Cool Asparagus Barley Salad

Sometimes a person is just plain lucky. That’s how I felt when I learned that hull-less barley not only tastes wonderful but is also a healthy choice for people wanting to control their cholesterol and blood glucose.

I have been eating and enjoying barley since I was little, because my mother added it to her soups and stews. As far as I know, she bought pearl barley in packages at the A & P or Co-op. Pearl barley is polished like white rice to remove the bran and endosperm. Hull-less barley and brown rice retain those nutritious parts and are considered whole-grain foods.

Like most people we knew, Jerri and I bought pearl barley. Pearl barley in a box with the Quaker logo was easy to spot on the store shelf, but it took some hunting to find much beyond brown rice and whole wheat flour in our local supermarkets. The whole food movement had begun shortly after World War II, but it was still in its infancy in the nineteen seventies, at least in Kansas, Kentucky and Wisconsin.

Today, the whole food movement is a healthy youngster, not as big and strong as the giant food processing companies but robust and growing. Whole grain products, unprocessed and organic foods are not only available but popular. A small natural foods grocery that opened in 1980 to sell healthful foods in Austin, Texas, has grown to nearly 400 stores. Smaller cities often have local food co-ops where you can buy whole grains and flours ground from them, heirloom vegetables and hundreds of other natural food ingredients that were once only names in a gourmet cookbook for most of us.

Hull-less barley is an example. You can use it to make a nutritious and tasty salad. I found the recipe in Wild, Wild Cooking by Christopher Ray. His book was published in Hudson, Wisconsin in 2003, and we have an autographed copy. I don’t know if it is still available in any local bookstore, but if your family includes a hunter or fisherman (a successful one, that is) Wild, Wild Cooking would be a good addition to your cookbook collection.

The original recipe did not specify hull-less barley, but it has a nuttier flavor and is better for you. I think that you will like the result.

INGREDIENTS:

1 cup hull-less barley
3 1/2 cups water
16 stalks asparagus and large pot of water for blanching
1/2 cup red onion
1/2 cup red bell pepper
2 T fresh cilantro
3/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. white pepper
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1/2 tsp. oregano
Pinch of cumin
2 T olive oil
Juice of one lime
Juice of half a lemon

PROCEDURE:

Bring the barley and water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Reduce the heat and simmer the barley covered for about forty-five minutes, stirring occasionally and checking to make sure that it is not boiling dry. If necessary, add more water. After forty-five minutes or so, when most of the water should be absorbed, test for doneness by chewing a few grains. If you like the texture, your barley is done.

If you want it softer, let it cook another five or ten minutes, making sure there is a little water in the pan. When the barley meets your approval, remove the pan from the heat and let it cool covered while the barley absorbs any remaining water, or drain and rinse it with cold water in a colander to stop the barley from getting any softer. Put it into a mixing bowl and fluff it with a fork.

While the barley is cooking, prepare the vegetables. Clean and chop the onion and pepper into an eighth to quarter-inch dice and wash and chop the cilantro. Wash the asparagus and trim the tough part of the stems from the spears.

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Put ice cubes and water into a mixing bowl before you cook the asparagus. Blanch the spears in the boiling water for three to four minutes until they are ‘al dente,’ which means a piece of a spear crunches when you bite it. The exact amount of time will depend on the thickness of the spears. They are ready just as they begin to turn limp. Use tongs or a slotted spoon to transfer the spears from the pot into the ice water to cool them quickly. Properly cooked spears will be a bright green and tender but not mushy. Cut the cooled spears into two inch pieces and mix them into the cooled barley along with the other vegetables.

Sprinkle the salt, spices, olive oil and the lime and lemon juice over the mixture and stir the salad gently but thoroughly. Taste and adjust the seasonings. If it looks a little dry, you can add a bit more olive oil.

Let the salad sit at least an hour before serving, or make it a day ahead of time and keep it in the refrigerator.

NOTES: I’m sure that you can make this salad with pearl barley as well. Hull-less barley takes a little longer to cook than pearl barley, so follow the directions on the package. Bottled lemon and lime juice work okay for this recipe too.