This week, I was totally pumped to write a column on the virtues of barley. I was inspired, of course, by the kickin’ chicken and barley soup which I hand-crafted recently in my restaurant. Wait. Did you pick up on how I just used a hot corporate marketing term for “made”? You did, right? The clever marketing executives in NYC like to call their products “hand-crafted,” not merely ‘made’ or ‘cooked’ in some nameless corporate commissary, then frozen and shipped out to all their cookie-cutter, pedestrian, insipid, uninspired, dull eating establishments.
Unfortunately, after making and serving a delicious, warming, satisfying, cravable (oops, there I go again with those marketing catch phrases) soup for a couple of days, the wind of inspiration for touting the joys of barley becalmed my sails. In other words, I was tired of looking at and tasting barley.
You may say I’m a tad fickle, or that I’m a typical chef with a short attention span. It’s not easy to write about food unless I’m hungry for that particular item. Yet, because I’m a giver, I’ve decided to rally and give y’all the straight dope on my ol’ pal barley.
Barley is an extremely versatile cereal crop, one of the first grains to be cultivated by mankind. We’re talking about the Fertile Crescent era here. Over the ages, man learned that barley was not only good to eat, but if you let the grains sprout and grow, the natural starches begin to turn into sugar. We call this transformed grain “malt,” and guess what just may be the best application for malt?
BEER! Ancient Egyptians discovered this fun fact and began to open brew pubs on every corner of the Cairo of yore. Their maritime trading partners quickly became enamored of the bubbly, malty beverage and took the recipe with them on their global journeys. The rest is history.
Malt isn’t just for beer production–it’s used as sweetener in processed foods. Check the ingredient list on most breakfast cereals and you’ll find malt as a sweetener. It’s also in powdered hot chocolate mixes, as well as one of my all-time favorite Halloween treats: Whoppers! And, of course, malt vinegar. All you Jersey Shore folks know what I’m sayin’. Heck, there’s a place on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland, Thrasher’s Fries, that if you ask for ketchup instead of malt vinegar, they will take your order of fries away from you. And many fun chocolate dessert recipes call for malted milk powder.
I still really enjoy, desire, love, yearn for barley cooked as a simple, soul-satisfying starch. Ever tried a side of toasted barley risotto with lamb? Verily, a match made in heaven. Another very delish way to explore the nutty, slightly chewy, creamy, earthy, umami-like richness of barley is as a simple pilaf, like the one I prepared for my chicken and barley soup:
CHEF BILL’S SIMPLE BARLEY PILAF
• 2 Tbsp. butter
• 1/2 yellow onion, brunoised
• 1 Tbsp. garlic clove, minced
• 1 cup pearled barley
• 1 oz. white wine
• 1 bouquet garni
• 2-1/2 cups chicken broth
• 2 Tbsp. chopped flat leave parsley
• 1 Tbsp. cold butter
• 2 Tbsp. grated parmesan
• Salt & pepper to taste
1. Sweat onion in 2 Tbsp. butter until translucent. Add garlic, cook for 1 minute.
2. Toast barley in onions and garlic 3 minutes, stirring slowly. Deglaze barley mixture with white wine.
3. Season with S&P; add bouquet garni and chicken stock. Stir, taste for seasoning.
4. Bring to a boil, cover and place in a 350˚F oven, 30-40 minutes.
5. Fluff the barley with a fork, stir in extra butter and parsley.