With the exception of rice and perhaps oats, I used to have a hard time getting behind whole cooked grains as anything other than soup filler. Wheat berries? Get'em out of my face. Farro? I'd prefer them toasted and popped into Sugar Smacks, please. The reality, as it so often turns out, was that I actually just had a hard time getting behind poorly cooked whole grains.
Trouble with whole grains is that they don't soften the same way that, say, white rice does. They jump almost immediately from being rubbery and hard to blown out and mushy. In certain contexts, say, a good Short Rib and Barley Stew (recipe here), I don't mind that blown out texture. I enjoy the softness of overly-hydrated barley grains in soup. On their own? That's a different story.
The best way I've discovered to get grains with perfectly tender but not-overcooked texture is to par-boil them in a pot of water until nearly done, then let them cool down in the liquid. As the water cools, the grains continue to hydrate, but they don't continue to cook, leaving them plump, but intact.
Want to get a bit more flavor into them? Try treating them a bit like fried rice. Drain the cooked grains, let'em dry out a bit, then stir-fry them with a few flavorful ingredients. In this case, we're in the middle of ramp season (and yeah, enough about the ramps already, right?), so I went with a handful of the sliced bulbs and leaves. The ramps flavor the oil (or butter, or whatever fat you cook them in), which in turn coats the grains, packing them with flavor. A handful of baby spinach leaves are a bright and tasty addition to the mix.
To top it off? I'm a huge fan of the sweet baby carrots that start showing up in early spring. The easiest way to cook them is to throw them in a pan with a bit of salt and sugar and a pat of butter and throw them over a burner. As the water reduces, the carrots cook, and if all goes well, they end up completely tender just as the liquid reduces to a saucy glaze which not only coats the 'rots, but gives you some flavorful juice to soak into your barley. A dash of orange juice and zest in the glazing liquid adds brightness to the mix, while a handful of toasted almonds adds crunch and completes the dish.
This is one of my favorite vegetarian meals in recent memory, and the stir-fried barley technique is one that I'll definitely be making extensive use of in the future.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.