Pearl Barley with Butternut Squash, Courgette and Fennel

Pearl barley with butternut squash and fennel_1Pearl barley is a processed and polished grain that has had the hull and bran removed. It doesn’t have a particularly distinctive taste, and is commonly used in soups and stews as a thickener, where it adds texture and bulk rather than flavour. Perhaps not surprisingly, it tends to go unnoticed. Simply put, it’s an ingredient that fades into the background. It’s subtle, mild, under-stated. And to be perfectly honest, I’ve never really thought of it as particularly exciting.

But if you pay a little more attention, it has rather more to offer than this might suggest…

If you look at it carefully, you’ll see that it’s really rather pretty. The grains are small, delicate, shiny and white(-ish). They almost glow. I guess there’s a reason why it’s called pearl barley. But there’s also an unexpected lack of uniformity between the grains. As well as the overall iridescence, there’s quite clearly a spectrum of colour from white through to dark beige that’s really very pleasing.

It also performs rather well in terms of nutrition. It’s relatively unprocessed, and is high in (soluble) fibre and protein, as well as being low in fat. Moreover, it’s straight-forward to prepare and cook, requiring nothing more than to be rinsed and then simmered in a pan of water. Despite some suggestions to the contrary, it doesn’t need to be soaked, although doing so will reduce the cooking time and it’s fine to do that if you prefer. If cooked properly, the texture of pearl barley should be associated with a slight bite, rendering it interesting rather than plain. Even the flavour improves on review, and rather than bland, it becomes slightly nutty. A bit like brown rice.

Pearl barley with butternut squash and fennel_4

Put all of this together and you get an ingredient that’s actually much more than the sum of its parts. And the real beauty of pearl barley, I’m increasingly being led to believe, is its versatility. There is absolutely no reason at all why it should be limited to its role as a “filler”, or be confined to soups and stews. It works very well as an accompaniment to a whole range of meals, in place of other grains like rice and couscous,  and it’s becoming increasingly popular in dishes ranging from salad to risotto.  Here, it’s no longer seen as subordinate – a secondary ingredient playing a minor role – but instead is allowed to take centre-stage.

And that’s exactly what it does in this recipe, a lovely dish that makes a really good (and substantial) supper or lunch, and which seems particularly fitting for winter. If you’ve got any left over, (ha!) it’s also great served at room temperature, and makes a tasty lunch-time salad.

Pearl barley with butternut squash and fennel_5

Recipe: Pearl Barley with Butternut Squash, Courgette and Fennel


1 small butternut squash
1 courgette
Olive oil
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed
            chop and reserve any feathery fonds
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
200g pearl barley, rinsed
Juice of ½ lemon
A handful of Parmesan
            or other well-flavoured hard cheese
A handful of parsley, roughly chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper


Pre-heat the oven to 190°C / 375°F / Gas Mark 5.

Cook the rinsed pearl barley in plenty of well-salted boiling water until tender, but so that it still has a bit of bite; this will probably take about 45 minutes (if you’re not sure, check the packet for cooking instructions).

While the pearl barley is cooking, peel, halve and deseed the squash, then cut into chunks and scatter in a large roasting tin. Trickle over 2 tablespoons of olive oil and season well with salt and pepper. Toss so that the squash is well coated and put into the oven to roast. Cut the fennel lengthways into 6 or 8 wedges, and the courgette into chunks. Leave both to one side.

After 15 minutes, add the fennel, courgette and garlic to the roasting tin and turn with the squash until everything is covered in oil. Roast for a further 30 minutes or so, until the vegetables are soft and beginning to caramelise around the edges.

Drain the cooked pearl barley, and toss with the roasted vegetables in the tin. Add the lemon juice, cheese, parsley and any fennel fronds. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Shave over some more cheese and serve.

Adapted from: River Cottage Veg! Everyday, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

About Georgina

Originally from the South of England, I've also had homes in Australia (Canberra) and the US (Los Angeles). I've been based in the UK city of Sheffield for a couple of years now. My blog is about adventures with food - markets, ingredients, books, recipes, places I've eaten and other related experiences. It focuses on stories from Sheffield, South Yorkshire and nearby Derbyshire, as well as places farther afield.
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12 Responses to Pearl Barley with Butternut Squash, Courgette and Fennel

  1. Liz says:

    Fun to find places to use barley outside of the traditional beef barley soup. Your dish looks great 🙂 Making me crave healthy.

  2. Karen says:

    Your barley recipe sounds delicious and I like the idea of the fennel…it gives such a wonderful flavor to a dish…thank you for sharing. 🙂

  3. sounds comforting dish…
    we not used to add pearl barley for savoury dish instead of dessert porridge,
    tempting to try your recipe!!!

    • Georgina says:

      That’s really interesting – it’s certainly more unusual here in the UK to use pearl barley in a dessert. If you do try this recipe, it would be great to know what you think.

  4. Sophie James says:

    Hello Georgina – I love pearl barley – thank you for showcasing its luminous loveliness here. Sophie

    • Georgina says:

      Hi Sophie. I’ve always liked pearl barley too, but it’s really only recently that I’ve started doing some slightly more interesting things with it. And I do think that it’s surprisingly pretty, too (but perhaps I’m weird…). Gx

  5. Lilly Sue says:

    Oh WOW, you have made me very hungry! This combination looks great! Yum!!

  6. Sophie33 says:

    I,love pearled barley & this is an easy to do recipe yet very delicious, I know. MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM. X

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