Winter is definitely on its way to (sunny) South Africa. Changes in the season have been subtle up until now, with leaves on trees turning from green to yellow, to orange, to red, but the icy weather over the past few days up here in Gauteng have made me realise that things are definitely changing. Time to switch up summer salads for warm, comforting soups, lemonade for warm tea, and late dinners outside for earlier ones wrapped up nice and warmly indoors.
One of my recent favourite meals for colder evenings is today’s Creamy Mushroom Barley Risotto with Basil Pesto. It satisfies the need for comforting food whilst not leaving you feeling heavy and stuffed. Barley is a fantastic base for winter salads with lots of nourishing ingredients including roasted veggies and toasted nuts, and also pairs well with things like grilled chicken, sauteéd greens, or even poached eggs.
A Bit About Barley
Barley is the number one crop in many parts of the world and is one of the earliest domesticated crops . Interestingly enough, barley is cultivated higher on mountain slopes than any other cereal and is the most widely grown crop over a broad range of environmental conditions . It was a core ingredient for the lower class during medieval times and during the Roman Empire. Barley is pretty affordable, making it a very cost-effective ingredient in terms of nutrition and value-for-money.
Whole grain barley is a high-fibre grain that has a chewy texture and nutty flavour when cooked . Barley, like any other grain, can usually be purchased in many different forms, from unprocessed to very processed and refined. Dehulled barley is the least processed form of the grain with its bran still attached to the grain and is thus more nutritious . Pearled barley is more processed and thus has fewer micronutrients including B vitamins, but is often more commonly found on shop shelves . Having said this, pearled barley is a more nutritious option than finely pearled or quick cooking barley, so it’s not the end of the world if this is the only type of barley you can purchase.
Nutrition & Health Benefits
Although not a gluten-free grain, barley is a really great ingredient if you don’t have issues with gluten. Basically, if you have Celiac disease or any other kind of sensitivity towards gluten, then this grain isn’t for you. However, if you do not have problems with this protein, then you should be more than fine consuming barley. Barley is a high source of fibre, boasting about 13.6 g fibre per cup of cooked barley (WHOA!). High-fibre foods help keep you fuller for longer and help fight constipation by forming bulk in the GIT, assisting in the regulation of bowel movements. Barley, like oats, is unique in that it contains β-glucan, a type of fibre that has been shown to play a beneficial role in insulin resistance, high blood cholesterol, hypertension, and obesity . In fact, barley contains far more β-glucan than oats, with its content ranging from 2-20 g β-glucan per 100 g dry weight . The physiological effects of this special type of fibre are said to be attributed to its ability to absorb water and form viscous solutions at low concentrations in the upper part of the GIT, which are able to undergo fermentation in the colon . Although there have been a number of functional foods and supplements into which β-glucan has been incorporated, why not just get the fibre from its source?
The intake of whole grains and other foods high in dietary fibre have been linked to the prevention of many chronic diseases that are associated with inflammation . Many studies have shown that the consumption of whole grains is associated with a reduction in the risk of developing a number of major chronic diseases when eaten as part of a well-balanced diet . I read a very interesting article that documented a trial done by a group of researchers to determine whether or not fibre obtained from whole grains benefits gut bacteria, and if so how exactly the fibre interacts with the bacteria . The study revealed that whole grains, such as barley and brown rice, did impact gut microbial ecology by increasing microbial diversity and inducing compositional alterations that were considered to be beneficial to the host . Although the study was small and had a number of limitations, it does open the door to research in line with determining the functional role that whole grains, such as barley, can play in maintaining a healthy gut microbiome .
Barley can help benefit blood sugar level control thanks to the fact the fibre contained in the grain helps to slow down the rate of glucose absorption into the bloodstream, making it a better grain choice for diabetics or individuals with insulin resistance . Barley plays a role in maintaining a healthy cardiovascular system, with its high content of many micronutrients that have been shown to be very useful in lowering blood cholesterol, blood pressure, and a number of other risk factors associated with heart disease .
In terms of its nutritional content, 1 cup of cooked unhulled barley (which is about 1/3 cup of uncooked barley) provides :
- 217 kcal
- 1 g fat
- 45 g carbohydrates
- Of which, 10 g fibre
- 7 g protein
- 1 mg manganese (60% DV)
- 23 mg selenium (42% DV)
- 3 mg copper (34% DV)
- and a number of B vitamins
Preparation of Barley
Just like any other grain, barley can benefit from some overnight soaking to increase its digestibility, activate enzymes that break down unwanted compounds and increase its nutrient availability, and to decrease its cooking time . After soaking and rinsing, 1 cup of barley can be placed in a pot along with 2 cups of water or stock, brought to the boil, and then allowed to simmer for 30-40 minutes .
- 1 cup barley (dehulled or pearled), soaked overnight
- 1 Tbsp butter/coconut oil/olive oil
- 1/2 onion, diced
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 250 g mushrooms, sliced
- 2 tsp dried thyme
- 1 L vegetable stock
- 3/4 cup peas, defrosted if frozen
- Salt, TT
- Freshly ground black pepper, TT
- Water, as needed
- 2 Tbsp basil pesto (plus more for serving)
- Rinse and drain the barley after soaking overnight. Set aside until needed.
- Heat the butter/oil in a large saucepan or pot over a medium heat. Add the diced onion and fry until soft and translucent (5-7 minutes). Add the garlic and sliced mushrooms to the pot and sauté until the mushrooms soften and begin to brown slightly.
- Add the drained barley to the pot and toast over the heat for about 5 minutes. Add the dried thyme and vegetable stock to the pot and bring to the boil. Once boiling, turn the heat down to a simmer and leave to cook for 40 minutes, until the barley is cooked. Stir the 'risotto' every now and then to prevent burning and sticking at the bottom of the pot, and top up with water towards the end if the barley hasn't cooked 100% yet and the liquid is running out.
- Towards the last 10 minutes of cooking, add the peas to the 'risotto' and mix to combine. Allow to cook for 10 minutes along with the barley. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- When done, mix 2 Tbsp basil pesto into the 'risotto'. Plate up and enjoy 🙂
- Grate some fresh Parmesan cheese and sprinkle over the 'risotto' for a decadent twist.
- Enjoy with a fresh green salad, or add your choice of protein to make it a well-rounded meal.
References Mohammed J, Selishi S, Nega F, Lee M. Revisit to Ethiopian traditional barley-based food. J Ethn Foods. 2016;3:135-41.
 Hackett J. 2017. What is Barley? Definition, Health Info and How to Cook [Internet].The Spruce [21 Mar 2017] [cited 13 May 2017]. Available from: https://www.thespruce.com/what-is-barley-a-definition-3376829. Khoury DE, Cuda C, Luhovyy BL, Anderson GH. Beta Glucan: Health Benefits in Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome. J Nutr Metab. 2012;2012:1-28.  Walter J, Martínez I, Rose DJ. Considering the role of the gastrointestinal microbiota in the health benefits of whole grains. Gut Microbes. 2013 Jul/Aug;4(4):340-6.