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Barley is the oldest cultivated grain in the world for good reason. Because it’s a hardy crop with a relatively short growing season, the Barley Belt stretches from the Arctic Circle to northern India. And its mild, nutty flavor, appealing texture, and fuss-free, relatively short cooking time—it takes about 45 minutes to become tender, with no rinsing or soaking beforehand—make it an easy whole grain to work into your culinary repertoire.

The pearl barley called for below is the type most commonly found at supermarkets; it’s had the hull and part of the bran removed during milling. The degree of pearling varies from brand to brand, so when comparison shopping, know that the darker the barley, the more bran (high in protein, B vitamins, and cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber) it contains.

Pair barley with mushrooms—which are also packed with protein and other nutrients—and you have one great meatless meal. Or not, depending on the leftovers in your refrigerator or your proximity to Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse, where the Barley Belt meets the Borscht Belt and it’s always 1939. I don’t care what anyone tells you, finishing the bottle of vodka is not a good idea.

Most everyone has a good recipe for mushroom-barley soup, so I won’t bother with that here. And although you can cook barley, like an Italian medium-grain rice, into a creamy risotto, lately I haven’t had the time or inclination to hover over a pot with a wooden spoon.

Instead, I’ve been playing around with barley pilaf. It’s terrific on its own, simply scooped into the hollow of roasted acorn squash, or alongside brisket, short ribs, or chicken thighs. It’s also delicious with lamb. Serve it hot, with spicy lamb sausages, or at room temperature, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds or toasted walnuts, with leftover leg of lamb and a big green salad. Adding a handful of toasted hazelnuts to barley pilaf will swing the dish toward Italy’s Piedmont and make it especially satisfying alongside chicken roasted with rosemary, lemon, and lots of garlic. Or go in an Asian direction, with shiitake mushrooms, soy, and a lick of the Korean hot red-pepper paste called gochujang.

Barley Pilaf with Mushrooms

Serves 4

There are many mushroom-barley pilafs in the world, but Deborah Madison, in her masterful Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, sold me on the idea of using both chopped and sliced mushrooms. The chopped ones—a mix of fresh and dried—concentrate the foresty flavor, then spread it throughout the pilaf.

½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms

A 10-ounce box fresh cremini or white mushrooms, washed* and trimmed

Extra-virgin olive oil

Unsalted butter

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

½ cup medium-dry Sherry or dry white wine

1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 cup pearl barley (not quick-cooking)

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

1. Soak the dried mushrooms in 3 cups boiling water 20 minutes to soften. Meanwhile, finely chop half the fresh mushrooms and cut the remaining half into thin slices.

2. Fish the dried mushrooms out of their soaking liquid (they should be pliable), squeezing out any excess liquid, and chop them. Decant the liquid through a fine sieve lined with a damp paper towel into a bowl. Add enough water to the liquid to measure 3 cups.

2. Heat 1 tablespoon oil and 1 tablespoon butter in a large skillet over moderately high heat until hot and the butter is melted and bubbling. Add the chopped fresh mushrooms and cook, stirring, until they’ve released their liquid, taken on some color, and are fragrant, 3 or 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, then stir in the chopped soaked mushrooms and Sherry. Reduce the heat to moderate and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has boiled down to nothing and the mushrooms look dry and crumbly, 5 to 7 minutes.

3. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a 3-quart saucepan. Add the onion and garlic and cook over moderate heat until softened but not browned, about 3 minutes. Stir in the barley, the cooked mushrooms (set skillet aside), and the mushroom-soaking liquid; season with salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, until the barley is tender and liquid is absorbed, about 45 minutes. Remove the pilaf from the heat and let stand, covered, 10 minutes.

4. Wipe out the skillet and in it heat 1 tablespoon oil and 1 generous tablespoon butter over moderately high heat. Add the sliced mushrooms and cook until they release their liquid and turn golden and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

5. Fluff the pilaf with a fork, then toss with the parsley. You can either stir in the sautéed mushrooms or, if the slices are particularly large and beautiful, spoon them over the pilaf for serving.

* Conventional sources say to simply wipe mushrooms clean, but these days, I wash all produce. Fresh, close-capped mushrooms are about 90 percent water to begin with, and they’ll absorb very little extra water when rinsed. Wash them just before using, then pat dry with a clean kitchen towel or a paper towel.


Comment from Cynthia A.
Time February 1, 2012 at 11:32 am

We’ve had a lot of mushroom barley soup this winter-often with a lamb bone thrown in for good measure. Now we’ll need to try pilaf!

Comment from admin
Time February 1, 2012 at 12:07 pm

I love what lamb does to mushroom-barley soup …. It gives it such resonance. Hope you enjoy the pilaf! I think you’ll find it versatile and almost as easy as making soup….

Comment from Flavia
Time February 2, 2012 at 3:52 am

Lovely recipe ! I will try it at home. I can find barley in Paris, right ? Thanks for sharing, Jane. I love your blog !

Comment from admin
Time February 2, 2012 at 6:43 am

I think you might be able to find some at a natural foods store. Fingers are crossed!

Comment from Jill Mant~a SaucyCook
Time February 3, 2012 at 4:32 pm

I love barley and I love mushrooms, so I will try this. I also really appreciate all of the great information regarding the pearling of barley, which I didn’t know. I’m also intrigued by the idea of a barley risotto. Thanks.

Comment from admin
Time February 6, 2012 at 6:35 pm

Hi Jill,
The other night, I took the leftover pilaf and added cubes of a roasted sweet potato from another meal. It was really, really good. I think you will like barley risotto; here’s a link to one with cauliflower….

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