Barley Bonanza

_DSC0361Ready for a change in your diet? Don’t worry, I’m not talking low-carb, all-raw or juice-only. No, i’m talking about broadening your menu by taking small steps towards including lesser known ingredients. How about adding barley to your array of whole grains served at your dinner table. Think it’s too exotic? Wait until you learn more about what makes this little grain so powerful and versatile. Come and cook with us!

First some fun facts. My research showed that barley is at the root of the English measurement system. In 1324, Edward II of England described an inch as equal to “three grains of barley, dry and round, placed end to end, lengthwise”. If this is true, I can’t say. What I know is that barley has been around for millennia. According to Walt Newman, co-author of Barley for Food and Health, it has been discovered in settlements dating back 23,000 years and in Roman gladiator’s bone fragments indicating that most of these strong fighters were vegetarians who ate a diet almost exclusively of barley and beans. It clearly has been a staple ever since. Well, maybe not exactly a staple here in the US.

Which is too bad, as barley is a cereal powerhouse boasting the highest amount of fiber, more than any other whole grain. Hulled barley has as much as 17% fiber, compared to rice with 3.5%, corn with 7% and oats with 10%. Barley is also rich in insoluble fiber, which absorbs water during the digestion process and thus helps prevent constipation. The list of what makes it great goes on, as it’s particular high in soluble beta-glucan fiber which reduces cholesterol, helps control blood sugar, and improves immune system function. And if that is not enough, barley is also rich in antioxidants, vitamins and trace minerals essential to our health.

Barley’s flavor can be described as sweet, earthy and nutty. It goes well in soups, salads and a morning meal, as an alternative to oats. What’s not to like? As it turns out, most of the barley eaten in the US is actually pearl barley, which is missing some or all of its bran layer so that the grains cook more quickly. While this makes it easier when you’re in a rush, it comes at the cost of diminished nutritional return, as a lot, but not all, the goodies are in the outer layer. Add to this, that barley contains gluten, so it is a definite no-no for anyone with celiac.

After all my praise, I’m afraid to admit that my featured recipe of the week actually uses pearl barley. But it is too delicious to pass, and still has more nutrition than rice or pasta. And if you have hulled cooked barley at hand, you can add that instead of cooking the pearl barley from scratch. One thing to note is that this dish – as many barely dishes – tastes even better the next day, so feel free to make a double batch. You won’t regret it. Come and cook with us!

Mushroom and Barley One-Pot Dish

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