Party on, barley

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Barley gets drunk. That's not cruel locker-room graffiti, but true. Of the vast barley fields of the earth, much of the grain is destined to be harvested, sprouted and dried into malt, which in turn will be turned into beer, Scotch whisky and the occasional malted milkshake.

Barley's bristly profile and burley name adorn not just the ancient coin and crest, but the modern barroom, beer hall and brew joint. Barley means party.

Still, you don't pal around with the most successful cereals — corn, wheat and rice — without harboring some serious aspirations. Barley once fed much of the world. Now it feeds the world's livestock. Barley ranks as the No. 4 grain crop, a fact of no surprise to the scholar or schoolgirl who remembers that "barn" comes from "barley house." Barley lurks out there as one of the pillars of civilization, barely attracting attention.

Even the attention of the home cook. Barley might thicken a stew or do its lumpy best to hold together mushroom soup. It rarely stars in its own dish. Even its own side dish.

An injustice worthy of reconciliation. Barley has a toasty taste, a chewy texture and a satisfying finish that is welcome alongside roasted meat, paired with the steamy vegetable or bearing up under sauce. It's so good, it's even welcome at a party. On a plate.

Barley

Prep: 30 minutes
Bake: 50 minutes
Serves: 6 as a side dish

Ingredients:
1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
2-3 cups beef broth, hot
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus some for buttering casserole
8 ounces white mushrooms, quartered
1 onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons port wine
1 cup pearl barley

Soak:
Tumble dried porcini mushrooms into a small bowl. Pour in hot water to cover (you may need to weight down the mushrooms with a teacup to keep them submerged). Let soak about 10 minutes.

Filter:
Pull mushrooms from their soaking liquid. Rinse thoroughly and chop finely. Pour soaking liquid through a coffee filter (to strain out any grit). Add strained liquid to the hot broth.

Sizzle:
Heat butter in a large skillet set over medium-high heat. Add white mushrooms and onion. Season with the salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions and mushrooms glow golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and chopped porcini mushrooms, stir 1 minute. De-glaze with port. Stir in barley.

Bake:
Scrape barley mixture into a buttered casserole or other oven-safe baking dish. Pour in hot broth just to cover. Cover tightly with lid or foil. Slide into a 350-degree oven and bake until broth has been absorbed and barley is puffed and tender, about 50 minutes. Serve hot. Goes nicely with roast meat.

Leah Eskin is a Tribune special contributor e-mail her at leahreskin@aol.com
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