At a recent good-friends dinner party, our host Monica Gray served a magnificent ragout of lamb (somehow I can't bring myself to say "stew" when it comes to something that's as delicious as her braised lamb) on a bed of barley. There was an audible excitement around the table, part surprised talk, part the smacking of lips. How novel. Not rice, not potatoes, not polenta, not noodles, not even couscous, bulgar or baguette - something altogether more interesting and delish. Barley. [caption id="attachment_496" align="alignleft" width="450" caption="From bottom left, hulled pot barley, top is pearled barley with outer bran polished off and right bottom, stone ground barley flour"][/caption] Reputed to be the world's longest cultivated grain, barley was the grain of choice for thousands of years. Alas, the grain fell out of favour a few hundreds of years ago in much of the richer more fertile and populated parts of the world - in China, rice became the number # grain. In Europe, rye and the ascent of wheat linked to a preference for lighter whiter breads rather than heavier darker barley bread pushed barley to the geographic perifery of the continent - to Scotland and Wales, for example, where barley grew more reliably than other grains. There barley has lived on in soups, flat breads, breakfast cereal - and in the production of beer and scotch. Most of Canada's barley goes to livestock feed. For most Canadians, and I'm not counting the barley that goes into beer, barley is simply not everyday. But back to dinner, if barley is darn good, why is it neglected? Does it need a little promo? I'm willing to bet good money that all five of the couples at Monica Gray's table went out and bought a bag of the grain. Barley has such good bones. It's healthy - high in soluble and non soluble fibre, tasty in a toasty granary way, like rice goes with just about everything the refrigerator can throw at it, not expensive and what pushes it over the top- it has texture. Firm, but not al dente in the Italian risotto way, with a lovely little bounce, yet tender. Some say agreeably squishy. Could it be that cooks think barley takes too long to cook? Anywhere from 25 to 45 minutes. Yes, it takes longer than a microwave snack, couscous or instant mac and cheese. But, not really a long time to simmer- about the time of parboiled rice, a tad longer than new potatoes. Is it hard to find? Well, maybe - bags of barley - there are two kinds usually available and virtually interchangeable when it comes to the dish - pot barley with only the hull removed is a little longer to cook, and pearl with the outer bran polished off so the kernels appear 'pearled" occupy a tiny bit of a shelf beside the dried beans, lentils and chick peas. You need to be a scratch cook to know where to find barley in the supermarket. But bulk stores and health food stores are a reliable source of barley, and in some, you can even find barley flour - an interesting addition to breakfast pancakes. Enough talk. Do try barley in soup as the Scots do, make it into a risotto or pilaf with Mediterranean accents. Replace some of the hard or all-purpose wheat flour in pancakes, muffins, scones and up to 25% of the volume in yeast-raised bread with barley flour. And certainly make barley the basis of summer salads. In salads, barley is way better than pasta - doesn't drink up all the dressing and go flacid and bloated after a few hours, is an improvement on rice simply by staying moist and tender, and best, will impress your friends and family with your discovery of a brand new albeit antique grain that could use a little recognition. Barley Salad with Red Onion and Feta Ideal for a summer lunch, perhaps on a weekend menu, try to leave extras to pack for lunches during the week. The peas in the photo are shelled - ready-for-the-pot peas increasingly available in produce sections of chain stores, and in specialty stores. 2/3 cup (150 mL) pearl or pot barley 2 cups (500 mL) water (approx) 3/4 tsp (4 mL) salt 1 cup (250 mL) cooked fresh peas, or thawed frozen peas 3/4 cup (175 mL) diced sweet red pepper 1/2 cup (125 mL) diced red onion or sliced green onions 2/3 cup (150 mL) crumbled feta cheese (3 oz/100 g) 2 tbsp (30 mL) shredded fresh spearmint leaves or basil 3 tbsp (45 mL) extra virgin olive oil 1 tbsp (15 mL) white wine vinegar or cider vinegar 1/4 tsp (1 mL) freshly ground pepper 12 inner leaves of Romaine or softer Boston Lettuce . In a medium saucepan, bring barley, water and 1/2 tsp (2 mL) of the salt to boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer until barley is tender, and water mostly absorbed, about 25 minutes. Check near end of cooking time to see if barley needs a little extra water. Drain if necessary and transfer to a large bowl. Toss with a fork and set aside to cool. . Add peas, red pepper, red onion, feta, mint, oil, vinegar, pepper and remaining salt. Toss gently to combine. Let stand for a few minutes for flavours to blend. (Make-ahead: Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 1 day. Taste and reseason if necessary.) . Arrange lettuce in shallow pasta bowls. Spoon salad into cupped portion of lettuce. . Makes 4 servings. Tip: There are many possibilities for the cheese - shredded old Gouda, ricotta salata or extra old Cheddar or cubed Asiago. Feel free to chop in some cherry tomatoes too if you are eating the salad within an hour of its completion. Barley Buttermilk Pancakes with Honey Butter Barley flour, available in bulk, health and some supermarkets add a nutty flavour to weekend pancakes. I like to dress up a stack of pancakes with sliced strawberries or peaches or a generous scoop of blueberries or raspberries - in addition to the Honey Butter. 1 cup (250 mL) all-purpose flour 1/2 cup (125 mL) barley flour 1 tsp (5 mL) each baking powder and baking soda 1/4 tsp (1 mL) salt 2 large eggs 1 tbsp (15 mL) creamed or liquid honey 2 cups (500 mL) buttermilk 2 tbsp (30 mL) canola oil Honey Butter: 3 tbsp (45 mL) soft butter 1 tbsp (15 mL) creamed or liquid honey Pinch cinnamon . In large bowl, whisk together the all-purpose and barley flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. . In separate bowl, whisk 1 of the eggs with honey until smooth. Whisk in remaining egg, buttermilk and oil. Pour over the dry ingredients, whisking or stirring just until batter is smooth. . Heat skillet or griddle over medium heat; brush with canola oil. Using a 1/4 cup (50 mL) dry measuring cup, pour batter into the skillet. When bubbles rise up in the batter, burst but do not fill in, after about 2 minutes, turn over and cook the other side of the pancakes until golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Repeat with remaining batter and oil as needed. [caption id="attachment_501" align="alignleft" width="450" caption="Ready to turn"][/caption] . Honey Butter: Meanwhile, in a medium bowl with a fork, mash together the butter, honey and cinnamon. Spoon over hot pancakes. . Makes 12 pancake, 4 servings. [caption id="attachment_499" align="alignleft" width="450" caption="Bob's Red Mill brand has a wide selection of grains and baking products, now distributed in some supermarkets as well as specialty stores."][/caption] Mushroom Barley Pilaf A number of chefs know and use barley - they're always pushing the envelope when it comes to a tasty blend of novelty and good food. Example? The exuberant handlebar-mustachioed Massimo Capra of Mistura, the Food Network and cookery book introduced me to barley risotto a number of years ago. For restaurant service his trick was to precook the kernels to plump but still firm stage. Then when the order came in for barley risotto, he's start a little saute of oil and aromatics, add the barley and heat it to steaming and tenderness with a little stock and send it to the table with a flurry of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Then, a few years back when Monica Gray and I went mushroom hunting with naturalist extraordinaire Bob Bowles at Severn Lodge near Georgian Bay, the Lodge's chef Hubert Obermeier served what is essentially a pilaf - no continuous stirring as with risotto - with grilled tuna. Here's my version of Obermeier's delicious barley dish you can serve with your choice of grilled or roasted fish, chicken, lamb or pork chops, beef or duck. 1/4 cup (50 mL) butter 1 onion,or 2 shallots, diced 1/4 tsp (1 mL) each salt and freshly ground pepper 1 cup (250 mL) pearl or pot barley 2 cups (500 mL) chicken stock or vegetables stock 4 cups (1 L) chopped mushrooms, about 12 oz (375 g) 1 tbsp (15 mL) lemon juice (approx) 2 tbsp (30 mL) minced fresh parsley . In medium saucepan with heavy bottom, melt half of the butter over medium heat. Add onion, salt and pepper; cook, sirring until onion is softened, about 4 minutes. . Stir in barley; cook, stirring for 1 minute. Add stock and 1-1/2 cups (375 mL) water; bring to boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer just until barley is tender and liquid is absorbed, about 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from heat; let stand for 5 minutes. . Meanwhile in a large skillet, melt remaining butter over medium high heat. Add mushrooms and saute, stirring occasionally, until no liquid remains and mushrooms have started to colour golden brown, about 8 minutes. . Scrape mushrooms and any pan liquid over the barley; sprinkle with lemon juice. With fork, toss gently; taste and add more lemon juice is you like. Sprinkle with parsley. . Makes 4 generous servings. Tip: Shiitaki caps have the most flavour of all supremarket-available fresh mushrooms.