no recipe barley salad

A few months ago I stumbled across this quote from Andrew Sullivan, senior editor at The Atlantic. It perfectly captures what I like about blogging, and by extension, cooking. He says that “blogging is to writing what extreme sports are to athletics. More free-form, more accident-prone, less formal, more alive. Blogging is writing out loud.”

Though I love to follow an elegantly-written recipe, free-form cooking offers thrills I just can’t resist from time to time. Just like extreme sports, it’s more accident prone (What if I over spice? What if the flavors don’t mix?), less formal (a pinch of this a handful of that), more alive. It’s not the product of another’s experimentation, but a process—a story—of your very own.



Spontaneous cooking is sexy. Watching anyone at home in their trade shows this ease of skill, this compelling deftness. A lemon is juiced over a salad glistening with oil. The heel of hands push into soft dough. To cook this way is to be attuned to the senses.

I’ve just returned to Syracuse from almost a month at home in Winnipeg. Spending winter break there is always wonderful, but requires it’s share of adjustments. Life, and eating, is so different there than it is ’round here on our own: There is more accountability. There is more time spent in cars. There is a whole lot more food.

barley salad

Don’t get me wrong, I loved every minute of it. Every eggnog-soaked, shortbread-cookie stacked second. Waking up to my mom’s poppyseed buns swirled with sticky black seeds. Eating proper lunches every day. Multiple-dish dinners followed by trays of sugar and butter, dressed up ten or more different ways. Love shown in joyful food preparation.

A journey back into that world always makes me thankful to return to my own kitchen, in control of what and how I eat. Sure, it’s more work. Sure, it’s not as scrumptiously lazy. But my heart did jump last night when Mark accepted a dinner invite and offered to bring a salad. I was on it. I couldn’t wait to get my hands back on my food.


I put that urge together with some barley, a roasted acorn squash, an apple, some chickpeas, toasted walnuts, cilantro, currants, and other random cupboard samplings. The salad morphed and changed at my fingertips as I pinched and dashed, sprinkled and salted. Then I stepped back. My probably-not-perfect barley salad just stared back. But in a way, around a small table in very snowy Syracuse, it was perfect.

Free-Form Barley Salad

serves 6 as a side

Staying true to the free-form cooking approach, feel free to substitute to your heart’s desire. That’s what this salad is all about. Use quinoa in place of the barley, black-eyed peas instead of the chickpeas, craisins instead of currants, and whatever oils and vinegars are inspiring you in that moment. This salad is all about the spirit of “a little of this and a little of that.” This, however, is what I did.

1 cup barley
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
1 medium-sized acorn squash
olive oil
chili paste or hot sauce
maple syrup
1 can chickpeas (or 2 cups home-cooked), drained
1 small red onion, sliced
1 red apple of your choice, chopped
handful of currants or raisins
1 T sherry vinegar
1 T apple cider vinegar
1 T walnut oil (or any other oil, but walnut is particularly good for you!)
half a lemon, juiced
1 tsp cumin
red pepper flakes
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
handful of toasted walnuts

  1. Rinse the barley, add the water, cinnamon stick and bay leaf, and bring to boil in a medium saucepan. Reduce heat and simmer for 25-30 minutes until the barley is the consistency you like. Drain any excess water and set aside to cool.
  2. Preheat oven to 350. Cut the acorn squash crosswise and scoop out the seeds and stringy bits. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Place cut side down on a baking sheet and roast for 30 minutes. Remove from oven, fill cavity half full with maple syrup and chili paste (mix it all up in there), and return to the oven for another 15 minutes. Remove and let cool.
  3. In a large bowl, combine the cooked barley, chickpeas, onion, chopped apple, and currants. When the squash is cool enough to cut, slice it lengthwise and tear the skin off each slice. Then chop into 1-inch pieces, and add to the rest of the ingredients.
  4. For the dressing, whisk the two vinagers, walnut oil, lemon juice, cumin, and red pepper flakes together in a small bowl. Drizzle over the salad and stir carefully with a large spatula, so as not to crush the squash pieces. Stir in the cilantro and season generously with salt and black pepper.
  5. Garnish with the toasted walnuts. If you keep the leftovers, don’t mix the walnuts in or they’ll go soggy.

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