Monday 23 May 2011


Some years ago, a neighbour of ours showed me how she used cooked barley to fill chard leaves, in much the same way cabbage rolls are made.  Until then, I really hadn’t thought much about this grain, other than as an addition to soup or as a component of beer.  I owe my neighbour thanks for showing me her recipe. It opened my mind to the use of barley as a whole grain component in our day-to-day meals.

You can find two kinds of barley in most grocery stores: Pot barley and pearl barley.  Pot barley is a whole grain.  Its inedible outer hull has been removed but its bran and germ remain intact.  Pearl barley is not a whole grain.  It has been steam processed to remove the bran.  Pot barley can take slightly longer to cook than pearl barley but, because it’s a whole grain, it’s better for you.  It’s the barley I choose to include in our meals.

Whole grain barley is a very good source of dietary fibre and of selenium.  It’s also a good source of manganese, copper, phosphorous, and B vitamins.  Including barley in your diet on a regular basis can help lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, help prevent certain cancers, and help to boost your immune system.  That’s pretty powerful stuff for such a simple and inexpensive food.

I like to cook my barley like risotto.  I start by sautéing some onions in olive oil, just until they're translucent.  Then I add the barley and stir it in, so that the outer surface of each grain can absorb a little bit of oil.  This prevents the grains from clumping together as the barley is cooked. 

Once the barley has been sauteed, I add stock to the pot bit by bit, stirring until the liquid has been absorbed before adding more, until the barley has reached the texture I desire.  I like to cook barley so that the grains have softened but still have a little “tooth” to them.  Barley cooked this way can be served as a side dish, just as it is, or it can be used as a component in other dishes—like my neighbour’s chard rolls.

Barley contains 14 amino acids so, if you wish to use it as an ingredient in a vegetarian menu and to attain a “complete” protein, you’ll need to pair it with nuts, legumes or dairy products.  I’ve adapted my neighbour’s chard rolls to accommodate this requirement by adding a béchamel sauce (or sometimes a cheese sauce) to the dish.  Instead of making individual rolls, I layer the components in a casserole, alternating layers of chard and barley, starting and finishing with the chard.  I top the whole thing with a thick béchamel that is not unlike the topping you would find on moussaka.  It makes a tasty, nutritious, satisfying, and inexpensive main dish.

Unless you have it in your fridge already prepared, barley is not an option for cooks in a hurry.  Like all whole grains, it takes a while to absorb enough moisture to make it palatable.  Its nutritional benefits and hearty taste make it worth the effort though.

Next time you’re in the grocery store, visit the aisle where the dry soup ingredients are sold and pick up a bag of pot barley.  You’ll be surprised at how tasty this old-fashioned foodstuff can be.

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