Great grain: Make barley the star of this sweet potato salad
North Dakota is one of the nation’s top producers of barley, and one of my favorite grains to cook with and eat.
While often used in soups and stews, this flavorful cereal grain is hearty enough to take center stage as the base for salads and side dishes, like this week’s Barley Sweet Potato Salad.
Barley has a wonderful blend of textures that sets it apart from other grains. The actual grains are slightly larger than rice and puff up beautifully when cooked to resemble a small pasta noodle. When it comes to texture, barley is a study in contrasts — the words creamy, chewy, nutty and crunchy all apply.
Barley is packed with fiber for good digestion, B-group vitamins for energy and healthy blood cells, and minerals like magnesium and selenium, which enhance bone health and boost the immune system.
Hulled barley, also known as barley groats, is the whole-grain form because it has only the outer husk removed, rendering it the healthiest option. However, hulled barley takes almost twice as long to cook as other varieties and can be difficult to find outside of specialty food stores. Instead, you are more likely to see pearled barley or quick barley at your local grocery store.
These varieties have both had their outer husk and bran layers removed, which makes them slightly less nutritious than the hulled form but helps to expedite the cooking process. Pearled barley takes about 40 to 50 minutes to cook, while quick barley has been precooked and takes only about 10 to 15 minutes until ready. I usually work with pearled barley, but both are equally nutritious and either can be used for this recipe.
When cooking barley, I use a combination of water and chicken or vegetable stock, and a bay leaf to build depth of flavor, but if you don’t have stock on hand, water alone will work.
Creating a salad is all about balance — in nutrition, flavor, texture and color. I chose roasted sweet potatoes, which are packed with nutrients and flavor, and their beautiful orange color makes them stand out among the pale barley. I added sliced almonds for their crunch, dried cranberries for their sweetness, color and soft texture, green onions for a gentle bite of spice, baby spinach for even more color and nutrition, and a cranberry vinaigrette for the season.
I felt the salad was still not quite complete, so I decided to add some cheese just to see what would happen. I had the opportunity to visit the Caves of Faribault last week in southern Minnesota and was delighted to find their popular AmaBlu cheese crumbles in stock even at my little neighborhood Hornbacher’s Express store. The tangy creaminess of this cheese was the perfect balance to the sweetness of the salad, and this last-minute addition took this dish to a whole new level of flavor.
This is a superfood salad, loaded with nutritious ingredients to boost your health and fill your belly, which should be incentive enough to give it a try. That it’s also delicious is just a bonus.
Barley Sweet Potato Salad
Serves: 6 to 8
For the barley:
1 ½ cups pearled barley, rinsed
1 (15-ounce) can chicken stock
2 cups cold water
1 bay leaf
Pinch of salt
For the sweet potatoes:
2 medium to large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch cubes
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon ground cumin (or more, if desired)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
For the dressing:
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup canola or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
3 tablespoons cranberry juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
Other salad Ingredients:
3 green onions, green part only, small diced (about 1/3 cup)
1/3 cup sliced almonds, toasted
¼ cup blue cheese crumbles
½ cup dried cranberries
1 cup baby spinach leaves
Preheat oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper (or lightly grease with cooking spray).
In a medium sauce pot, add the barley, chicken stock, water and bay leaf and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover pot and simmer gently until nearly all the water has been absorbed, about 40 to 50 minutes. Remove from heat, uncover and let barley cool at room temperature; use a fork to fluff and separate the grains as they cool.
While the barley is cooking, toss the diced sweet potatoes in a large bowl with the olive oil, cumin, salt and pepper until evenly coated. Place the cubes on the prepared baking sheet in a single layer.
Roast at 400 degrees until fork-tender and the edges are just starting to brown, about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool on the baking sheet.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, use a whisk to combine the oils, vinegar, cranberry juice and mustard until well-combined and emulsified. Add the salt and pepper and whisk to incorporate. Taste and adjust ingredients and seasoning as desired; set aside.
In the bowl with the barley, add the roasted sweet potatoes, green onions, toasted almonds, blue cheese, cranberries and spinach. Toss to evenly distribute.
Pour half of the dressing over the salad and gently toss to coat, then repeat with the remaining half until fully combined. Taste and add salt and pepper as desired.
For best results, refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight to allow flavors to meld. Salad may be refrigerated for up to 5 days. Best served chilled or at room temperature, but may also be warmed in the microwave if desired.
Recipe Time Capsule:
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- 2014: Chef Ben's Fall Flavors Salad
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“Home With the Lost Italian” is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owned Sarello’s in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at email@example.com.