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Cooking: Barley—The Original Passover Offering
by Tina D. Wasserman

Before 70 C.E.—the year of the destruction of the Second Temple—Jews associated Passover not with matzah, but with barley, as the holiday was celebrated as a pilgrimage festival at the beginning of the barley harvest. Newly harvested barley could not be eaten until the first sheaves of grain were offered as a tithe to the Temple in Jerusalem on the second day of Pesach, which was then known as Hag Ha-Aviv (the holiday of spring). As Leviticus 23:10-11 states, “When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest. He shall elevate the sheaf before the Lord for acceptance on your behalf.” Barley then served as the mainstay of the Jews’ diet because of the plant’s adaptability in Israel’s different climates and its resistance to dry desert heat. With God’s blessing, new barley crops would survive bad weather and thrive, averting famine in the land.

Ironically, the rabbis later categorized barley as one of the five chametz grains (along with wheat, spelt, rye, and oats) that were not kosher for Pesach!

This spring, after Passover, enjoy the following barley recipes. However, if you decide to cook this chametz during Pesach instead, know that you’re siding with the biblical rather than the rabbinic tradition.

Eat in good health!

Spring Barley Risotto with Asparagus and Lemon

This recipe is more nutritious than typical risotto and has that same risotto consistency, plus the natural starch in the barley grain adds creaminess to the dish. The use of saffron mimics the classic Risotto Milanese, which some connect to the Venetian Jewish community.

2 3⁄4 cups vegetable broth or water and 1 vegetable bouillon cube
1⁄8 teaspoon saffron threads, slightly crumbled
10 mediumasparagus stalks, tough ends removed
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, diced into 1⁄4 inch dice
2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
1 cup pearled barley
1⁄2 cup white wine, Sauvignon Blanc or Viognier
1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
15 grindings of black pepper, or to taste
Finely grated zest from 1⁄2 lemon (about 1 teaspoon)
1⁄2–3⁄4 cup grated fresh Parrano or Parmesan cheese
1⁄4 cup toasted, slivered almonds (1 Tablespoon removed for garnish)

  1. Combine the broth and the crushed saffron threads in a 1-quart pot and bring to a simmer.

  2. Meanwhile, cut the asparagus stalks on a diagonal into 1⁄2-inch pieces, reserving 11⁄2 inches
    of the tip.

  3. When the liquid is simmering, drop in the asparagus stalk pieces and blanch for 2 minutes, until they’re bright green and slightly tender. Using a slotted spoon, transfer them to a small glass bowl. Add the tips to the broth and cook for 1 minute, then remove from the broth and set aside.

  4. Keep the broth warm over low heat while you prepare the barley.

  5. Heat a 3-quart saucepan over high heat for 10 seconds. Add the extra virgin olive oil and heat for another 10 seconds. Mix in the onion and garlic and reduce the heat to medium. Sauté the mixture for about 4 minutes, until the onions and garlic are slightly golden.

  6. Add the barley and stir to coat.

  7. Pour in the wine, stirring constantly until it is absorbed.

  8. Add all of the simmering broth, stir, then cover and reduce the heat to low. Stirring the mixture every 5 minutes or so to prevent sticking and burning, cook for 30–35 minutes, until the barley is tender. If all of the liquid has been absorbed and the barley appears too hard and/or dry, add another 1⁄4 cup of water and cook for 5 more minutes.

  9. Remove the pot from the heat. Stir in the salt, pepper, and lemon zest until well combined.

  10. Gently stir the grated cheese into the mixture. When it is evenly distributed and melted, add the almonds and the reserved asparagus pieces minus 5 asparagus tips.

  11. Immediately serve the barley risotto in a dish garnished with the reserved Tablespoon of almonds and the 5 asparagus tips. Serves 4 as an entrée or 6-8 as a side dish.

Tina’s Tidbit:

  • If you want an even richer consistency to any hot barley dish, add 1–2 Tablespoons of unsalted butter to the hot barley mixture before serving.

Summer Barley Salad

One summer I created this recipe combining herbs in my garden with store produce. To make the salad more substantial, I used pearled barley as a chewy base. The herb Mexican mint marigold tastes like tarragon and pairs well with tarragon vinegar. If these ingredients are not available, you can substitute basil and sweet balsamic vinegar.

2 cups of water or low salt vegetable broth
1⁄2 cup pearled barley
1⁄2 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 medium cucumbers
1 medium crookneck squash
1 medium zucchini
2 scallions

1⁄2 cup mayonnaise
1 clove of garlic, finely minced
1–2 Tablespoons tarragon vinegar or balsamic vinegar
1⁄4 cup finely chopped fresh tarragon, Mexican mint marigold, or basil
Finely grated zest of 1⁄4 lemon
Pinch of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Watercress or arugula for garnish

  1. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil and stir in the barley. Simmer, partially covered, for 25 minutes, or until tender. Drain and set aside in a medium bowl.

  2. Toss the barley with the olive oil.

  3. Peel, seed, and cut cucumbers into 1⁄4-inch dice.

  4. Cut the squash and the zucchini into 1⁄4-inch dice. Blanch for 2 minutes in boiling salted water. Drain and run under cold water. Drain again.

  5. Trim 1 inch off the green ends of the scallions, then cut into 1⁄4-inch lengths.

  6. Mix the mayonnaise in a small bowl to make a smooth sauce. Add the remaining dressing ingredients, stirring to combine.

  7. Mix the barley, squash, zucchini, and scallions in a bowl with the dressing.

  8. Pour the mixture into a serving bowl. Garnish with watercress or arugula leaves and serve.
    Serves 4–6.

Tina’s Tidbit:

  • Blanching vegetables for a short period of time not only softens them slightly, but brings out their natural sweetness and color.

Tina D. Wasserman, a member of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, is the author of the new URJ Press book,
Entree to Judaism. She also teaches at her own cooking school, writes a kosher cooking newsletter on the Internet, and serves as a culinary scholar-in-residence throughout the U.S.

To Learn More

For answers to your cooking questions, email AskTina@urj,org.


Union for Reform Judaism.