious tossed in to the lightly dressed greens with more almonds and apples, adding heft and a wholesome starch element to the salad.

My doctor says that my back should get better soon. In the meantime, I've found that a few satisfying cooking sessions and plenty of fresh, delicious food can help get you through almost anything. And I'm going to find a new place to put those pots and pans.


o Serves 4, with leftovers for salad.

Whole-grain barley is available in bulk at health-food stores such as Whole Foods, and takes about 1 hour to cook. If using a quicker-cooking grain like bulgur wheat, wait to cook it until after the porcini water is ready so the grains soak up some of the mushroom flavor.

1 cup boiling-hot water
1/4 ounce dried porcini or other dried mushrooms
1-1/2 cups barley (preferably whole-grain) or other hearty grain, such as brown rice, bulgur wheat or farro
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt plus more to taste
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Olive oil -- a drizzle for the pilaf plus 2 tablespoons for the chicken
6 chicken legs (drumsticks and thighs attached)
2 tablespoons red or white wine
1/2 onion, sliced

1/2 cup toasted, coarsely chopped almonds
Thyme sprigs for garnish, if desired

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Pour water over porcini mushrooms and soak 20 minutes.

Prepare the barley or other grain according to package directions, except decrease the liquid called for by 1 cup because you will be adding the mushroom broth during cooking.

After the mushrooms have soaked, chop them into 1/4-inch dice and strain liquid through a coffee filter to remove grit. Add mushroom broth and mushrooms to the pot of barley with 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and half of the thyme.

Continue cooking barley until done, then let rest 10 minutes. If there is excess liquid in the pot, stir over low heat until evaporated. Season to taste with salt and pepper and add a drizzle of olive oil.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, toss the chicken legs with plenty of salt and pepper and the remaining thyme, 2 tablespoons olive oil, wine and onion. Arrange in one layer in a baking dish, and bake until no longer pink near the bone, about 1 hour.

Serve the chicken with the pilaf and top with the almonds and thyme sprigs, if desired. Reserve 2 pieces of chicken with about 2 tablespoons of the chicken juices, 1 cup pilaf and 1/3 of the almonds for the Chicken Salad with Hearty Grains, Almonds and Apples.


o Serves 2 as a main course.

You will probably have leftover vinaigrette, which you can refrigerate and use within 1 week.

2 pieces leftover baked chicken legs, with juices (from previous recipe)
1 cup porcini pilaf (from previous recipe)
1 small shallot, minced
1/2 teaspoon stone-ground or Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small apple, diced (no need to peel)
Leftover toasted almonds (from previous recipe)
4 ounces mixed greens

Heat the chicken and the pilaf separately in the microwave for 1 minute each, or until warmed slightly.

Pour 2-3 tablespoons collected chicken juices (if there is that much) into a salad bowl; add the shallot, mustard and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then whisk in the olive oil.

Remove the skin from the chicken, then tear the chicken into pieces and add to the salad bowl. Add the grains, apples, almonds and greens. Toss until the leaves are coated, then season to taste with salt and pepper and serve.

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