If barley isn't one of the foods you are familiar with, now is a great time to begin using it in your menus. Pearl barley is the kind most available, and I have used it in many dishes where I want to either extend the amount of ground meat or just eliminate the meat altogether. When used in something like chili, soups, or spaghetti sauce, the "mouth feel" of pearl barley is so similar to ground beef that most people aren't aware of the difference until it is pointed out.
We now have a co-op grocery in town that has hulled barley in bulk, so I decided to give that a try. Think of its relationship to pearl barley like the relationship between brown and white rice or whole wheat and white flour. It takes a little longer to cook than pearl barley but has more nutrients and fiber, along with a little nuttier flavor and chewier texture.
Barley in any form is a nutrition powerhouse at a very reasonable price, so it is a good place to go if you are looking at ways to stretch your food budget. Cooking it is really easy, and you can make a large batch to keep in the refrigerator for a variety of meals during the week. It also freezes extremely well.
Though I have never prepared barley in a slow cooker, that seems to be a popular prep method, at least judging from all the internet references. For me, I just put the barley and water in a large pot (3 cups water for every cup of barley), cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes for pearl barley and 40 to 45 minutes for hulled barley.
Some sites recommend pre-soaking hulled barley, but I haven't found that necessary. I did find some sites that call for cooking times at least twice as long as what I just suggested, so you may need to experiment a bit to come up with the right amount of time. To test, just take out a couple of grains, cool just enough to taste and then bite into them. When the consistency is what you want, you are done.
If there is any extra liquid, don't drain the barley right away, as it will continue to soak some of that up. On the other hand, if it starts to be quite dry and the barley is still hard, do stir in another half cup or so of water.
Basic Barley with Vegetables
Basic Vegetable Mix
2 T canola or olive oil
1 c chopped onion
1/2 c diced celery
1 1/2 to 2 c sliced carrots
1 mild chile pepper, diced (about 1/3 cup)
2 to 3 c finely shredded cabbage
2 to 3 c fresh spinach, chopped OR 10 oz frozen chopped spinach
garlic to taste--if using fresh, add it to the vegetables while sauteeing; for powder, add with the rest of the seasonings
1 to 2 c cooked hulled barley--if using as a side dish, go with a lower proportion of barley; if the main dish, increase the barley proportion
Seasonings and liquid of choice--see below
1. Heat the oil in a large skillet and add all the vegetables except spinach and garlic. Saute over medium high heat, stirring until the carrots are just tender and the onions are beginning to turn golden.
2. Stir in the spinach and garlic. Choose the seasonings/liquid mix as desired and add to the vegetables along with the barley. Turn the heat to medium, cover, and simmer the mixture for another 15 minutes or so, just enough to heat through and blend the flavors.
For a Far East kind of mix:
1 c broth (or water and bouillon or broth seasoning powder)
1 to 2 c snap peas, green peas, bamboo sprouts, or water chestnuts, or any mixture of these vegetables
2 to 4 T sweet fruit juice or syrup--choices include pineapple or orange juice concentrate, raspberry or pomegranate or other fruit syrup, or molasses
1 t five spice seasoning (sometimes also sold as "far east seasoning," usually a blend of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and anise) or to taste
2 to 3 T soy sauce, to taste
For a Mexican mix:
1 1/2 c taco or enchilada sauce
1 to 2 t cumin, to taste
1 t oregano
12 to 15 oz canned or frozen corn
1 c diced fresh or canned tomatoes
chopped cilantro, grated cheese and plain yogurt for topping, as desired
For an Italian mix:
1 1/2 c spaghetti sauce
1 t dried oregano
1 t dried basil (or 1 T fresh, chopped)
1/2 t dried thyme
1/2 t black pepper
12 oz broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, or green beans or any combination
mozzarella cheese for topping, as desired