My favorite grain, barley, has made it to the mainstream.

When visiting a high end restaurant in Pittsburgh, we had it…as an appetizer! I had inserted barley into specials in my restaurant, but never was bold enough to put it on the menu. And here it was.

OK, so it is not quite yet mainstream, but you should consider it. Consider substituting it for your usual side dish of rice, pasta or risotto. Here is our dirty little secret — barley is cheap, filling, a great source of fiber and easily added to your diet. For example, ½ cup of dry barley will make two cups of cooked barley. Add it to your soups, salads or bread if you bake. Not only will you be adding another alternative to side dishes, but a super healthy one at that.

Here is the other secret — barley is the best grain for us health-wise. It has many benefits and there are those that classify it as a superfood. It helps control blood sugar, prevents diabetes, is a great source of fiber, reduces blood pressure and cholesterol, prevents gallstones and helps with prevention of colon cancer. That’s the top of the list.

Although barley is the number four whole grain produced in the world, it is the least eaten at the table. Over 60 percent of barley produced is fed to animals, another 25 percent is used in beer production (we’ll let that happen), a large percentage of the leftover as thickeners for soups and in baked goods and cereals in commercial production. So, what we eat is the remaining, which is not very much, but we need to eat more.

Barley comes several ways commercially. Hulled and pearled or polished are the most popular and easiest to use. Hulled barley is a whole grain with the bran still intact. It will be chewier and take about 20 minutes longer to cook than pearled. But, it is richer in fiber and has a nuttier taste. It can be used anywhere you use pearled barley. Keep in mind that hulled barley has a shorter shelf life, because the bran contains some oil and can go rancid. Pearled barley is called as such because it is polished like a pearl. The bran is taken off to allow the white grain to show. Unlike processed grains such as rice, much of the fiber is still in the barley, because it is layered. Barley can also come as grits (cut up), rolled (like oats) or as a flour.

Barley flour is a healthier alternative to wheat flour, but when baking, its low gluten content does not allow you to fully substitute flour in recipes. The more rise you need out of the recipe, the less barley flour you should use. For yeast breads, use about ¼ of the recipe in barley flour. For quick breads, scones and cookies, you can use a little more than half. Keep in mind that barley is low in gluten, but not gluten free.

Although it is not the most exciting of grains, barley gives you some versatility and it’s healthy. So when you are thinking about that next side dish and you are tired of rice or potatoes, give barley a call. It’s waiting.

Breakfast Barley

½ cup barley

2 cups water

2 apples

¼ cup dried cranberries

½ cup granola

½ teaspoon cinnamon

Milk or yogurt (optional)

Cook barley in water until tender and cool or keep warm. Dice apples and toss in barley with cranberries, granola and cinnamon. Pour milk or dollop yogurt over the barley mix. You can make this with any fruits and berries.

Barley Risotto

1 small onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, chopped

¾ cup barley

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ cup white wine

3 cups chicken or vegetable stock

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons butter

½ cup parmesan cheese

Sweat onion and garlic, add barley and toast a little. Add white wine and cook a minute. Add stock, bring to boil and simmer for around 30 minutes. Check for desired tenderness. You may need to add a little more stock if not tender enough. When done, fold in butter and cheese and adjust flavor with salt and pepper Add fresh herbs or cooked vegetables to make an even better side dish. Add grilled chicken or shrimp to make a meal.

Beef Barley Soup

1 pound beef cubes (chuck works well)

Flour for dusting

¼ cup oil

3 medium carrots, diced

1 large onion, diced

3 celery stalks, diced

3 cloves garlic, minced

½ cup barley

3 quarts beef stock plus 3 cups

1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

2 teaspoons dry thyme

1 cup corn off the cob

1 cup peas

Salt to adjust

Toss beef in flour to coat. Brown beef in pot and set aside. Add carrots, onions and celery to pot and sweat for 5 minutes, adding garlic in the last minute. Add stock, browned beef, pepper and thyme then cover and simmer about 1 hour. In a separate pot, cook barley in 3 cups beef stock until tender.n Add to soup when done along with peas and corn. Simmer soup 10 more minutes. Adjust flavor with salt and pepper. nFor a 1 pot method, you can add barley when adding stock, but it may take a little longer in the simmer.

Barley Scones

1 cup barley flour

1 cup all-purpose flour

¼ cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

1 stick (½cup) cold butter

½ cup buttermilk

1 egg

2/3 cup dried cranberries

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix all dry ingredients, and then cut in butter until incorporated (mealy looking) with pastry cutter or in food processor. Whisk together egg and butter milk. Fold milk/egg mixture along with cranberries into the flour mixture. Do not overmix. Form into a circle about 7 ¾ inches high. Chill in fridge for 20 minutes. Bake for 20-25 minutes.

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