Once upon a time, our bread was white or brown and barely resembled anything that once came from the soil of a farm.
That homogeneous loaf of refined flour certainly didn’t look or taste like the grains of wheat it was supposedly made up of, to say nothing of any possible health benefits it might have.
You hear a lot more about whole grains and health in today’s world. It might be on the news or from a friend professing the merits of their newfound health kick.
If you have strolled the bakery or bread aisle of your local supermarket surely you have been inundated with any number of packages professing the magic of whole grains in their contents.
So what is the draw of whole grains? Well, where to start? Their many qualities begin with the value to human health, followed closely by flavor, texture and an almost embarrassing multitude of uses. The Whole Grain Council defines a whole grain as foods that “contain all the essential parts and naturally occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed.”
This means that the grain’s endosperm, bran and germ are all used in someway to maximize the benefits of the grain. Whole grains deliver important nutrients as well as soluble and insoluble fibers that aid the body in everything from digestion and cholesterol to fighting diabetes and regulating the body’s glycemic system.
Grains have played an important role, as they were the first domesticated crops by humans, leading to evolutionary advancements like civilization, the printing press and the corn dog. They later became the basis for useful applications such as sustainably feeding populations and animals, trading as a valuable commodity and … did I mention alcohol?
Whole grains like barley and its brethren were and are still the building blocks for alcoholic beverages like beer and whiskey. Yes, your beer is somehow a distant relative to that bran muffin sitting lonely and uneaten on the counter.
Barley is a member of the grass family that makes up a number of products and foods in modern society. Like its cousin corn, a large amount of barley produced today goes to animal feed.
But like so many other whole grains, barley is slowly regaining a foothold in the realm of feeding hungry people as well. It is featured in everything from flours, breads and soups to drinks like beer or barley wine. It is also a lovely starchy whole grain cooked like rice, but with a texture and flavor all its own.
One fantastic way to incorporate barley into your everyday diet is substituting it for less healthy ingredients like white rice in dishes. Barley has properties that make it a lovely substitute for an ingredient like Arborio rice in risotto. Utilizing the same risotto technique —cooking the grain in a fat, then slowly adding liquid in increments to draw out starch for a creamy texture — barley brings all of the taste and texture of risotto with the added health benefits of whole grains.
The risotto method is a mere initial dip of the toe into the ocean of possibilities barley presents. Cook up a batch and throw it in a salad with seasonal vegetables and fruits, or drop a handful into a soup as it cooks to replace traditional noodles.
No matter how you justify adding barley to your whole grain lifestyle, for health or for flavor, you will be cooking and eating better for the effort. And of course there is always an added bonus — it naturally tastes great washed down with an icy cold beer.Boulevard Beer, Beet and Mushroom Barley Risotto
This vegan recipe uses the risotto method, with whole grain barley subbing for the traditional rice, to slowly extract flavor and texture from the whole grain. As it cooks, barley’s starch will infuse and thicken the liquid, adding the “creamy” texture that is signature to risotto, without need of butter, cheese or cream. While many risottos employ wine, I like to use beer, a product made from barley, to add a deeper, fuller level of flavor that pairs naturally with the rich, earthy tones of the barley grain. Highlighted by the Kansas City treasure that is Boulevard’s Tank 7 brew, think of it is a way adapting the local and “nose to tail” principles to whole grains in the form of a healthy and intensely satisfying dish.Makes 4 servings 4 cups of vegetable stock or water 3 tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil 3 shallots, diced 1 garlic clove, minced 1 cup of pearled barley 1 teaspoon of sea salt 1 cup of Boulevard Tank 7 Beer (or other full flavored beer) 8 ounces of mushrooms (Crimini or white), halved 4 to 6 medium sized beets, roasted, peeled and halved 1 teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves 1 teaspoon of fresh parsley Black pepper, freshly ground to taste
Heat vegetable stock in separate stockpot at medium heat. Place a good-sized saucepan over medium heat. When hot, add 1 tablespoon olive oil and mushrooms, cooking for three to four minutes to caramelize, then remove. Return pan to heat, add remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil shallots and garlic, stirring to lightly color. Add barley and salt, stirring continuously to coat each grain of barley. Cook 2 minutes or so, until barley grains take on a translucent exterior. Add Boulevard beer, stirring, and cook another two to three minutes until little moisture from beer remains. Add 1 cup of vegetable stock (1 large ladleful roughly) to pan, or more, enough to cover grains and bring to a boil.
Continue stirring barley to prevent sticking and promote even cooking. As the liquid cooks down, add another ladle of vegetable stock. Repeat three or four times, roughly 35 to 40 minutes. The barley is done when it is cooked through, but retains a nice bite to each grain. A creamy, slightly loose consistency is desired. Also, you can add water to loosen up if you have used all of the stock.
To plate, mix mushrooms back in with fresh thyme and ground black pepper. Ladle into bowls or onto a plate and finish with fresh parsley and roasted beets on top of each portion.
Tyler Fox, personal chef/event caterer who emphasizes ‘nose-to-tail’ cooking philosophy as well as vegan and local/farm to table foods.