Barley high may call you
Growing up, barley was the only grain I can remember that was ever cooked at home. It was often boiled with lamb and vegetables into a kind of Irish stew turned boil-up. Not a bad thing to eat, but the memory of the aroma of this soup filling the house is what resonates more than the flavour.
Barley is an ancient grain that is still widely eaten. A rather stoic grain, with fortifying qualities, its heartiness helps me to get through winter.
A large proportion of barley is produced for animal fodder. More importantly, barley has underpinned the production of many refreshing beverages. It is used for making whisky in Britain and is also the main ingredient – when malted and fermented – in the production of beer.
Another beverage, this one with “health” benefits, is barley water. This is made by taking a cup of washed barley and simmering it for an hour with five cups of water and the zest of a lemon. The barley is then strained and discarded, and the remaining water is sweetened with a little sugar and drunk when cool. In the 18th century, barley water was also spiked with wine flavoured with borage, which became barley wine.
Barley is a grain I like to eat regularly at home. Different varieties are available and for this recipe I have used black barley for its sturdy texture and wholesome nutty flavour. At home, I often use an Italian-produced white barley that is plump and has terrific absorption qualities. Cooked similarly to a pilaf, it has a wonderful texture and pairs beautifully with brassicas and root vegetables, parmesan cheese and even mushrooms.
In the restaurant, we make a salad with cooked barley. We cook the barley in a vegetable stock, then strain and cool the barley before tossing it with toasted pistachios, raisins, mint and a little spring onion. The salad is dressed with olive oil, lemon juice and orange zest. Topped with some labna it serves as a terrific lunch any time of the year.
Kale, black barley and bacon soup
– 4 tbsp butter
– 1 onion, finely diced
– 100g piece of pancetta or smoked bacon, diced into ½cm x 2cm lardoons
– ½ cup black barley (or pearl barley), soaked in cold water for 1 hour
– 1 litre chicken stock
– ½ large bunch of kale, leaves stripped from coarse stems and shredded
– pinch freshly grated nutmeg
– freshly ground pepper
In a large saucepan, melt the butter and fry the diced onion until it is soft and lightly coloured.
Add the pancetta or bacon and fry, stirring, for two minutes before adding the drained barley, chicken stock, the shredded kale and nutmeg.
Gently simmer the soup for about 30 minutes, or until the barley is cooked through. Top up with a little water if it reduces too much while the barley is cooking.
Taste the soup and season with salt and pepper before serving.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2016 as "Kale, black barley and bacon soup". Subscribe here.