Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Barley Almond Salad

Some dishes are so expressive of their creator's cooking style that if I told you the dish, you could probably guess which blog they came from (can you guess the creators of Maple Yogurt Cake, Thai Scallops Ceviche, or Potato Nests with Crab and Apple Topping). And no cheating with Google please. As I was taking a picture of this barley salad, I couldn't help thinking how uncharacteristic a dish this was for me. Most of the things I cook and write about had parents, involve a good bit of technique to prepare correctly, and don't travel well. This salad is a complete opposite. It's vegan, packs beautifully for lunch, and requires no other technique than good knife skills.

Over the last month, I've been trying to buy a different grain each week, cook a big batch of it, and then turn it into easy lunches for my daughter Samantha and me on Mondays and Wednesdays (the days she is not in daycare). So far, we've tried buckwheat, quinoa, and barley. All were great hits with Sammy.

As most good things to eat, this salad came partially out of necessity to clean out the fridge. Students often ask me how to improvise in the kitchen successfully. Improvisation in any field (cooking, music, art) is hard to teach. But seeing someone else go through this process can help. So instead of a recipe, I thought I'll describe my thought process for putting together this dish.

First you need to choose a theme. Since it was a nice spring day, I wanted my barley dish to be cold. Middle eastern wheat salad came to mind, and I decided to go with the south eastern Mediterranean theme (think Morocco, Turkey, Israel). Narrowing things down like that can be very helpful for basic decisions like lemon juice and olive oil should go into this salad, but soy sauce and sesame seed oil should stay in the cabinet. Now the cleaning out the fridge part. The options were zucchini, red peppers, apples, and olives. I decided to go with zucchini and peppers. I didn't want the vegetables to steal the show, so I diced them very finely (1/8 inch) to let barley still be the star. To dice zucchini, first slice it on the diagonal on a mandoline, then cut it with a knife into skinny french fry type strips, and then perpendicular into dice.

It seemed like my salad had all the vegetables it needed, but not the necessary savoriness and kick that only an onion can provide. Red onion, shallot, or scallions would all do the trick, but shallot was what I had on hand. I minced it finely and added it to my salad. Some delicate aromatic herb (parsley, cilantro, mint, tarragon, basil) would not hurt either. I had cilantro, so in it went.

I have a soft spot for Moroccan preserved lemons when it comes to cold non-leafy salads (tuna, bean, lentil). If you are in the Boston area, Formaggio's kitchen carries them and they can live happily in your fridge for almost a year as long as they are covered in brine. I usually discard the inside of the lemon, then rinse and use the skin (both the yellow and white parts). So in went the minced lemon.

Now it was time to dress the salad, taste, and adjust. I added a generous squirt of fresh lemon, 2-3 Tbsp olive oil, and some black pepper. Hmm, not bad. When you use a grain to make a stand alone vs. a side dish, you want each bite to be interesting. It should be like a choir singing with 3-4 voices all coming together into harmonious total. Zucchini and peppers gave my salad juiciness, barley gave it a nice toothsome bite, now if only we had a crunch here. My first instinct was to toast some pine nuts, but after opening my freezer and finding some already toasted almonds I decided to save myself a toasting step and just use those. Mmm -- much better. As soon as I tasted the salad with the almonds, I just had to reach for golden raisins. It's one of those duets that's just too good to pass up.

The salt level was good since I cooked the barley in salted water and added preserved lemons (a very salty ingredient), but my salad needed a bit more richness, so in went another small splash of olive oil. Now, everything was in perfect harmony. I could have left it as is, but something was pulling me to the spice drawer. Since there was some Moroccan influence there already, I thought why not underscore it with a little coriander and cardamom.

When I finished this salad, I had a strange impulse to pack it for someone's lunch. It's the one kitchen chore I absolutely hate since most of my food doesn't pack well or reheat well. But this salad was a complete meal (loaded with protein and fiber, might I add) that could easily be packed and didn't require any reheating.

So, there you have it. We've improvised a lunch. Here are some things to remember about kitchen improv:

1) decide on a theme and stick with it
2) if making a dish that requires dressing (like this salad), dress early on so that you know what it will roughly taste like in the end
3) taste after each new ingredient goes in and decide where to go from there
4) remember that less is more
5) if it's missing something, are you sure it's not salt or acidity? no matter what interesting combination you come up with, if it's bland, it won't taste good.

I guess I will write this salad in the recipe form after all. Just in case, you decide to make it, it will be easier to follow this than my ramblings above. Remember that this recipe is intended as inspiration, and it's a great opportunity to improvise and make this salad your own.

Barley Almond Salad

Serves 2-3 as main course, 4-6 as appetizer

1 cup barley
1 zucchini cut into 1/8 inch dice
1/2 red pepper cut into 1/8 inch dice
1 large or 2 small shallots, finely minced
skin from 1/4 preserved lemon, rinsed and finely minced
1/2 cup toasted almonds, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, mint, basil, or parsley
Juice from 1/2 lemon (plus more as needed)
1/4 cup olive oil (plus more as needed)
1/2 tsp corriander
1/4 tsp cardamom
  1. Bring 2 quarts of salted water to a boil, add barley and simmer until cooked to your liking, about 30-40 minutes. Drain in a colander and cool completely.
  2. Toss with all the other ingredients, taste and correct seasoning (adding more salt, lemon juice, and olive oil as necessary).
It just occurred to me that if you don't want to wait for barley to cool, you can turn this into a hot dish. Cook the shallots and peppers in olive oil until tender, then toss with hot barley and the rest of the ingredients. I would probaby omit the zucchini in this preparation since it will get mushy when combined with hot ingredients.

I think I should end this post before I turn this into a dessert.


Anonymous said...

I love the thought that went into creating the Barley Almond Salad. It all makes such sense.
Also... isn't it fun trying a diff. grain every week? I should do grains, I've done that with mushrooms a long, LONG time ago. Good reminder.

~M said...

I would very much like to hear about your other grain salads. Since I'm gluten-free, we make a lot of quinoa salads and some with brown rice and brown/wild rice mix. The NY Times recently ran a recipe on a Thai quinoa salad (intended as Passover-friendly), with mango, jalapeno, red onion, lemon juice, oil...we added an avocado too. It was SO good, especially because I only used about half to 2/3s of the recommended quinoa, and kept the proportions of the remaining ingredients true to the recipe. Susan V. of Fat Free Vegan also has a phenomenal International Quinoa Salad that is fabulous (she has lots of great quinoa recipes!). You might also like the idea of Simply Gluten Free's (grainless) spoon salad.

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

Funny, but the first thing I thought when I saw this recipe was that it would be great with some chunks of grilled salmon added. I love to grill a side of salmon, and then use it in salads all week. Now if I just could get in the habit of making a batch of grains each week, I'd be all set.

Helen said...

~M: here are some other gluten-free salads you might like: Fish salad with forbidden rice and Tuna salad with quinoa and tomatillosLydia: I am totally wish you about fish. There is no better lunch than a leftover fish, grains, and some other goodies tossed together.

Unknown said...

Where do you get your buckwheat? I tried buying the stuff they have at Harvest coop, but it is disgusting - some of it turns into instant mush no matter how gently you cook it, and it tastes grassy (under-roasted?).

Do I need to go to a Russian grocery?

Helen said...

Hi Diana,

Thanks for bringing it up. I've had exactly the same experience with buckwheat from Whole Foods and other American stores. Yes, I buy Russian buckwheat. All Russian stores carry it, but if you are in the Boston area, you can also check out Eastern Lamejun Bakers in Belmont (that's where I buy it since it's 2 minutes from my house).


luna said...

Hi Helen-

great class last night. I am craving this salad. So happy to see it on the blog- I can't wait to make it again!



Susan said...

The salad is delicious thank you for the recipe!

Anonymous said...

I always wondered about kitchen improv. You're right though, being a musician I know very well that this is a skill that can't really be "taught." I like the idea of a grain salad, but I'm always hesitant. This sounds great and I'll certainly be giving it a spin, even though I'm not that big on the almonds... who knows, maybe I'll come up with another way!

On the topic of salads, whether hot or cold, I was in at Trader Joe's once last summer and they made a delightful quinoa salad with roasted corn and a vegetable melange! Do you have anything of the sort you've tried? Thanks a ton! Looking forward to more!

Anonymous said...


I should've added to that post... what about Freekeh? Any experience with this grain? Thanks!!

Helen said...

Hi Christinekm,

Yes, quinoa salads are lovely. I've written about one a while ago. Just search my blog for "quinoa salad." Haven't heard of Freekeh. will try to find it.


Alyss said...

What a lovely salad. I improv in the kitchen all the time. Actually, it's rare that I follow a recipe. I love how you've laid out the steps so succinctly... that's exactly what I do but I'm not sure I could have saidit so clearly. My big recommendation for would-be kitchen improv-ers is to read cookbooks. Lots and lots of them. Whether you think you will cook out of them or not, read them! Then you can begin to understand themes and common ingredient combinations and common recipe formats.
Great salad! I might try that this summer!

Tanya said...


And to add to the excitement, my captcha word verification is: "dinglota."

Gristle67 said...

Hi Helen, do you prefer pearled or hulled barley for this recipe?

Thank you!

Helen said...

Pearled :)