Barley and Sausage Casserole

Whenever I think of barley, I am reminded of “The Lady of Shalott“ by Tennyson:

“On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro’ the field the road runs by
To many-tower’d Camelot….”

Those opening lines are a wonderful example of Tennyson’s genius for creating music with words. I doubt that he meant for anyone to think that the Lady of Shallott ate barley, since by Tennyson’s time, barley was a grain eaten mainly by common people, used to brew beer, make fine whiskey and feed cattle.

Barley and rye grow very well in cool climates and both have been staple foods for over ten thousand years. The earliest archeological evidence that people were eating barley is from a site on the southern end of the Sea of Gallilee. They were gathering wild barley along with einkorn and emmer wheat, but by 4,200 B.C. domesticated barley was being cultivated as far away as eastern Finland. Barley was being used to make beer at least 5,000 years ago.

It is still an important ingredient in certain breads and soups from the Shetland Islands to Saudi Arabia, and it has become more popular in recent years among people concerned about a healthy diet. Since it contains generous amounts of valuable nutrients, is higher in soluble fiber than oats and has been shown to help control blood sugar and cholesterol levels, barley is a good addition to at least one meal every week.

If you are looking for a different kind of casserole, here is a version made with hull-less barley. You can compliment yourself for making a dish with proven health benefits, but even better, you can enjoy the nutty flavor of hull-less barley in a delicious casserole. A main dish that is good for you and tastes good! It’s worth a try.

INGREDIENTS:

3 1/2 cups water
1 cup hull-less barley
1/2 lb. pork sausage
3 T butter, divided
1 large onion, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 green bell pepper (about 1 cup chopped)
1/2 red bell pepper (about 1/2 cup chopped)
1/4 tsp. sage
1/3 tsp. marjoram
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
Dash of cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp. salt
2 T all-purpose flour
2 cups chicken broth

PROCEDURE:

Put a cup of hull-less barley into a two quart saucepan. Add three and a half cups of water, bring to a boil and simmer covered for about 40 minutes. Drain the barley and set it aside.

Preheat the oven to 350º.

Melt a tablespoon of butter in a Dutch oven or oven-safe pot over medium heat. Add the pork sausage and break it into smaller pieces as it cooks until it is gray. Clean and chop the onion, celery and peppers into a half inch dice while the meat is cooking.

Add the onion and cook it a couple of minutes until it is soft. Then stir in the celery and peppers, spices and salt and continue cooking the mixture for another four or five minutes.

Melt two tablespoons of butter in a saucepan over moderate heat and stir in two tablespoons of flour. You are making a roux for a thin sauce. When the flour begins to bubble, reduce the heat to very low and cook the roux for about two minutes. Do not brown the flour. Pour in the broth and raise the heat, stirring constantly. When the sauce begins to thicken, reduce the heat to low. Keep stirring and cook the sauce another two minutes.

Mix the barley into the vegetable and sausage mixture. If you want to include mushrooms, this is the time to do it. Stir the sauce into the barley mixture and transfer it to the casserole.

Bake covered on a center shelf in the preheated oven for about thirty minutes. Remove the cover and check the sauce. If it is too thin, bake the casserole uncovered for a few minutes. If the casserole is too dry, stir in a little water or broth and heat a couple of minutes. Taste and adjust for saltiness before serving.

NOTES: If you wish, clean and slice some fresh mushrooms to add an extra layer of complexity to the casserole.

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.