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Much as I like white rice, it’s tricky to cook. Not so with barley, which has become the new white rice for me. It has a heartier texture and rich, wheaty flavor, and stands up to rich curries, stews and roasts.

Barley grows well in our region and is harvested for food, animal forage and malt, which is used to make beer, whiskey, vinegar and more. Many cooks overlook barley, though it’s versatile, nutritious, inexpensive and widely available. As important, it’s easy to cook and leftovers store well.

Barley is a glutinous grain that can be used to thicken soups and stews and to replace rice in risotto. Barley flour makes a dense, chewy bread. Rolled barley is a hearty alternative to oatmeal. In England, barley tea, made by simmering the toasted grain in lots of water, is a popular iced summertime drink; sweetened with honey, it’s a warming winter brew.

Sometimes called groats, barley is sold several ways. Pearl barley, the most widely available, is also the most popular. Extensive processing removes the two outer hulls along with the bran, leaving ivory-colored grains that are lower in fiber than other varieties. Pearl barley takes about 25 to 35 minutes to cook.

The bran layer remains intact for either hulled or whole-wheat barley, where only the outer hull is removed. These are high in fiber and nutrients, but require a longer cooking time than pearl barley, at least 45 to 50 minutes.

Quick barley is pearl barley that has been steamed and then dried; it cooks in less than 15 minutes and has the least fiber, nutrients and flavor.

Barley is especially good with mushrooms or earthy root vegetables in the fall and winter. Come spring, it works well with peas, spinach and tomatoes.

In risotto recipes, pearl barley is far less temperamental than Arborio rice. Unlike a traditional risotto that requires constant stirring with judicious additions of warm stock, with pearl barley it essentially cooks on its own with an occasional stir.

The barley risotto keeps so well that you can make a large batch of the basic recipe and then top it with different ingredients throughout the week. Leftovers also make easy risotto cakes. Just shape the cooked barley into patties and sauté in a little butter or olive oil, then top with whatever you please. These are good for breakfast topped with a fried egg or butter and maple syrup.

Barley Risotto with Roast Cherry Tomatoes

Serves 4 to 6.

Note: This is the easiest risotto to make. No need to hover over the pot, stirring and adding hot stock. Simply pull it all together and give it a stir or two as it simmers away to become creamy and rich. Roasted cherry tomatoes make this a bright, pretty dish. From Beth Dooley.

• 1 tbsp. olive oil

• 1/4 c. chopped shallots

• 1 small yellow onion, chopped

• 1/2 c. dry white wine

• 1 tbsp. fresh thyme

• 1 c. pearl barley

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper

• 5 to 6 c. chicken or vegetable stock

• Pan-Roasted Cherry Tomatoes and Olives (see recipe)

Directions

Heat the oil in a large, heavy stockpot over medium heat. Add the shallots and onion, and sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the wine and thyme, and stir until the wine is nearly evaporated. Stir in the barley, season with salt and pepper, and then add 4 cups of the stock. Reduce the heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the barley is almost tender, about 25 minutes.

Stir in another cup of stock and continue cooking and stirring, adding more stock if it seems too dry. Continue cooking until the barley is tender and creamy, another 5 to 10 minutes. Serve topped with the roasted cherry tomatoes.

Nutrition information per each of 6 servings with tomatoes:

Calories 230 Fat 7 g Sodium 200 mg

Carbohydrates 35 g Saturated fat 1 g Total sugars 4 g

Protein 8 g Cholesterol 0 mg Dietary fiber 7 g

Exchanges per serving: 1 vegetable, 2 starch, 1 ½ fat.

Pan-Roasted Cherry Tomatoes and Olives

Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

Note: From Beth Dooley.

• 1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

• 2 c. cherry tomatoes, sliced in half

• 1 shallot, diced

• 2 tsp. balsamic vinegar

• 1/2 c. sliced kalamata olives

• 2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

Film a medium skillet with the oil and set over medium heat.

Add the tomatoes and shallot, and sauté until the tomatoes wilt and the shallots become tender, about 5 minutes.

Toss in the vinegar, olives and parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve on the risotto.

Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.