kitchen firsts: pearl barley with mushrooms, cauliflower, and pancetta
I had actually planned on cooking something else for this week’s kitchen first, but this dish arose out of one of those quintessential “uuggh what are we going to have for dinner tonight?” moments when you have a seemingly weird collection of leftover ingredients and don’t know what to do with them. As it turned out, our little experiment mixing barley with cauliflower, pancetta, mushrooms, and parmesan turned out really well. It was as simple to throw together as a pasta dish, but the barley’s soft yet crunchy texture gave it a surprising new dimension, and the combination of mushrooms, pancetta, and cauliflower complemented the flavor of the barley very well.
Using pearl barley for a kitchen first struck me as a little boring at first, especially because until this point my only experience with barley has been in soups. While barley is certainly pleasant enough in that context, it’s nothing to write home about. But I assure you that if you take some of these nutty little nuggets out of the soup pot, and serve them up with mushrooms, onions, garlic, pancetta, and cheese, it becomes the complete opposite of boring.
For those of you who may not have cooked pearl barley before, you’ll find that it’s just as simple as cooking rice, although it takes about 4o minutes rather than 10 or 15. It’s hands-off time, though, so basically you just need to get the barley started, and then in the time it takes you to get everything else cooked, the barley will be done and you can toss together and serve! So all in all it’s about 45 minutes from start to finish, prep included. We ate this dish as a main course, but it could also work well as a side dish, perhaps with a meatier main course, or alongside a of salads.
Pearl Barley with Mushrooms, Cauliflower and Pancetta
2/3 cup pearl barley
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock, or 2 cups water and a pinch of salt
1 T butter
Dash of dried thyme, or a few sprigs of fresh if you have it
1 T olive oil
4 slices pancetta (can be more or less, depending on what you have!)
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 large clove garlic, chopped
5-8 crimini or button mushroms, sliced
1/2 head of cauliflower, cut into bite size florets
handful of grated cheese: we used fontina, but parmesan would be fabulous with the nutty barley
In a 2 quart saucepan, combine your barley and stock (or water and salt). Cover and bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 35-45 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed and barley is soft but retains a little texture in the middle. Remove from the heat, add the tablespoon of butter and dash of thyme, and fluff with a fork.
While the barley is cooking, put a large skillet over medium high heat and add about 1/3 cup water, just enough to cover the bottom of the pan with a bit of water. Add the cauliflower and cover, allowing the cauliflower to steam until it’s almost fork tender, but not too soft (it will have a chance to finish cooking). Remove cauliflower to a plate and drain water from the pan. Return the pan to the heat and add the tablespoon of olive oil. When its heated up, add the onion, garlic, pancetta and mushrooms, and saute until they are softened and starting to turn golden brown. By this point, your barley should be done or getting close (if it isn’t, you’ll need to turn down the heat on the mushroom-onion-pancetta pan so the barley can catch up).
Return the cauliflower into the pan, and stir to re-heat. When its hot, add your barley into the pan and stir to combine with everything. Add your cheese and stir until melted. Serve!