Barley: The Betty White of Grains

In the beginning, God created barley, and the people rejoiced. No joke! This hearty grain dates back to the Stone Age and has been used in a variety of dishes around the world. However, here on the Western side when enriched breads and grains were introduced, we seemed to say, “Barley, who?” Today most barley is produced in the Western world, but it’s mainly used as animal feed or to produce malt for booze. However, we’ve seemed to rediscovered the good-for-you quality of barley and are beginning to see it incorporated into more dishes, which have people saying, “Yay, Barley!”

Barley, like most foods originating from plants, is naturally low in fat and void of artery clogging cholesterol. It also offers a nutty flavor and nice texture to good eats, such as soups, stews, pilafs and casseroles. Among other healthful qualities (minerals, nutrients, etc.) barley is rich in fiber, and listen up, kids—Fiber is not just for old people. Everybody could use a little more fiber in their diet, but you don’t have to take my word for it.

Aside from the fact that Betty White has probably eaten her fair share of barley, I would also like to interconnect barley to this golden gal of television by their similar career runs marked by longevity and heightened by an array of major roles. Betty White, whose television career began in 1956, has maintained longstanding success with evenly spaced career highs. You know the saying “slow and steady wins the race.” Well, I believe we could all agree that Betty White is continuing to lead the race. Best known as the devious Sue Ann Nivens on the classic sitcom “Mary Tyler Moore” and the naïve Rose on the “The Golden Girls,” Betty White at 88 years young is still in her prime. She has landed some memorable movie roles, was recently nominated for an Emmy for her role as host of Saturday Night Live, and stars in a new sitcom “Hot in Cleveland.”

Barley, too, has seen its popularity skyrocket worldwide only to be slightly forgotten and then majestically remembered. Why do barley and Betty White continue to make comebacks? No, not because of Facebook fan pages, although I am considering making a fan page entitled “Barley to Host SNL.” Betty White could co-host. No, people, because both are just plain good for you, and it doesn’t matter if you are old or young, male or female, or even blue or orange. Case in point—both my grandmother and I love Betty White although the generation gap spans several decades, which just goes to show that when something is naturally good for you, it surpasses any and all boundaries.

This recipe was first tested in the state-of-the-art research kitchen at Clemson University by a group of ambitious, culinary hungry students. When I began my topsy-turvy career jaunt at the university, I was given the mandatory privilege of assisting the Culinary Nutrition Undergraduate Research Student Group in researching and testing healthy recipes. This recipe was a product of that endeavor and was probably the tastiest recipe we tested during the semester. It barely beat out the Goji berry tartlets with Stevia sweetened custard. Not! While some of the students had some cooking skills, others did not. So, even though this recipe may sound fancy, it is fairly easy to prepare. Again, you don’t have to take my word for it. I miss Reading Rainbow!

SIDENOTE: This recipe uses quick-cooking barley (also known as barley flakes); however, you can also use whole grain or pearl barley. The quick-cooking variety is made from whole grain or pearl barley kernels that have been steam-rolled and dried, and they cook much faster. To cook pearl or whole grain barley, bring one part barley and three parts liquid (water or stock) to a boil; cover and reduce to a simmer for about 45-55 minutes. For this recipe, you would increase the stock by ½ cup to make 3 full cups and the cooking time would stretch out much longer. If you noticed the “ ” around risotto, it’s simply because this recipe is a pseudo risotto, meaning that real risotto uses rice. Risotto is an Italian rice specialty that results in a delectably creamy rice with grains that remain separate and firm. This barley rendition does take on a similar effect and is delizioso.

This blog was brought to you by—the sound of mowing grass, Paul the octopus and bubbles.

Mushroom Barley “Risotto”

2 ½ cups reduced-sodium chicken broth

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

1 bunch scallions, chopped

2 (8-ounce) packages baby portabella mushrooms, thinly sliced

2 teaspoons fresh thyme, chopped

1 cup quick-cooking barley

½ cup dry white wine

½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste

  1. Bring chicken broth to boil in heavy medium saucepan. Remove from heat, cover and set aside.
  2. Heat oil in a heavy, wide pan over medium heat. Add scallions, mushrooms and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Add barley and thyme, stirring for 1 minute. Add wine and stir until evaporated, about 1 minute.
  3. Add about ½ cup of the hot broth and cook, stirring frequently, until most of the liquid has been absorbed. Continue cooking, adding enough broth, ½ cup at a time, and stirring frequently, until the barley is just tender and the mixture has a slightly saucy consistency, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the cheese. Season with salt and pepper and serve. Yield: 6 servings (serving size: 2/3 cup)
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