Mushroom and Barley Salad
There are times when I get home from work absolutely starving, with that haunted “so hungry…might perish” expression on my face, but have nothing pre-planned for dinner. Sometimes I can work with what I’ve got, pulling out chicken thighs or kielbasa and whipping a basic starch-and-two-veg or pasta dinner together . Other times, when life has got in the way of grocery shopping, and all that is left in the fridge is some almost-past-due cheese and half a pitted cantaloupe, one needs a bit more creativity. And, hopefully, a well stocked pantry.
Truth be told, those days are kind of my favorite. I like the challenge…the culinary stretch…I like wandering around my kitchen muttering about how, “I must use each ingredient in the mystery basket…but I have full access to the pantry…” like a contestant on Chopped. Dorky, I know, but we all have our little games.
This week, things were looking a little bit rough. The only vegetable produce I had left were a couple flats of aging king oyster mushrooms that I had lost enthusiasm for the previous week, and an only slightly wilted bunch of flat leaf parsley. Oh, and a slightly shrivelled lemon that was too pitiful looking to even make it into the ingredient picture. I do have some pride, you know. Not much, but a little bit.
Anyway, the point is that I had to work with what I had, and it turned out to be a surprisingly wholesome and satisfying mushroom and barley salad that I would totally make again. It was spiked with nutty, toasted walnuts and the fresh crispness of peppery parsley, balanced against the buttery mushrooms and chewy barley. Taste, texture, and nutrition…check, check and check. Overall, not bad for half an hour and a desolate looking fridge!
Mushroom and Barley Salad
- 1 cup pearl barley
- 1 bay leaf, optional
- 1 lb (~500 g) king oyster mushrooms *
- 3/4 cup walnut chunks
- 1 tbsp grainy mustard
- 5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided
- juice of 1/2 lemon (~ 1.5 tbsp)
- 2 tsp sherry vinegar
- 2 tsp honey
- 1/4 cup coarsely chopped sundried tomatoes, oil packed **
- large handful fresh parsley (~ 1/2 cup chopped and loosely packed)
- salt, to taste
* King oyster mushrooms are my current favorite. I love the slightly sweet, buttery flavor and meaty texture. However, any light colored mushroom that isn’t particularly overbearing (regular oyster mushroom, chanterelle, even cheap and cheerful white button mushroom) would be perfectly fine.
** I prefer oil packed sundried tomatoes for the full flavor and chewy texture. However, if dried is all that you’ve got, rehydrate the tomatoes in boiling water for about 5-10 minutes, until they are softened but not mushy.
Rinse the barley under cold running water for 30 seconds. Put the barley in a medium pot with the bay leaf (if using) and cover with at least 2 inches of water. Salt the water well, as if you were making pasta.
There are many ways to cook barley, including a longer slow simmer, but I like the simplicity of cooking the barley for this salad the same way that I cook rice. Simply bring the water to a rolling boil and then cover the pot with a tight fitting lid, turn the heat down to minimum, and let the barley continue cooking for approximately 20 minutes until it is tender but still has a teensy bit of chew.
While the barley cooks, chop the mushrooms into chunks of approximately even size. Heat two (2) tablespoons of the oil over medium high heat. When it is shimmering, add the mushrooms and toss to coat. Let the mushrooms saute, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and scorching, until they are tender and a gorgeous, caramelized golden brown in spots.
Toast the walnuts until they are darkened in color and richly fragrant. If you have the oven going for something else, simply spread them on a cookie sheet and keep a close eye on the pan because they will toast up quickly and then scorch if you’re not careful. If not, you can simply toast the walnuts in a dry skillet set over medium high heat, shaking it occasionally to stir them around.
Whisk together the mustard, remaining three (3) tablespoons of oil, lemon juice, vinegar and honey. Season the dressing with salt, to taste.
Discard the parsley stems and coarsely chop the leaves.
When the barley has cooked, drain the grains in a colander or fine mesh sieve and then rinse them under cold running water to stop the cooking and remove some of the starch. Discard the bay leaf.
Put the barley in a mixing bowl along with the mushrooms and chopped sundried tomatoes. Pour the dressing over top and toss to combine. Check the seasoning and adjust the salt as you see fit.
Stir in the parsley and walnuts immediately before serving the salad so that the herbs are still verdant and crisp, and the walnuts don’t get soggy.
In retrospect, a quick grating of lemon zest into the dressing and a few curls of fresh Parmigiana Reggiano wouldn’t have been amiss, but hey, you work with what you’ve got. Next time, guys. Next time.