Pearled Barley with Butternut, Pomegranate and Pistachios

Butternut and Barley - january 25, 2014

This seems like a salad, but is it? I'm not really sure. It acts like more of a starchy side, with vegetables and fruit. Either way, it has been a hit at potlucks this winter and helped use up the butternut squash that have been cluttering up my kitchen counter since last September.

Whole grain dishes have always worked for me as adult party fodder. Until recently my go-to was Deborah Madison's Couscous with Dried Fruit and Pinenuts, though I make it with quinoa instead of couscous (couscous isn't actually a grain, it is very small pasta). But now, with this new one, I have two salads that never fail to impress crowds of grown-ups. Which means I can attend potlucks more frequently. 

Mastering a second whole-grain dish has also given me the necessary confidence to push these little packets of good health on my children. We love starch, at my house. But white rice and pasta can get a little repetitive and are comparatively lacking in fiber, vitamins and minerals. Bland, boring and bad for you are all fine and well with my kids, but I'm ready for something more delicious and life-affirming. Dinners with which I can score the home-cooked-family-meal trifecta: quick, healthy and delicious. Yes!


There are a multitude of ways to make whole grains taste better than their dull, whitened and
processed cousins. They really do function best on their own as the main attraction, served in
their natural shapes, instead of ground up and made into something else. Quinoa, millet, teff, farro, bulgar, brown rice and barley all have a rightful place at the dinner table, as themselves.

Buy the bookHowever, it will probably take a few bouts of coddling, rewarding and hand-feeding before my entire family comes to consensus on the acceptability of anything other than white rice.
So until that
time, I'll pad out their whole grain dinners with a small side of something I know they will eat.
Like half a peanut butter sandwich (on whole wheat bread, Ha!) or some pasta (the traditional kind, because whole-grain pasta is nothing
more than a bad tasting marketing scheme). 

 


Heidi Swanson is the local expert on cooking whole grains. She has written extensively on the subject and explains that pearled barley is merely a semi-whole grain. Its nutrient-rich, fibrous outer coating is slightly rubbed off in the pearling process, which makes it cook faster than un-pearled barley, the true whole grain in this case. But not the one I'm going to use. I'm willing to go with half of the whole-grained-goodness for this recipe. Where does one find un-pearled barley these days, anyway?

Pearled Barley with Butternut, Pomegranate and Pistachios: (adapted from Vegetarian Times, October 2013 p.63 )

3 Tablespoons olive oil
1 cup pearled barley
1 small-ish butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1x1/2" (or so) chunks 
1 small onion, minced
2 Tablespoons minced parsley
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
1/3 cup pistachios, toasted and chopped
salt & pepper

20140109-031sBegin by cooking the barley. You can even do this a day in advance. Heat 1 Tablespoon olive oil in a medium pot, then add the barley and some salt, 1/2 teaspoon or so. Stir the barley over medium heat until it begins to brown just a little bit and smells toasty. Add 2 1/4 cups of water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and set  a timer for 30 minutes. Once the timer rings taste your barley, it should be gently chewy with a bit of bounce, similar to al dente pasta. It can take longer to cook, up to 45 minutes or so.

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Prepping the squash is the most difficult part of this recipe. So much so that some people reject outright the task of cutting a squash themselves. Fresh squash is far more delicious than dried out, pre-cut cubes or watery frozen pieces. So unless you absolutely have to, go with the real deal. I promise you'll thank yourself for the extra work. 

Cutting through a winter squash takes a fair amount of power. I've found it best to use an 8" chef's knife for this. To get through the rind: keep a firm grasp on the squash, hold the knife correctly (The knife is controlled by your pointer finger on the top, blunt edge, of the blade. The rest of your hand on the handle is just for support) and always make sure you know where all of your fingers are. Otherwise you might lose one. There is a great knife skills class every month or so at 18 Reasons, if you can make it to San Francisco to take it.

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Start by slicing off both ends of the squash. This gives you a flat plane on either side for easier management.

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If the squash is large, cut the rounded, bulb end off from the thinner neck

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Then complete the following step with each widthwise half, you'll have twice as many pieces as in my photos below.

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If it is small, go ahead and cut it in half lengthwise without first halving it widthwise.

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Slice each half (or quarter) lengthwise.

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Then peel each piece with a vegetable peeler or small knife, whichever you prefer. Cut the slices into near cubes of whatever size the recipe calls for. In this case, about 1/2" by 1". 

If you are ever making a recipe where the squash will eventually be puréed, don't go through the hassle of skinning and cubing. Just slice the squash in half lengthwise, lay it on a parchment lined baking sheet and roast it that way. Then you can just scoop out the cooked flesh with a spoon and won't need to bother cutting off the rind at all.

      20140109-074s 20140109-083s

Pile up the squash onto the parchment lined baking sheet. Pour 1 Tablespoon of olive oil on top, about 1/4 teaspoon of salt and toss the squash with your hands until each piece is well coated. Pop the baking sheet in the oven and set a timer for 15 minutes. When it rings, check that the squash is browning on the bottom, then flip all the pieces and stir them around. Return the sheet to the oven for another 15 or so minutes, until all the pieces are darker orange and some have browned areas. Taste it for softness as you go, and keep roasting it until the squash is as soft as you like it.

While the squash is roasting, mince the onion. Heat the last Tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet on the stove, then cook over medium-low heat until the onion is soft and translucent. Add the cooked barley and cook for a few minutes, until it is warmed through. When the squash is ready, mix it with the barley and onion, chopped parsley, pomegranate seeds and chopped pistachios. Add salt and pepper to taste. voilà, there you go!  Serve warm or at room temperature.

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