(photo credit: )
When I visit my neighborhood Mexican supermarkets during this season, a display of foods for Lent always catches my eye. Prominent items are legumes, grains and dried seafood, perhaps as a reminder to abstain from meat.
Although Lent is supposed to be a time of deprivation, some of the Mexican specialties turn out quite rich, like vegetables sauteed with onions and tomatoes and baked with a cheese topping, or savory seafood cakes with pumpkin seed sauce. Armenians, on the other hand, avoid eggs and dairy foods during Lent and stick to a simpler diet of vegetables, fruits, fish and grains. Still, no matter what the restrictions, good cooks can't resist trying to make the food enjoyable, and Armenians have come up with appealing Lenten dishes such as spinach soup with cracked wheat, fish with pine nut and dill stuffing and sesame cookies enriched with tehina paste.
One food I was surprised to see among the Latin American ingredients at the Mexican market was barley. I had always associated this grain with Ashkenazi-Jewish or Russian cooking, probably because my mother put it in her cholent. But it turns out the Mexicans like it, too. Indeed, they even make it into a drink. I sampled a refreshing Mexican barley beverage, called simply agua de cebada, or barley water, at the Comida Latina expo of Latin-American specialties in Los Angeles.
Barley is tender, creamy and easy to love. Modern nutritionists encourage us to use barley, as it has special benefits. It is a very good source of fiber and, like oatmeal, is considered helpful in lowering cholesterol. In addition, it contains phosphorus, copper and manganese. It is the world's fourth largest grain crop and is used in many more regions than I had thought. I've found barley in Chinese breakfast cereals and in Korean grain mixtures served as accompaniments.
There is some controversy over where this grain originated. Many say it came from the Middle East or Ethiopia. After all, barley is mentioned in the Torah as one of the Seven Species of the Promised Land. Around the Mediterranean and the Middle East, barley was once much more widely used than it is today. Ancient Egyptians used it to make beer, and both they and the Greeks made barley into bread. It was also used for soups, stews and desserts resembling rice pudding.
Over time, wheat displaced barley in many Middle Eastern dishes. Barley bread is still baked in some areas, such as Crete and Tunisia, but it is not common today. When I tasted an old-time Assyrian stew called harissaat an Assyrian food festival, the cook told me that this longcooking meat and barley stew that is served with sugar and cinnamon is now often made with wheat instead. An Armenian Lenten red lentil soup made with rice, onions and medium-hot paprika was probably made with barley in the past, as rice is not native to the region.
Many of us are familiar with mushroom and barley soup, a Russian-Ashkenazi specialty that has become an Israeli favorite, yet there are many other soups featuring barley. Armenians make chickpea soup with barley and fried onions. According to Claudia M. Caruana, author of Taste of Malta(Hippocrene, 1998), cooks on that island prepare a savory spinach soup with barley, onion and garlic sauteed in olive oil, carrots and dill. Normally it has lamb but of course, the meat would be omitted for Lent. Chaldeans also combine greens and barley, cooking them as a chard and barley stew with tomatoes, green peppers and onions. Julia Najor, who wrote Babylonian Cuisine(Vantage, 1981), creates a lavish vegetarian entree by stirring tehina or peanut butter into the stew at the last minute.
Paula Wolfert, author of Mediterranean Grains & Greens(HarperCollins, 1998), writes that Tunisians turn barley into couscous and bulgur. And according to Diane Kochilas, author of The Glorious Foods of Greece(Morrow, 2001), Greeks make sweet barley breakfast biscuits enriched with olive oil.
Barley is also good in salads. I made barley tabbouleh by substituting it for the traditional bulgur, and I included it in my book, 1,000 Jewish Recipes. Since then I've seen variations of the recipe in publications devoted to light cooking.
Kay Shaw Nelson makes a barley mushroom casserole flavored with sauteed onion, carrots and fresh coriander in Cuisines of the Caucasus Mountains (Hippocrene, 2002). In that region, she wrote, barley is used in stuffings and "is a common accompaniment for fish, meat or poultry." To reap the benefits of this nutritious, biblical grain more often, this custom is worth following in the land of the Bible.
TOMATO BARLEY SOUP WITH PEPPERS
Peppers and dill lend a delicate aroma and taste to this colorful and healthy vegetable soup. Barley thickens soups considerably as it stands. If you're making this soup ahead, add water when you reheat it to get the consistency you like.
2 Tbsp. olive oil or vegetable oil
1 large onion, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 celery ribs, diced
a 400-gram can tomatoes, drained and diced
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth or water
1 /2 cup pearl barley
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 green peppers, diced
1 1 /2 cups green beans, cut in thirds, or 1 cup green peas
2 zucchini or pale-green-skinned squash, diced
1 /2tsp. ground allspice (optional)
1 to 2 Tbsp. chopped dill or 1 to 2 tsp. dried
Heat oil in a large saucepan, add onion and saute over medium heat for 7 minutes or until light golden. Add carrots and celery and saute for 2 minutes. Add tomatoes, broth and 2 cups water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low. Add barley, salt and pepper. Cover and cook for 30 minutes.
If soup is too thick, add 1 cup hot water. Add peppers, green beans, zucchini and allspice and cook for 15 more minutes or until barley and vegetables are tender. Stir in dill. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast(HarperCollins).