Celebrate the Jewish Earth Day With Barley Pilaf

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 15 2014 5:10 PM

You’re Doing It Wrong: Barley

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Photo by Miriam Krule

We may be a mere two weeks into 2014, but Wednesday night marks the beginning of another new year: Tu B’Shevat, or the Jewish new year for trees. Yes, Rosh Hashanah was back in September, but Jews actually celebrate four different new years. Tu B’Shevat, in ancient times, was meant to remind Israelites about all the tithes involving trees and fruit. These days, it’s celebrated as a kind of Jewish Earth Day that involves planting trees and singing about them. It’s also traditionally a time to feast on the “seven species,” or the crops that the Bible says are the essence of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes (in the form of wine), figs, pomegranates, olives (pressed into oil), and honey. For me, as a vegan, it’s basically the perfect holiday.

When I was a kid, this somehow translated to lots of dried fruit and, inexplicably, an inordinate amount of dried carob, a food I never saw any other time of the year, in or outside of nature. But while every other species got its moment in the sun, barley was consistently overshadowed. When Jews are asked to name the seven species, they always remember barley last; it lacks the glamour of pomegranates, the sweetness of honey, or the potency of wine. The black sheep of the seven species, barley is typically added to soup or stew as an afterthought.

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But barley is the ideal winter grain—more interesting than rice, less faddish than quinoa. So I’d like to take a moment to appreciate barley with a fluffy pilaf that highlights the simple pleasure of this oft ignored grain.

Most recipes involving barley ask you to throw it into a pot with a bunch of other ingredients. But giving the grain center stage is easy, and it will allow you to enjoy its pleasant texture and unexpectedly sweet taste. Throw in some glazed radishes and a sprinkle of parsley, and you’re guaranteed to start your newest new year right.

Barley and Radish Pilaf
Yield: 2 to 3 servings
Time: About 35 minutes, partially unattended

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup sliced scallions
1 cup pearl barley
3¼ cups vegetable stock
Salt
1 bunch radishes, sliced
Chopped fresh parsley for garnish

1. Put 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a medium pot over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the scallions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the barley and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add 3 cups of the broth, raise the heat to high, cover, and bring to a boil. Season with salt, and lower the heat so the mixture simmers. Cook until the liquid is fully absorbed, about 30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, put the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, the remaining ¼ cup broth, and the radishes in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the radishes have absorbed most of the liquid and are lightly glazed, about 7 minutes.

3. Add the radishes to the barley mixture and toss to combine. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and serve garnished with parsley. (Store leftover pilaf in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to several days.)

Miriam Krule is a Slate assistant editor.