Chicken and Barley Stew with Dill and Lemon and the Surprise of Joy

Because I don’t yet know what I want to do with the rest of my life in medicine (which means at present that I don’t know which residency to choose), a fond mentor recently gave me an assignment. When you wake up in the morning, before you get out of bed, write down what it is you are most looking forward to for that day. And then again, before you go to sleep that night, write down what it was that you most enjoyed. I’ve been keeping this log for almost a month expecting to find a pattern that will add up to the answer for my future—or at least a math function from which I can draw a line from here to the next logical plot point–extrapolate a lily pad in time I can try to jump onto to maintain the proper trajectory of Becoming Who I am Supposed to Become (capitalized in jest because of the sly doubt that Real Plans exist, at least in the way we Type A people understand “plans”).

Here is my one startling discovery from the exercise: Not one of my morning entries matches its evening reflection. Not once in a month have I been able to accurately predict what in the day ahead will most delight me by the end. Hmm. I have no ability to predict what I love. I am constantly in a state of surprise by joy. Which, I suppose, is a good prognosis for the future, if nonspecific.

In the meanwhile, I marinate in a thick stew of my own thoughts, hovering over a desk verdant with a salad of smudged flashcards on the eve of yet another final exam whilst eating a stew thick with herbs.


Chicken and Barley Stew with Dill and Lemon

Adapted from Food and Wine

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

Kosher salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces

1/4 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 carrots, sliced 1/4-inch thick

3 celery ribs, sliced 1/4-inch thick

1 large leek, white and pale green parts only, thinly sliced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 3/4 cup pearled barley

6 cups chicken stock

1 cup water

1/4 cup chopped dill

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/4 cup chopped tarragon

1/2 cup (1 1/2 ounces) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

In a shallow bowl, combine the flour with 1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Dredge the chicken in the flour; shake off the excess.

In a medium enameled cast-iron casserole, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil. Add half of the chicken and cook over moderately high heat until golden, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer the chicken to a bowl. Brown the remaining chicken in 2 more tablespoons of the oil.


Pour off the fat. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil and the carrots to the casserole and cook over moderate heat for 3 minutes. Add the celery, leek, and garlic and cook until starting to soften, 2 minutes. Add a large pinch each of salt and pepper and the barley. Cook over moderately high heat, stirring, until the barley starts to toast, 1 minute. Add the stock and water and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the barley is almost tender, about 20 minutes.


Return the chicken to the stew; cover and simmer until cooked through and the stew has thickened, about 10 minutes. Stir in the dill and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Spoon the stew into bowls, sprinkle with the tarragon and cheese, and serve.


Yeah for whole grains! One additional thought regarding my self-study for career planning– The results may also be skewed because in the third year of medical school, most days I have absolutely no idea what I will be doing, and more often than not, I find myself in situations where I don’t know what I am doing. Confusion and uncertainty punctuated by the surprise of occasional competence. Surprised by Competence—the working title of my memoir from the medical school years.

Curious what I am most excited about for tomorrow? Getting LIVE chickens into the coop we built in the backyard– icy snow shelter that it is. Soon as this stuff melts I can properly paint the Hen Hotel and start checking Rhode Island Reds in for spring break.


2 thoughts on “Chicken and Barley Stew with Dill and Lemon and the Surprise of Joy

  1. The point is life is surprising..what we love and like crops up like new blooms all along the decades….how delicious is that?..oh Kitchen Queen? God speed for your exam..and enjoy tomorrow’s surprise! May I still suggest ‘June Cleaver’ for a chicken name?

  2. Rachel, I am going to borrow your mentor’s idea of that daily exercise, I love it! I hope it brings you some insight about possible future directions in which to set sail as you continue your beautiful voyage through life. I hope the chickens are settling into their beautiful new home 🙂

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