My Mom always made the most amazing stews. In fact, my Dad bought her one of those special clay pots that were so popular back in the 1970’s, and she used to love using it. Mom often put pearl barley in her stews, both to ‘stretch’ the meat and to give the stew flavour. I loved it – pearl barley has such a wonderful, nutty texture and gives stews such lovely body and flavour. It’s also very good for you – high in fibre – a kind that can help lower cholesterol – and also nutrients like niacin.
But when I made this stew last week, it was the first time ever that I had cooked with pearl barley. Whenever I looked at packages of it on the shelves of the grocery stores here in England, the instructions were really daunting. “Wash thoroughly” and “boil for 45 to an hour”. It was a far cry from watching my Mom tip a half cup of pearl barley into the stew and just cook it in there. Was barley different here? I wasn’t sure, but I was intimidated enough not to use it.
Last week though, I wanted to make a Guinness stew in honour of St Patrick’s Day, and I really wanted to add pearl barley to it. So I screwed up my courage, rinsed the barley as directed, but popped it into the stew at the beginning of cooking and hoped for the best.
It was wonderful – my whole family loved it – and I will definitely be using pearl barley regularly from now on. So whether you love pearl barley and use it all the time, or have never even tried it, this is the stew for you. Rich and hearty, with a great flavour, it is really good for you too. All the alcohol in the beer cooks off during the long stewing time, but if you are worried about it, you can just use extra beef stock – although the flavour will not be exactly the same. I used Guinness in honour of St Patrick’s Day, but any full bodied stout or ale would be fine. And I don’t eat lamb, but I am sure that if you do, it would work just fine in here too.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and finely sliced
1 lb chuck steak, cut in chunks roughly 1 inch square
generous half cup pearl barley, rinsed
1 and a half cups Guinness
2 cups beef stock (you may need a bit more)
2 to 3 cups root vegetables of your choice (carrots, parsnips, turnips etc), peeled and cut in chunks (I used all parsnips this time)
1 large bay leaf or two small
good twist of ground pepper
1 tablespoon of tomato puree or sun-dried tomato paste, optional
½ cup frozen peas
1 tablespoon cornflour mixed with a bit of water if necessary
(you may not need this)
Preheat the oven to about 350℉ (or about 170℃ – 150℃ for a fan oven). You need an oven safe casserole with a lid that you can also use on the stove top. (I use a Le Creuset casserole.) Or you can use a large frying pan for the first part, and transfer everything to a casserole with a lid before you put it in the oven.
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in an oven safe casserole with a lid that you can also use on the stove top. Sauté the onion until it begins to look translucent.
Add the beef and brown it in the oniony oil. When the beef has begun to brown, stir in the barley and let it get coated in the oil too. Now add the beer and the stock and stir though. Stir in the tomato puree, if using.
Tip in the vegetables, add the bay leaf and pepper, stir everything together and put on the lid. Place in the oven for an hour and a half, stirring every half hour, and adding more stock if needed. Keep the heat nice a low, you want to cook long and slow. You can turn the heat back if it seems too fierce.
Remove the casserole from the oven, and take out the bay leaf. Add the peas, and a bit more stock if necessary. However, if the sauce seems too runny, you can stir in the cornflour and water at this point to thicken it up. Put the lid back on the pan and return it to the oven for about 15 minutes, just to cook the peas and bring everything together.
Serve in warmed bowls with a basket of rolls on the side to mop up the juices. A small glass of the beer you used in the stew makes a great drink for the grown ups to enjoy alongside.