Barley Pilaf with Butternut & Fennel: One Recipe, Three Ways

’Dja ever look in your fridge and find a, well, motley assortment of vegetables? Ones that kinda might go together, but kinda might combine into something you’d never want to eat? This is what I faced yesterday:

  • half a butternut squash
  • one fennel bulb
  • carrots
  • celery
  • a giant head of cauliflower
  • broccoli
  • parsnips
  • rosemary, thyme, parsley

With the exception of the cauliflower and broccoli, all were remnants from Tuesday morning, the last session of my cooking class, Parents Need to Eat Too, in which we talked about Nap-Time Cooking and made Vegetable Couscous. Which meant that I wasn’t in the mood for the obvious stew-type concoction. So I did something I generally don’t recommend: I just started cooking.

I pulled out the butternut, the fennel, and the rosemary and left everything else behind—a vision was forming, wispy strips of fennel, gently caramelized until they practically melt, plus little cubes of bright orange squash, soft but still substantial, and a hint of rosemary’s piney flavor. I added a thinly sliced onion for good measure, and only when they were all in the pan did I bother to consider how exactly I would use these vegetables. I didn’t have any meat on hand, so this would have to form a vegetarian main course. A quick rummage through the grain shelf of my pantry yielded possibilities: quinoa, farro, wheatberries, brown rice, barley. You’ve probably guessed that I went with barley.

Right out of the pan, this pilaf was fantastic—autumnal, rich, soft, and chewy. I ate two small bowlfuls before Stephen even came home. But I was worried that it wasn’t going to be enough on its own; compulsively eatable as it was, it still felt like more of a side. If I added a quart more broth, it would make a lovely soup—but I wasn’t in the mood for soup. So, into a baking dish it went, blanketed with shredded Gruyere. Twenty minutes later, I pulled from the oven a Butternut Barley Casserole. Yowza, it was good. That salty layer of gooey, lightly browned cheese… Don’t get me started or this’ll turn downright pornographic.

So, one recipe, three options: Side, Soup, or Main. Not too shabby for a cook-first, think-second situation. And as a bonus for the new parents out there, this is a prime candidate for Nap-Time Cooking. Prep all the vegetables during nap 1, sauté them during nap 2, and add the barley during nap 3. (If you’re making the soup or casserole you’ll have to reconfigure that a bit, but you get the idea.)

Barley Pilaf with Butternut & Fennel
Serves 6 as a side

A few glugs of olive oil
1 large onion, cut in half and sliced into very thin half-moons
1 bulb fennel, stalks and core trimmed and discarded, cut in half and very thinly sliced
½ of a medium-large butternut squash, peeled and cut into ¼-inch dice
1 cup barley
2 teaspoons rosemary, finely chopped
3 cups your choice of liquid: vegetable or chicken broth, water, or a combo

Heat the olive oil in your largest skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and fennel, sprinkle with salt, and reduce heat to medium-low. You barely want to hear a sizzle—the idea here is to let them cook slowly and gently. Stir occasionally until the vegetables are quite soft and beginning to turn golden, about 20 minutes, then add the squash and a little more salt. Let that cook another 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the squash is just barely tender.

Add the barley and sauté for a minute or two more, then add the rosemary and the liquid. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook, covered and undisturbed, for 30-40 minutes. If your barley is tender but there’s still a considerable amount of liquid, leave the lid ajar and cook until it’s mostly evaporated—you’re looking for a consistency just a bit dryer than risotto. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Butternut Barley Casserole
Serves 4

To the above recipe, add:
¾ cup shredded Gruyere cheese (feel free to use more or less, depending on how much you like cheese)

Preheat oven to 350. Coat a rectangular baking dish with cooking spray and set aside.

Instead of cooking until all the liquid has evaporated, pull it off the heat when the barley is just tender but still has some bite. Pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish and if you’re a real cheese lover, mix in some of the Gruyere. If you’re not (and I’m definitely not), skip that step and just sprinkle the cheese on top.

Bake for 20-30 minutes, until the cheese is bubbling and lightly browned.

Barley Soup with Butternut & Fennel
Serves 6

To the pilaf recipe, add an additional quart of liquid. Cooking time will remain the same. If you like, top bowls with a little shredded Gruyere.