Pearl barley is a wonderful base for a substantial salad: satisfyingly chewy with a slightly woody taste… in a good sense. This salad takes a little forethought but, in the end, not a lot of time, and it can be flavoured with just about anything. The essentials for me are browned onions, fresh thyme and capers. But in fact you can add whatever grabs you. Here’s one version.
Pearl barley – 200g
Red and/or yellow (bell) pepper – 2 medium
Smoked fish (salmon or herring) – to taste
Cherry tomatoes – about 30
Capers, salted – 1 tbsp
Fresh thyme – large-ish bunch
Onion – 1 large
Garlic – 2 cloves
Olive oil – to taste
Cut your cherry tomatoes in half and place them on a baking tray, cut-side-down. Drizzle them with a little olive oil and grind some black pepper over them. Strip the tiny leaves from about one third of your thyme and sprinkle them on top. Then place the tray in the oven at 180°C and let the tomatoes dry out, until the juice they have run is bubbling in slightly caramelised (not burnt!) fashion around them on the tray – about half an hour or 40 minutes should do. Turn the oven off and leave the tomatoes in there until you need them.
At the same time bring a small saucepan of water to the boil, pour in the well rinsed barley, and cook it at a gentle boil for about 20 minutes. Taste it from time to time while it’s cooking because different barleys cook at different rates. The result you’re looking for is still firm but cooked through: it will kind-of-squeak against your teeth. Strain the barley, rinse it under the cold tap and place it in the serving bowl which, by this stage, should already have various other ingredients in it (see below). If it doesn’t (or even if it does), stir in just enough olive oil to make sure the barley grains don’t stick to each other.
While all this is going on, peel a large onion and cut it in half, then slice the halves very very thinly. Peel and mince a couple of cloves of garlic. Pour a little oil into a frying pan, get it nice and hot, then cook the onions and garlic over a medium heat. Don’t stir them too much: the salad is tastier if you leave the onions to brown at the edges, move them round before they start burning, then leave them to brown again… several times. When they look just right, add them to the serving bowl, leaving any excess cooking oil in the frying pan.
Because you’re now going to fry the peppers, which you will have sliced lengthways into beautiful thin strips. Fry these over a lively heat for ten minutes or so. Again, a little browning around the edges will improve the flavour of the salad. When they’re ready, add them to the serving bowl.
How much and what fish you use (or if you use fish at all; feta cheese is also an option) is entirely a matter of taste. If it’s salmon, slice it roughly and add it to the bowl. If it’s smoked herring, I recommend rinsing it very well to remove some of the salt and slicing it with a sharp knife into very small thin pieces, otherwise it will overwhelm all the other flavours.
Now add any remaining ingredients to the bowl: the capers (salted preferably, with the salt rinsed off under copious running water), the thyme leaves and of course the tomatoes which are alarmingly easy to forget in the oven: I have found them looking sad and shrivelled there the next morning on several occasions. If necessary, add more olive oil to the mix.
At this point, the salad will probably be lukewarm, which is a good thing in that a little heat will help the flavours blend together well. Leave it until it’s cool enough to put in the fridge, then serve it cold.