Remember in the movie “Mary Poppins” when Jane and Michael sing about “The Perfect Nanny”?
“Have a cheery disposition . . . Never be cross or cruel . . . never smell of barley water,” the children chime.
Barley water is a British soft drink, often flavored with lemon. The barley that I recommend as “The Perfect Side Dish” is plain old barley, the kind in the 1-pound bag that hides next to the dried beans and split peas on your grocery store shelf.
If Mary Poppins were going to cook a grain, she’d probably pick barley, because it’s quite magical. When you add water and cook it, it grows to almost four times its size. In other words, 1 cup dry yields 3 1⁄2 to 4 cups cooked.
Miss Poppins certainly would approve of barley’s nutritional character, too. One cup of barley offers 3.5 grams of protein, zero fat, no cholesterol and a whopping 6 grams of fiber.
A generation or two ago, women didn’t think about calories, fat and fiber, but they knew was what good to eat and how to stretch their food dollars.
Whether she was an Eastern European immigrant or a farm wife during the Great Depression, barley was your grandmother’s grain because barley was a bargain.
That 1-pound bag that costs about $1.50 makes more than 14 cups of whole grain goodness.
If you are already eating brown rice as a side dish, you might like to change up the menu once in a while, and enjoy barley for its heartier texture and satisfying chew factor.
Cooking it is easy. Pour 1 cup of barley (I like Goya brand in the Hispanic food aisle) into a fine strainer or colander, pick through to remove any tiny stones or soil particles, then give it a quick rinse.
Put 3 cups of water in a pot, bring to a boil and dump in the barley. Cover, lower the heat and simmer for 40 minutes.
Rushing to make dinner, can’t wait 40 minutes? Cook a batch while you are watching “Mad Men” on Sunday night, then stow it in the fridge or freezer. On Monday or Tuesday, reheat the barley in the microwave or in a low, covered pan on the stove with a little water.
A quick cold salad
Leftover barley is also the perfect base for a quick cold salad that you can take to work. Just mix barley with chopped celery, carrots, garbanzo beans, a little onion, some walnuts, lemon juice or red wine vinegar and a dash of olive oil. (You can also use bottled dressing) Crumbled bleu or feta cheese makes it extra tasty.
My husband, Mr. Picky, won’t eat barley cold, but finds it quite appealing when it appears in a dish in his lunch bag under a piece of barbecue chicken or leftover Chinese stir-fry.
At my house, leftover barley stuffs peppers, thickens soup, turns into “Spanish rice,” is topped with homemade chili and mixed with beans, salsa and cheese.
Barley breakfast? Sure, you can eat it like oatmeal or stir it up with scrambled eggs and chopped veggies.
About the only thing I haven’t tried is barley water, and I might investigate that brew, as I’ve heard it’s a natural tonic for good health in Ayurvedic, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures.
Until then, if I’m going to drink the stuff, I prefer a nice, cold “barley sandwich.” Even though Jane and Michael would certainly disapprove, I have an occasional serving of that sort of barley to keep my cheery disposition.
“In & Out of the Kitchen,” a wide-ranging column about cooking, eating and buying food, is written by Gazette staffers. For more food stories, check out the Food Forum blog.