Barley — good old, sturdy barley — is one of those beautiful local foods that is often overlooked. Perhaps we take it for granted because the grain is easy to cook (far less fussy than rice or quinoa), widely available and inexpensive. Barley is great for more than soup. Its flavor is slightly nutty and it has a nice chew. It’s a great choice for pilafs and salads and holds up nicely when made ahead.
Barley was among the first grains to be domesticated some 10,000 years ago. Ancient people baked it into barley bread and cakes and, for eons, it has been malted to brew beer. It can be grown just about anywhere, from the Arctic to the equator. “It’s especially well suited to our region, preferring cool weather,” said Kathy Draeger, who grows barley along with garlic, and raises grass-fed beef cattle on the Vangard Family Farm in Clinton, Minn. She’s also statewide director for the University of Minnesota Sustainable Development Partnerships.
“Barley is terrific for organic farmers because it’s so vigorous and when grown in rotation with other crops, barley helps replenish the soil and stem erosion,” she said.
In the kitchen, Draeger says, she prefers the hulled barley to pearl barley. The difference? Pearl barley has been husked and the bran layers have been removed so the polished white grains are softer and take less time to cook. Hulled barley, a rich burnished gold, is minimally processed to remove only the hull so that much of the bran is intact. It’s a whole grain and takes just a bit longer to cook, but worth the slight wait.
Draeger and I spoke by phone as a blizzard shook her kitchen windows and she was simmering up a pot of beef and barley stew. “We grow a variety of barley, developed by the university, and called ‘Robust,’ ” she said. “It seems to cook in a little less time than other varieties and the flavor is especially distinct.”
You can find hulled barley in the bulk section of grocery stores and natural food co-ops or order the Robust barley variety directly from Vanguard Farm (email@example.com; or connect with her on facebook.com/kathy.draeger.33).
All in the details: 1 cup of hulled barley will yield about 3 cups cooked. The hulled variety takes about 45 to 55 minutes to cook (pearl barley takes about 35 to 40 minutes). Pearl barley has a tendency to become sticky while hulled barley retains its shape as it swells through cooking, resulting in separate individual grains. Draeger said she uses barley in the summer as she would couscous in a fresh garden tabbouleh. She notes that it’s wonderful for breakfast, too.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.