Pearl 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.
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.
Recipe: Pearl Barley with Butternut Squash, Courgette and Fennel
1 small butternut squash
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.