Great Grains: Barley, It’s for Soup and So Much More

Barley ready for harvest (USDA photo)

In researching foods for this blog, I’m ever amazed at the ancient and long-standing human ingenuity in adapting plants for our use.  Human history is largely the story of how we’ve overcome adversity, and found ways to survive. It is not coincidental, I think, that the foods I write about have been providing us sustenance for thousands of years. Nothing I write about was created yesterday in a laboratory. Could it be there is wisdom is in the tried and true?

Need I add that the ancient grain, barley, is very much in this tradition? It was the first domesticated grain to be grown in the Middle East and is the world’s fourth most widely grown cereal grain. It is commonly used as animal food and in the production of beer and whiskey.  In Korea it is often mixed with rice, and the Japanese drink an infusion of roasted barley called mugi cha, and use it in making miso. Saudi Arabians eat barley soup during Ramadan, and in Moslem tradition it is thought to sooth and calm the bowels. In the U.S., we most often see pearled barley, hulled barley which has been steamed to remove the bran. Some natural food stores sell hulled barley, the equivalent of brown rice, with only the inedible, fibrous hull removed.  Hulled barley can be used like pearled barley, only it needs a longer cooking time.  Most any rice recipe can adapted to barley, allowing for barley’s more chewy texture.  When long-cooked it will break down and add a creamy thickness to whatever liquid it is cooked in. Barley is also sometimes sold as flour, flakes or grits, and often I use malted barley syrup as a sweetener in desserts.  My recipe uses hulled or pearled barley in a traditional way: in a soup with mushrooms, but of course, there is a twist (recipe after the jump).

Red lentil-shiitake mushroom-barley soup (recipe after the jump)

Although this soup takes an hour and twenty minutes or so from start to finish, it really isn’t labor intensive, most of the time it’s just sitting on the stove simmering. Both the barley and red lentils add creaminess to the base of the soup, and you  may be surprised how much water they can absorb.  Don’t be afraid to add extra water as needed. Also, you can adjust this recipe according to the season.  In warm weather, make it thinner and with a higher proportion of vegetables, using only a light, sweet miso.  In winter, add more barley, less water and use both white miso and some red barley miso as well.


Yields 8 cups, 6-8 Servings

8 cups vegetable stock or water or a combination, brought to a boil

1/2 cup pearled barley, soaked for 20 minutes in hot water, drained (or hulled barley, rinsed and soaked for 1 hour)

1 cup red lentils, rinsed

5-6 medium shiitake mushrooms (preferably, but crimini or button mushrooms are also good), stems removed, sliced

1/2 large onion, peeled and diced

2 medium carrots, trimmed and diced

1 small sweet potato, peeled and diced

1-2 cloves garlic, minced (optional)

2 stalks celery, trimmed and diced

2 teaspoons cumin (optional)

handful of arugula, chopped (optional)

salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 tablespoons sweet, white miso (or to taste)

2 teaspoons soy sauce (or to taste)

2-3 teaspoons umeboshi vinegar (to taste)

freshly squeezed lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste

1- 2 tablespoons chopped green onions or parsley or cilantro for garnish

1. Bring the water or stock to a boil in a roomy soup pot. Add the barley and red lentils.  Turn down heat to a slow simmer, and simmer, stirring occasionally (watch out–the red lentils have a tendency to sink to the bottom and stick!).

2. Meanwhile, heat a little oil in a sauté pan and add the mushrooms, onions, garlic, carrots and sweet potatoes. Sauté over high heat for a few minutes, add the celery and the cumin, turn down heat to medium-low and sauté about 15 minutes more, adding a little sprinkle of salt and pepper. Finally, deglaze the pan by adding a cup of water.

3. After the red lentils and barley have simmered for about 50 minutes, add the vegetables along with the deglazing water.  Stir everything together and simmer on low heat for about 25 minutes or until lentils have mostly dissolved and the barley is tender. Add water as needed to make soup of the consistency you desire.  Season by adding miso, soy sauce, umeboshi vinegar, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.  Turn off heat and stir in the arugula, if using.

4. Allow to sit for 15 minutes for flavors to meld.  Serve in bowls, with garnish of choice.


3 responses

  1. Chef Gary prepared this soup for the 120 lucky people who dined at the weekly macrobiotic dinner yesterday. I will have to start keeping track of all of the outstanding soups that Gary creates, but this one is definitely in the running for top soup. This soup is delicious, with a perfect texture. I would rate it as the perfect soup; a soup of great comfort and flavor. Thank you, Gary!

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