A little barley goes a long way to beef up a soup or vegetablesUse it instead of high-carb pasta, potatoes or rice

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Tired of potatoes, rice, and pasta? Looking for another carb with some nutritional clout? Try barley. When cooked, barley has a soft but slightly crunchy texture. When added to soups, it makes them creamy. It is a great base for a pilaf.

Barley has a long history. Part of the human diet for several thousand years, it was one of the first grains to be cultivated. Then, as now, it was brewed to make beer as well as eaten in other forms. It is high in fiber, and recent studies have shown that barley has cholesterol-lowering properties similar to those of oats.

Don’t be discouraged from using barley, or any dried grains, because they need soaking first. There is a “quick method” for soaking the barley, described below. You can then use it in any recipe calling for soaked barley.

Pearl barley is the one most often found in the dried bean section. “Pearl” refers to the kernel that remains after the tough outer hull has been polished away. A 1-pound package of dried barley (about 2 cups) costs less than $1. When soaked, it yields approximately 6 cups. Prepare the entire package, then freeze the extra barley for use later. Store it in plastic bags in 1-cup portions and defrost before cooking.

Mushroom barley soup is a soothing companion on a cold day. Most mushroom barley soups use meat, beef stock, and common white mushrooms. A vegetarian version can be just as “meaty,” however. Soak dried mushrooms in water to rehydrate them. Save the soaking liquid for a flavorful stock. Fresh mushrooms cut into thick slices provide heft and flavor. The barley gives the soup a velvety consistency.

For a quick dinner, pull a few cups of barley from the freezer before you leave for work. When you get home, saute a mix of onions, dried cranberries, and vegetables (mixed frozen are fine) in a little oil. Spice it up with a little curry, toss in the cooked barley, and you have a colorful, nutritious dish.

Four-mushroom and barley soup 1/29/2004

3/4 cup dried porcini mushrooms (1 1/2 ounces)
8 -10 dried shiitake mushrooms
6 cups water
3 1/2 -4 cups soaked barley (quick method)
2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1/2 pound baby portobello mushrooms, cleaned and cut into 4 slices
1/2 pound white mushrooms, cleaned and cut into 4-5 slices
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Place porcini and shiitake mushrooms in separate bowls, each one large enough to hold 3 cups of liquid. Add about 2 1/2 cups of warm water to each bowl and let sit until mushrooms soften. Dried shiitake mushrooms need 30 minutes to an hour or more to soften, depending on thickness. Dried shiitake mushrooms are more flavorful than fresh.

2. Prepare pearl barley according to quick method: Put 1 pound of barley and 6 cups of water in a pot and bring to a boil. Let boil for two minutes and turn off the heat. Cover and let soak for one hour. Drain and reserve barley.

3. Remove mushrooms from liquid and rinse under running water. Reserve the liquid. Roughly chop the porcini. Remove stems from the shiitake and cut each into several pieces.

4. Take reserved mushroom liquid and strain through a paper coffee filter or double thickness of paper towel. You will have about 4 cups. Add water to make 6 cups of stock.

5. Heat oil in a pot and saute onions and carrots for five minutes.

6. Add chopped shiitake and porcini. Saute an additional 3 minutes.

7. Add mushroom stock to the mixture. Heat until just beginning to boil.

8. Lower heat and add barley. Simmer for 20 minutes.

9. Add sliced fresh mushrooms and cook an additional 15-20 minutes. Add water if necessary.

10. Season to taste.

Note: Trader Joe’s carries a product called Mushroom Medley in the frozen food section. It comes in 1-pound bags for $3.69 and it works well in this soup. Use as you would the fresh mushrooms. No need to do any cutting.

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