“Hot-buttered groat clusters!” –Firesign Theater.
One of the pleasures of travelling is drawing close to the seemingly familiar only to suddenly discover it strikingly different, like this Puglian Barley Salad with Pecorino Cheese. Looks ordinary. But the taste – not like barley on this planet. Many of the more forward thinking participants in Italy’s agritourismo movement are trying to preserve regional variations on farm products that for one reason or another have fallen from grace or never gained the favor of larger commercial ventures. Barley is a case in point–in Puglia, where it’s often hulled, rather than pearled, it’s chewy.
And chewy barley is a delight.
Most Americans have never tasted hulled barley. To understand why not, we need to pull out the Wayback Machine.* Close your eyes, squeeze your mental self back into that fifth-grade desk and think of the wheat kernel diagram hanging in Mrs. Paterson’s classroom, right next to the duck-and-cover poster and the display of paper Halloween pumpkin and witch cut-outs. Fatten the wheat kernel up a bit and you’ve got barley. Who can tell me the three main parts of the barley kernel? Barack, Elizabeth, Willard, put your hands down–let’s give some of the other kids a chance. That’s right–the endosperm and the germ, and those are wrapped in several layers of bran; and all of that is encased in a hull.
Pearling removes the hull, all of the bran and most of the germ until all that’s left is the, ahem, pearl of the grain, the endosperm. The result is a soft, fast-cooking grain, which is just fine for the small portion of American barley intended for human consumption, since the bulk of it goes into soup or baby food.
Hulling, duh, removes just the hull, leaving the bran and germ intact. Pearled barley is the grain your mother never wanted you to date, a promiscuous absorber of surrounding liquids, which is why the leftover lamb and barley soup you put in the fridge last night is thick enough to moonwalk on the next day. Hulled barley, also called barley groats, is much more stand-offish to its neighbors. It holds its shape and its texture–it’s got a satisfying chewiness that makes you want to do inappropriate things with your molars and a robust flavor that stands up well to lamb, mushrooms and cheese, or makes a great textural contrast to vegetables, as in this week’s salad.
Hulled barley is all over the web now (Google “hulled barley,” not “barley groats,” unless you’re trying to reach a raft of Polish grain wholesalers); Bob’s Red Mill offers it online on their site. You can, on rare occasion, even find it in a local store. Four Star Farm in Northfield, Massachusetts, supplies hulled barley to upscale restaurants like Rialto (which ought to allay any fears that this is one of those grains you should only eat while wearing rubber-tire sandals). They also make it available to retail outlets like Formaggio in Cambridge or City Feed and Supply in Jamaica Plain. Call ahead–supply can be unpredictable. For a more complete list of where their products might be found check out the Four Star Farm website
I started this post in Puglia and finished it in Massachusetts. Isn’t it great when the Dorothy Principle (Happiness in your own backyard, etc. etc.) obtains, especially when it comes to food? Sometimes, as with hulled barley, you just need to find someone who doesn’t see convenience as the highest good. For everyone who prefers the softness of pearled barley, or who can’t get hulled, go ahead, by all means use ordinary barley in this salad. It will turn out perfectly fine, especially if you take care not to overcook it. It just won’t be chewy. Enjoy. Ken
*Wikipedia: The name Wayback Machine is a reference to a segment from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show in which Mr. Peabody and Sherman use a time machine called the “WABAC machine” (pronounced “Wayback”) to witness, participate in, and, more often than not, alter famous events in history.
Puglian Barley Salad with
- 3 tablespoons EVOO
- ½ medium onion, peeled, quartered
- ½ celery stalk, peeled, quartered
- ½ carrot, peeled, quartered
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 cup hulled barley, rinsed and drained
- 4 cups vegetable stock or water
- 2 bay leaves
- zest of 1 lemon
- 2 tablespoons rinsed capers
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- ¼ cup fennel, cut into ¼ inch dice
- ¼ cup celery, peeled and cut into ¼ inch dice
- ¼ cup red onion, cut into ¼ inch dice
- ½ cup cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into ½ inch dice
- 1 cup chopped herbs—mint, basil, parsley, thyme
- 1½ cups tomatoes, chopped into ½ inch dice, or if using small ones, cut into 1/4 inch slices
- 3 ounces thinly sliced pecorino cheese
- Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onions, celery and carrots. Season with salt and pepper. Cook until tender and lightly browned, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until it becomes aromatic, only a minute or two.
- Add the barley, vegetable stock and bay leaves. Season with salt and pepper. Lower the heat to a simmer, cover with parchment, and cook until the barley is tender. Regular pearled barley will take about 35 minutes. We used some hulled barley that took a little over an hour. Taste and adjust seasonings.
- Remove the onion, celery, carrots and bay leaves. Eat the veggies.
- Add the zest, oil, capers and vinegar and mix well. Add the remaining ingredients, except the tomatoes and cheese and mix well. Taste and adjust seasonings. Let the salad sit for one hour to allow the flavors to blend.
- Just before serving, crumble the cheese and stir the tomatoes into the salad.
There are only a few childhood food aversions I carried into my kitchen as a young adult. Fried clams was one and barley another. I had a run in with bad fried clams when I was about 10 and I still haven’t completely recovered. Barley, on the other hand, I just didn’t like–something about the slightly slimy texture and the flavor of pearled barley. It wasn’t until I started eating Italian barley that I changed my mind. It has a full nutty flavor with a nice chewy texture. We buy hulled barley from Four Star Farm in Northfield Massachusetts that reminds me of the barley I had in Italy.
We made this recipe in Puglia. It’s so good Roxanne asked me to make it again which served us well during the storm earlier this week.
P.S. If you want a warm barley side dish, use the first part of the recipe, but chop up the carrots, celery and onion and keep them in with the grains. Throw in some herbs once the barley is cooked.
Click on any of the thumbnails to see larger versions of the photographs.