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
- 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.
- Toss with all the other ingredients, taste and correct seasoning (adding more salt, lemon juice, and olive oil as necessary).
I think I should end this post before I turn this into a dessert.