If a healthier diet is part of your plan for the new year, eating more grains, like barley, will get you off to a great start. Barley has been used since prehistoric times, making it one of the oldest grains used for food. (It’s even mentioned in The Bible). Today, most barley is produced to use as animal feed and to make beer, but it’s quickly regaining its popularity in the kitchen along with other grains like quinoa and bulgar. It’s also really, really good for you — high in fiber, niacin, which can help reduce cholesterol, antioxidants and a host of other beneficial vitamins and minerals.

The two most common types of barley are hulled and pearled. With hulled barley, most of the tough, outer shell or hull has been removed. Pearled barley is processed further to remove all of the hull. Many of the nutrients are removed with the hull, but pearled barley cooks much faster and is significantly less chewy than its hulled counterpart.

Barley flakes or rolled barley are much like oats. The kernels are rolled flat into flakes and cooked like oatmeal. Barley flour is made by grinding barley into a fine powder.

Cooking barley is simple. First, rinse it thoroughly, removing any debris. You can soak barley overnight to shorten its cooking time, but I typically use it in soups and stews that require a good 30-40 minute simmer, making soaking unnecessary. Bring water or broth to a boil (you’ll need about 3 cups of liquid for every cup of barley)and stir in the barley. Cover the pot and reduce heat to simmer for about 15 minutes for soaked barley or 30-40 minutes for unsoaked barley.

Barley has a wonderful nutty flavor that plays nicely with onions, garlic and strong herbs. It’s most frequently used in soups and stews, but feel free to use it as you do other grains. You can control its texture somewhat by cooking it in less water/broth for a chewier texture or using more water/broth for a softer bite.

I took full advantage of barley’s pasta-like texture by stirring it into this minestrone, a rich vegetable soup made even better with a bit of bacon, a perfect meal in a bowl.

Barley Minestrone with Bacon
Serves: 6
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 4 slices bacon, chopped
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3/4 cup barley, rinsed and drained
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 (28-oz) can crushed tomatoes
  • 4 cups (1 quart) chicken broth
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 cup diced yellow squash
  • 1 cup diced zucchini
  • 1 tablespoon pesto
  • 1/4 cup freshly-grated Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  1. Heat oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven. Add bacon and cook until it begins to brown, 3-5 minutes. Remove half the bacon and set aside on a paper-towel lined plate.
  2. Add onion, carrot and garlic to pan with remaining bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until veggies begin to soften, about 3 minutes. Stir in barley, basil and oregano and cook until barley is toasted, about 2 minutes.
  3. Add tomatoes, broth, water and bay leaf. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to simmer. Simmer until vegetables and barley are tender, about 20 minutes. Add squash and zucchini and cook until tender, about 5 minutes.
  4. When barley and vegetables are fully cooked, remove bay leaf and stir in pesto and cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish with reserved bacon and serve.


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