Baked barley

Barley, tomato and vegetable stew

My husband can make a pot of homemade baked beans with his eyes closed – the beans are soaked and blanched; mixed with onion, tomato, spices. After hours of cooking, the end result is tweaked with honey – white beans suspended in a rust-red liquor. These were a breakfast staple at our old cafe and my husband still tends towards making a mega load, filling lots of containers for the freezer. We pop them out every so often at weekends … Eating them on top of melted cheese toast, scattered with plenty of chopped parsley, takes me straight back to having our first baby. Those were hungry, busy, yet beautiful days, and I remember eating this for lunch, sometimes with one of us with our little girl asleep in the Baby Bjorn, the odd bean landing on her head!

Whenever it gets to one last container of beans in the freezer, we promptly stop eating them, and this goes on for months … Is it only me, or do you do this too? The last container of anything virtually doesn’t exist, as eating it feels like stripping yourself shockingly bare of resources. I’m a stockpiler from way back!

A recipe in Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi has led to this recipe for baked barley. They do a zingy barley risotto with marinated feta on top, which I made recently, ever on the lookout for good barley recipes. (Barley is a super healthy grain as the type of fibre it contains called beta glucan (oats have it too) lowers cholesterol and helps control blood sugar, even boosts your immune system and prevents cancer. If you eat it more regularly, your lower intestines and your body in general will thank you for it.)

I liked the Jerusalem recipe, but had two thoughts: a) I actually preferred it without the somewhat rich feta on top, and b) it reminded me of baked beans! So I’ve pushed it further towards the realm of baked beans as something to make if you’re ever interested in a baked bean alternative. It happens to be very quick and easy compared to making baked beans as you don’t have to pre-soak barley and it cooks in about half the time.

Like making baked beans, you know you are nearly there when the starch from the barley melds with the tomato sauce to make a thick, orangey-red sauce that coats all the grains and vegetables. Comfort food-plus! Delicious with some kind of roasted or grilled meat for dinner, or perhaps with ricotta crumbled on top and a green salad on the side, or my favourite way – on toast for lunch (melted cheese optional) with lots of parsley.

Baked barley

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2–3 celery stalks, diced
2–3 carrots, diced
2 bay leaves
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
400 g pearl barley
3 teaspoons cumin seeds, lightly crushed
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 heaped tablespoon tomato paste
800 g tin diced tomatoes
1.5 litres water
salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a pot over medium heat and add the onion, celery, carrot and bay leaves. Cover with a lid and cook, stirring regularly, for around 10 minutes, or until the onion is lightly golden and the carrot has softened a little. Add the garlic and cook with the lid off for a few more minutes, stirring a few times. Stir in the barley, spices, tomato paste and tomatoes, then add the water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook uncovered for 1–1½ hours, or until the barley is tender. Add a little more water during cooking if needed.

Season with salt (about 3 teaspoons, or more, to taste) and pepper.

Makes enough for 3–4 meals (perfect for freezing)

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