If the Lady of Shalott Were a Dish

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The Lady of Shalott, Oil on Canvas by J.W. Waterhouse (Source

If the Lady of Shalott were a dish, I envision her as elegant and beautiful in a rustic sort of way.  Feminine and ethereal (as fairy ladies are, of course ;) ).  Complex, but not intimidating.  Passionate, eccentric, and completely captivating. 

Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott is a beautiful Victorian ballad based on Arthurian legend.  I’ve always been intrigued by tales of Arthur, and this poem in particular has always captivated me.  Tennyson’s descriptions paint such a vivid, detailed portrait, and I couldn’t help but translate this into a meal. 

This isn’t AP English class (thank God, right?  ;) ), but here’s the poem if you want to have a read…it really is lovely. 

The Lady of Shalott by Lord Alfred Tennyson (Source

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro’ the field the road runs by
To many-tower’d Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott. 

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Through the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four grey walls, and four grey towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott. 

By the margin, willow veil’d,
Slide the heavy barges trail’d
By slow horses; and unhai’’d
The shallop flitteth silken-sail’d
Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
The Lady of Shalott? 

Only reapers, reaping early,
In among the bearded barley
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly;
Down to tower’d Camelot;
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers, “ ‘Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott.” 

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott. 

And moving through a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
Winding down to Camelot;
There the river eddy whirls,
And there the surly village churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls
Pass onward from Shalott. 

Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd lad,
Or long-hair’d page in crimson clad
Goes by to tower’d Camelot;
And sometimes through the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two.
She hath no loyal Knight and true,
The Lady of Shalott. 

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often through the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot;
Or when the Moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed.
“I am half sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott. 

A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro’ the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A red-cross knight for ever kneel’d
To a lady in his shield,
That sparkled on the yellow field,
Beside remote Shalott. 

The gemmy bridle glitter’d free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.
The bridle bells rang merrily
As he rode down to Camelot:
And from his blazon’d baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armor rung
Beside remote Shalott. 

All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewell’d shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burn’d like one burning flame together,
As he rode down to Camelot.
As often thro’ the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, burning bright,
Moves over still Shalott. 

His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d;
On burnish’d hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flow’d
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
As he rode down to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flashed into the crystal mirror,
“Tirra lirra,” by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot. 

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott. 

In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining.
Heavily the low sky raining
Over tower’d Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And around about the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott. 

And down the river’s dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance —
With a glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott. 

Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right —
The leaves upon her falling light —
Thro’ the noises of the night,
She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shalott. 

Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly,
Turn’d to tower’d Camelot.
For ere she reach’d upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott. 

Under tower and balcony,
By garden-wall and gallery,
A gleaming shape she floated by,
Dead-pale between the houses high,
Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and Burgher, Lord and Dame,
And around the prow they read her name,
The Lady of Shalott. 

Who is this? And what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they crossed themselves for fear,
All the Knights at Camelot;
But Lancelot mused a little space
He said, “She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.”

 A few ingredients I was playing around with; they didn’t all get used in this dish, but the beets sure did!

A couple years ago I was reading this poem and started envisioning a meal.  Something deeply flavored, earthy, and hearty, but at the same time colorful.  Bright, but with a touch of mournfulness.  As I was mulling over the poem and the meal, a few ideas popped into my head. 

  • Barley:  It’s mentioned three times in the poem…how could I not include it in the dish?
  • Spinach or other greens:  For their earthiness, as mirrored in the setting of the poem.
  • Beets or sweet potatoes:  For their warm color (and earthiness), mimicking the page’s crimson attire, the market girls’ red cloaks, and the yellow field that are all mentioned.
  • Scallops:  Because of how elegant they are, but also for their color, mirroring the Lady’s snowy white robes and pale visage, and lastly because seafood just feels right when islands are involved.
  • Cream:  Made into a very simple sauce, and drizzled around the dish, to symbolize the water surrounding the island of Shalott.
  • Last but not least, Shallots:  A play on the word Shalott. 

Beets, the main theme in this dish.

I put off making this dish for a long time, partly because I’ve been so busy and I knew this would be time-consuming to put together, but also partly because I felt a little silly translating a poem into food.  But then when Natasha (of 5 Star Foodie) and Laz (of Lazaro Cooks) announced that this month’s theme was beets, I knew my opportunity had come.  I’m thrilled that I finally took the time to make this; in fact, if time weren’t an issue, I would love to do more interpretive posts like this and not just necessarily related to literature, but whatever strikes my fancy.  

In this dish I used beets in three different ways.  The beet roots were boiled until tender, then sliced and sautéed in butter.  The beautifully colored water that the beets were cooked in was made into a vegetable stock to make the barley risotto.  Lastly, the vibrant beet greens were wilted with shallot and flavored simply with salt, pepper, and lemon.  This dish is really just as much a tribute to beets as it is to the Lady of Shalott.  Natasha and Laz, hope you like it!

 If the Lady of Shalott Were a Dish (Or Beets with Barley Risotto & Seared Scallops)

Serves 4 

Start off by cooking the beets; you’ll need… 

1 bunch beets (about 4 medium beets), with roots and greens (you can use red or yellow beets, or a mix of both)

6 cups water

1 onion, peeled and halved

2 cloves garlic, peeled and cracked but left whole

1 bay leaf

3/4 teaspoon Arabic 9 Spice Mix*

Coarse salt and pepper

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

*Arabic 9 Spice Mix is available at Middle Eastern grocery stores and most spice stores, or you can make your own.

Trim the greens off the beetroots, reserving them for use later in this dish; scrub the beetroots to remove as much dirt as possible. 

Put the beetroots, water, onion, garlic, bay leaf, 3/4 teaspoon salt, Arabic 9 Spice Mix, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper into a medium saucepan; cover the pot, bring to a boil, then turn heat down and boil until the beets are tender (a paring knife inserted inside should slide right out), about 20 minutes.  Remove the beets and let them sit until they’re cool enough to handle, and then rub the skin a little to remove it; cut the beets into 1/4-inch thick slices.  

Strain the water that the beets cooked in through a cheesecloth-lined sieve.  Measure the beet liquid and add enough water or vegetable stock so that you have 6 cups (you’ll use the liquid to make the barley risotto). 

Right before serving, heat the butter in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add the beet slices and sprinkle them with salt and pepper; cook until lightly seared, about 1 to 2 minutes per side. 

Make the barley risotto next; you’ll need… 

6 cups beet liquid, warmed (see above)

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 medium-large shallots, minced (about 1/2 cup diced)

1 cup pearl barley

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice mixed with 2 1/2 tablespoons water

Salt and pepper 

Keep the beet liquid gently simmering in a medium saucepan over low heat. 

Heat the oil and butter in a separate medium saucepan over medium heat.  When the butter is melted, add the shallot and cook until soft but not brown, about 2 to 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add the barley and cook until slightly browned and nutty smelling, about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Stir in the lemon juice/water mixture and cook a few seconds until evaporated. 

Turn heat down to medium-low.  Add a pinch of salt and pepper and 1/2 cup hot beet liquid to the barley, stirring constantly until the liquid is almost completely absorbed, then adding more liquid in the same manner.  Continue this way until the barley is tender with just a slight bite to it, about 35 minutes.  (You may need slightly more or less liquid to achieve this; if you run out of beet liquid, you can just simmer some water or vegetable stock.)  Turn off heat and add additional salt and pepper to taste. 

If you need to re-heat the barley risotto before serving, you can add a splash of water to loosen it up a bit, and then heat it over medium-low while stirring. 

You’ll prepare the beet greens next; you’ll need… 

1/2 tablespoon canola oil

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 medium-large shallot, thinly sliced

Beet greens from 1 bunch beets, rinsed and chopped (about 8 oz of greens, or 3 cups chopped)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons water

Salt and pepper 

In a medium skillet, heat the oil and butter over medium heat; add the shallot and cook until softened, about 2 to 3 minutes.  Add the beat greens, lemon juice, water, and a pinch of salt and pepper; cook until greens are wilted and the liquid is evaporated, about 4 to 5 minutes.  Add additional salt and pepper to taste. 

Make the crispy shallot ring garnish next; you’ll need… 

1 medium-large shallot, thinly sliced into rings

1 tablespoon flour

Canola oil 

Separate the shallot rings with your fingers; toss the shallot and flour, and shake off any excess. 

Add about 1 inch of oil to a medium saucepan; heat the oil to 325F and cook the shallot rings in 2 batches until golden, about 1 to 2 minutes per batch.  Use a slotted spoon to transfer the shallot rings to a paper towel-lined plate to drain any excess oil. 

Heat the garlic-cream sauce; you’ll need… 

1/4 cup heavy cream

1 clove garlic, peeled and cracked but left whole

Pinch salt

Pinch Arabic 9 Spice Mix 

Add everything to a small saucepan; warm over low heat until steaming and bubbles form around the outside.  Let it steep until you’re ready to serve, but right before serving remove the garlic clove. 

Now to sear the scallops; you’ll need… 

1 tablespoon canola oil

1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 lb sea scallops (size 10/20, meaning there between 10-20 scallops per pound), rinsed and patted dry

Pinch Arabic 9 Spice Mix

Salt and pepper 

Heat the oil and butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat; as the pan heats, season the scallops on both sides with a pinch of Arabic 9 Spice Mix, salt, and pepper.  Add the scallops to the pan and sear on both sides, about 2 to 4 minutes per side, flipping once.  

To put it all together… 

Get out 4 plates; spoon the barley risotto onto the center of each plate and spread it out a bit.  Divide the beet greens on top of the risotto, then arrange the beet slices on top of the greens.  Place the scallops on top and sprinkle on the crispy shallots.  Drizzle the garlic-cream sauce around the outside of the risotto.  Serve with lemon wedges to squeeze on top if desired.

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  1. says

    Faith this looks like a dish from a 5 star restaurant menu. Amazing and really beautiful. The barley almost looks like lentils from the color. Arabic 9 Spice? Sounds interesting – I’m putting it on my list of spices to pick up :)

  2. says


    Flawless. What an amazing post. The thought process, the creative process, the execution. 5 Star. Two thumbs way, up!

    Awesome use of the beets.

  3. says

    Faith, as huge fan of legends, mythology and historical fiction literature, I absolutely love the source of your inspiration! And what a gorgeous gorgeous dish you made as a result! The addition of Arabic 9 Spice Mix must add a intriguing dimension of flavor to the dish! 5 Stars!

  4. says

    Faith, I think I must use the word “lovely” in reference to your posts nearly every time, but it is just so appropriate. You are such a lovely person and you infuse everything you do with that lovliness, and this is just the quintessential example of your lovliness: taking a lovely poem, translating it into a lovely dish, and sharing the lovely photos and results with us. Just. lovely.

  5. says

    Good golly, I haven’t thought about that poem in a zillion years. How great to have it for an inspiration for your beautiful dish. I made an ancient middle eastern lamb dish with creamy barley and just loved it… I imagine it would be fabulous with with scallops and those fried shallots.
    Lovely dish, Faith!

  6. says

    I think it’s brilliant that you used a piece of literature as your inspiration!! Really cool. Maybe that should be a future makeover challenge? Beautiful interpretation and beautiful dish. So creative!

  7. says

    It’s a fabulous dish Faith. I think the cream surrounding the island is a brilliant component.
    YAY for the cooking group, now can you translate a poem into junk food? :)

  8. says

    Not only does that dish look positively delicious, but the lit. nerd in me is completely bowled over by your ingenuity in making the poem into a meal.

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