Four ways with barley

This ancient staple is a handy standby in the modern kitchen, adding ballast to soups and braises, and making robust salads and sides.

Barley is one of the oldest - if not the oldest - cultivated grains, and a particularly versatile one at that. Pearl barley, where the grain has been steamed and sometimes polished to remove the outer husk, is the supermarket standard; black barley, which has a chewier texture, and white barley, also pearled but smaller and whiter, are available at greengrocers, health-food shops and delis.

Barley is a firm grain and takes some time to cook - at least half an hour for pearl barley, a bit longer for whole barley and black barley. Some say soaking the barley first reduces the cooking time, but we find it makes little difference.

Barley is typically at home in soups and braises (like the osso buco here), but dressed with a sharp vinaigrette, some creamy goat's curd and winter herbs, it also makes a lovely winter salad. Toss boiled barley with a herb or seaweed butter, or with pan juices, a squeeze of lemon and a good pinch of salt and pepper to serve as a side to fish or meat. Barley "risotto" cooked in the usual way with stock, wine and perhaps some cream is delicious, as is a spiced pilaf made with barley, a little ghee, stock and the likes of cardamom, a cinnamon quill and a couple of dried chillies.

It also works as a sweet: blanch the barley first, then simmer it in milk and sweeten it with brown sugar, and serve it as a dessert with poached fruit.

Harissa prawns and pipis with black barley
Serves 4 as a light meal

Boil 250gm black barley in a saucepan until tender (25-35 minutes). Drain. Heat 60ml (¼ cup) olive oil in a deep frying pan over medium-high heat. Add ½ diced white onion and stir until it starts to caramelise (3-5 minutes), then add 12 peeled uncooked prawns, 2 thinly sliced small red chillies and 2 crushed garlic cloves and stir until prawns just turn opaque (2-4 minutes). Set mixture aside, add 80ml chicken stock to pan and bring to a simmer. Add 24 pipis and simmer until open (3-5 minutes). Add barley and prawn mixture, 3 tsp harissa, juice of 1 lemon and a handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley, season to taste and serve drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil.

Chicken braised with barley
Serves 4
Preheat oven to 200C. Rinse 210gm pearl barley. Joint a chicken into 8 pieces. Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a flameproof casserole over medium-high heat, add chicken and fry until golden brown all over (2-3 minutes each side). Set aside. Add 1 diced onion to pan and fry until tender and starting to caramelise (5-7 minutes), then add 4 crushed garlic cloves and stir until fragrant (1-2 minutes). Add 250ml dry white wine and reserved barley and bring to a simmer, then add 500ml chicken stock, 200ml water and a few thyme sprigs and bring to the boil. Place chicken on top, cover, transfer to oven and braise until barley is tender and chicken is cooked through (45 minutes to 1 hour). Season to taste and serve with wilted greens, lemon wedges and mustard.

Osso buco with pearl barley and gremolata
Serves 4
Preheat oven to 150C. Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a large casserole over high heat, add 4 beef osso buco pieces and fry, turning occasionally, until browned (2-3 minutes each side). Meanwhile, fry 1 diced onion and 2 diced carrots until golden brown (5-7 minutes). Add to casserole along with 250gm rinsed pearl barley, 1.5 litres veal or brown chicken stock, and a large sprig of thyme, season to taste, cover and braise in oven until beef is tender (2-2½ hours). Combine ½ cup finely chopped curly or flat-leaf parsley, finely grated rind of ½ lemon and ½ crushed garlic clove in a bowl. Scatter over osso buco and serve.

Octopus and black barley salad
Serves 4
Poach 1kg octopus tentacles in a saucepan of simmering salted water until tender (45 minutes to 1 hour). Drain and place in a bowl with 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil and a large pinch of salt. Set aside. Cook 400gm black barley in a saucepan of boiling water until tender (30-40 minutes). Drain well and cool briefly. Combine 1 cup chopped coriander, ½ finely diced white onion, 2 tbsp coarsely chopped toasted pepitas, 100ml olive oil, juice of 2 limes and 2 tsp honey in a bowl, then stir in barley and season to taste with extra lime and salt. Remove excess skin from tentacles and slice into bite-size pieces. Spoon barley salad onto plates, top with octopus and coriander sprigs and serve.

Hot tips

  • After boiling barley, save the water to make barley water: just add sugar and lemon juice to taste.
  • Make mugicha, a Japanese roasted barley tea: dry-roast barley, then simmer it in water to extract the flavour and add sugar to taste.
  • For extra flavour, dry-roast the barley until it's golden before adding it to whatever dish you're cooking.

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