Why It Works
- Dry-toasting barley gives it a subtle bitterness, and pleasantly nutty aroma.
- Kombu, simmered with the grains, provides savoriness and salinity without the need for additional salt.
- Roasted pumpkin seeds lend crunch and complementary nuttiness to the salad.
This warm grain salad of deeply toasted barley with savory kombu and crunchy roasted pumpkin seeds is a nod to my deep love for nurungji, a Korean rice porridge made by loosening burnt grains of rice stuck to the bottom of the pot with hot water. It's also influenced by my lifelong long for boricha, Korean toasted barley tea, which is so flavorful that sometimes I think I'm sipping on a rich broth rather than a grain-based infusion.
For this dish, hulled barley is toasted in a dry saucepan until it lightly puffs and takes on a deep, nutty aroma. The barley is then simply simmered in water with a few pieces of kombu. The natural salinity and savoriness of the dried kelp is the only seasoning for this dish, along with salt from roasted pumpkin seeds, which are folded into the barley before serving. The kombu itself is fished out of the pot once the barley is just cooked through, cut into small pieces, and stirred back in with the grains, pepitas, and a splash of olive oil.
This dish is an exercise in seasoning restraint. Chefs and home cooks are often taught to season everything they touch with salt. Here, I pull back on seasoning and rely just on the oceanic savoriness of simmered kombu, the smokiness of slow-toasted grains, the nuttiness of pepitas, and the subtle pepperiness of olive oil.
The light touch with seasoning is intentional, as this salad is meant to be enjoyed as a component of a larger meal, alongside more assertively flavored dishes. My chef mentor, Sohui Kim, taught me the importance of balancing the flavors of a large meal when I was learning how to make the wide variety of banchan served at her Brooklyn restaurant, Insa. If the table was filled with too many dishes that were strongly seasoned with acid, heat, salt, fat, and sweetness, she said diners would quickly succumb to palate fatigue before finishing their meal. Chef Kim impressed upon me that eating a Korean meal should feel like a dance, and each dish on the table needs to be in harmony with the other plates, complementing and balancing one another. So whether you are making this barley salad as part of a weeknight dinner or as part of a holiday feast, think of it as a dish that brings balance to your table.
- 1 cup (200g) hulled barley
- 1 ounce (28g) kombu (about four 4- by 8-inch pieces)
- ½ cup (56g) store-bought or homemade roasted and salted pumpkin seeds (a.k.a. pepitas)
- 3 tablespoons (45ml) extra-virgin olive oil (see note)
In a dry 3-quart saucepan, toast barley over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until the barley turns deep golden brown, puffs slightly, and takes on a deep, nutty aroma, about 10 minutes.
Add kombu and 3 cups (710ml) water to saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Adjust heat to maintain a simmer, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the water has been absorbed, barley is just cooked through but still firm, and kombu is softened, 15 to 20 minutes.
Remove saucepan from heat, use tongs to transfer kombu to cutting board, and set saucepan aside to allow barley to cool in remaining cooking liquid.
Using a sharp knife, cut kombu into 1/2-inch pieces. Fold kombu pieces back into the barley, along with pumpkin seeds and olive oil. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, if necessary. Divide between individual small serving bowls and serve; the barley can be served warm or at room temperature. If not serving right away, barley can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days; bring to room temperature before serving.
For best results, use a mild-flavored olive oil that won't overwhelm the flavors of the toasted barley and kombu.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Barley salad can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days; bring to room temperature before serving.