Hard to believe, but this is column 105 of “Cheap Eats.”
Where has the time gone? But then, we’re talking about food here,
and that’s a topic that is hard to exhaust. In fact, we
haven’t even gotten through all the major world foods—for
The cultivation of barley pretty much dates back to the beginning of
cultivation. Barley appears to have originated in the Ethiopian
highlands up into southeast Asia, but had already spread out from its
starting point by the time we first find it recorded in Egyptian
hieroglyphics (around 5000 BC). It is listed on
Sumerian cuneiform tablets that date to around 3500
and was clearly being used in northwestern Europe by 3000
BC Barley was identified as one of the
“two immortal sons
of heaven,” along with rice, in India’s Vedic literature,
and it was listed as being among the five sacred cultivated plants of
China by around 2800 BC.
Now, the thing that really strikes me about all this is that it
clearly indicates that people were moving around very early on. We
sometimes forget that for millennia, no one stayed in one place for
very long, and the farther back one goes, the more this is true. People
followed herds or seasons or stories from other wanderers, and
everything got spread around, including humans.
Barley was the major grain of the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and
Romans. The thing that finally bumped barley out of first place was the
spread of using leavening in bread baking. Barley doesn’t have
any gluten, so you can’t make raised yeast breads from barley
flour—and once the Egyptians figured out how to make raised yeast
breads, that was what everyone suddenly wanted. So wheat started to
take over in most places. However, barley remained the primary bread
grain in Europe until the 1500s. (Not everyone could afford those fancy
raised breads.) It was as important in Europe then as rice is in Asia
today. But wheat finally won out, as more and more people could afford
the technology needed for using yeast in baking.
Barley still holds the number one spot in areas where wheat or other
grains are hard to grow, particularly cold, rocky places or places
where the soil is too saline. In Tibet, barley is ubiquitous, but it is
also popular in northern Germany, Finland, the Italian Alps, the
Sahara, the Netherlands, Scotland, and Israel. In Tibet, barley is
generally ground fine and mixed with yak butter tea and rolled into
balls that you pop in your mouth. (Tibet is gorgeous, but don’t
go for the cuisine.) But elsewhere, it appears most commonly in pilafs,
stews, and soups. And while barley is no longer the number one grain in
the world, it is still widely consumed.
Barley is also important in a lot of places where it is rarely eaten,
because you need malted barley to make most beers. More than 10 percent
of the annual worldwide barley crop (which runs to hundreds of millions
of tons) is used in the production of beer. And then there are the
places that distill it into whiskey.
I have always loved barley. My favorite way to consume it has
generally been in hearty soups. Krupnik is a delicious, rich soup that
is perfect for cold weather. The dried mushrooms can be a bit pricey,
but they are immensely flavorful and you really can’t make this
recipe without them. Regular grocery stores often have them, but check
an ethnic grocer (Eastern European or Italian) for better prices on
this essential ingredient. Enjoy.
Krupnik (Polish Barley Vegetable Soup with Mushrooms)
In a small bowl, soak mushrooms in 1 cup warm
water for 30 minutes. Remove softened mushrooms from liquid and cut
into ½-inch dice. Strain the soaking liquid through a coffee
filter, or use a fine sieve and watch carefully for sand or grit at the
bottom of the bowl. Put beef stock in a large pot and add soaking
liquid and chopped mushrooms to the stock.
In a saucepan, bring 2 cups of water to the boil. Stir in barley.
Return water to the boil, cover, lower heat, and simmer until all water
is absorbed (about 15 minutes). Stir butter into barley, making sure
melting butter coats all grains. Set aside.
Add carrots, potatoes, celery, and green beans to stock and bring to
the simmer. Stir the barley and butter mixture, to separate grains,
then stir barley into the stock, breaking up any clumps of barley.
Cover and simmer until barley is tender, about 1 hour. Season to taste.
(If stock or broth is salted, you will only need to add pepper.)
You can garnish individual bowls of soup with a dollop of sour cream
and a sprinkle of dill, or you can pass a bowl of sour cream, sprinkled
with dill, for people to add to their own soup.
If you don’t have beef stock and the meat from
which the beef stock was made, just use beef broth. Cut about 1 pound
of stew meat into bite-sized pieces (small bites), brown pieces on all
sides, and add to the broth before adding all the other ingredients.
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