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Worth a second look: Barley!

An ancient grain so good, you'll wonder why it's not king in your kitchen
KITCHEN KING Cooked barley is delicious simply tossed into salads, porridge or wherever you want a nutty taste and texture. shutterstock

I've been on a barley binge lately. First off, I had no idea, until recently, that in the 1930s the kids in my dad's old North Edmonton neighbourhood of Calder, where all the "train people" like my dad's family settled, nicknamed him Barley. No one knows why. Did dad love barley? Steal some from a farmer's lot? Or were they just riffing on his name? Regardless, "Paul Bartosh" morphed into "Barley," which everybody thought was pretty funny, and that was that.

For me, whose childhood nickname was Peanuts, it was cool to learn this little family vignette right at the same time I was writing my last column on super-soups, recalling how Campbell's Scotch broth was an all-time favourite, mainly because of the barley.

I've loved barley since I was a kid. I love its taste. I love its texture. I love those little pearly-white grains with a wee brown stripe (I'm talking about pearl barley here; more on that later), which always reminds me of the line on the backs of ladybugs demarcating the two elytra—those little hard, red cases with the playful black dots that protect a ladybug's wings.

I especially love the way I feel after eating barley: Satisfied, balanced and happy.

At exactly the same time, I was also reading James Bridle's book, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future. This brilliant eye-opener dissects how technology is shaping our thinking, our knowledge, our culture.

One bright spot (or dark, depending on your view) Bridle points out is how seed vaults store much more than genetic biodiversity. They also contain valuable kinds of knowledge—knowledge that could help us better grow food in a rapidly changing climate; knowledge stored in far more seed vaults beyond the famous one in Svalbard, a remote island in Norway. (Check out that seed vault and the idea of being nice to Norwegians in my 2009 column here:

For one, the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, with branches in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, once maintained a gene bank south of Aleppo, Syria, where its headquarters were located, until rebel fighters seized it in 2012. There, ICARDA stored an amazing collection from 128 countries of 150,000 "different populations" of seeds from wheat, lentil, faba beans and, you guessed it—barley!

Barley is one amazing, ancient grain with a long and noble history. It's also impressively good for you. But despite the fact it's Canada's third most important crop, as the Alberta Barley Association tells us, it's usually overlooked, at least in our Canadian kitchens these days.

But when we read Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat's eurudite A History of Food, or Yuval Harari's bestseller, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, we learn what tremendous civilizers grains like barley have been, especially once our ancient ancestors learned to cook them.

Toussaint-Samat tells us that evidence from refuse heaps uncovered in archeological digs shows that for thousands of years, until about 5000 BCE, people who were largely hunters in the Taurus-Zagros mountains in northern Iraq, Iran and Turkey were eating large amounts of fish and herbivorous animals along with wild barley, which was well-adapted to the climate.

It follows that barley was also one of the first cultivated grains. People living along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, in what is Syria and Palestine today, were cultivating and growing barley and wheat along riverbanks there from 10,000 to 7,000 BCE. Those ancient people no doubt appreciated how nutritious—and tasty—barley is, and you can, too.

Besides its fermented form in your favourite scotch or its malted cousin in beer, barley is sold in most grocery stores in both its solid forms, organic and not. Hulled barley, the true whole-grain form with its tough, outermost hull still intact, is a golden brown colour. Pearl barley, where the hull and some of the healthy bran layer has been removed, is creamy white with that "ladybug stipe" on each grain. Both have a nice, chewy texture and nutty taste; the hulled barley moreso.

For a side dish, cook either in water or stock much as you would rice, using about three cups liquid to one cup grain. The hulled barley will take about 20 minutes longer and absorb less liquid. It's also most likely to produce separate grains. (Don't use too much liquid to cook pearl barley to ensure it won't clump together.) When you add pearl barley to soup or stew, it naturally releases starch that makes for a gentle thickening agent.

You'll find tons of excellent recipes using barley in pilafs, puddings, soups, stews and more if you just DuckDuckGo "barley." (Sure, it looks weird to use "DuckDuckGo" as a verb, but why not? It's my little nudge to break up with Google and use a search engine that won't store your personal info, follow you with ads, or otherwise track you.) Cooked barley is also delicious simply tossed into salads, porridge or wherever you want a nutty taste and texture.

As you munch away, you're eating a grain with the highest fibre levels of whole grains, including beta-glucan fibre, which lowers cholesterol and reduces the risk of heart disease. (Oats, too, are high in beta-glucan.) Barley is also high in certain nutrients. It's excellent for keeping all those microbes in your gut healthy, and helping regulate your blood sugar after meals, ergo the "happy" feeling after eating it.

As for that amazing seed collection in the vault in Aleppo, the rebel fighters allowed staff to maintain the facility. The entire collection of 150,000 seed families—including all the varieties of barley—will be redistributed to Morocco, Turkey and beyond.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who loves the way barley fields look under a blue prairie sky.