Ancient grains with a modern twist

Springtime Barley Salad showcases this traditional Nordic grain in a fresh, satisfying salad

Kristi Bissell - Barley Salad

Photo: Kristi Bissell /
Barley makes for a satisfying salad component, served on a bed of baby spinach with red pepper, asparagus, shallot, goat cheese, and sliced almonds.

True North Kitchen

From the Taste of Norway Editor: I am thrilled to welcome Kristi Bissell, the voice of True North Kitchen blog, as a contributor to the Taste of Norway section. She brings an approachable perspective to New Nordic cuisine for the home cook, and I am excited about the recipes she will share from her excellent blog. You can explore more of her recipes at

Cultural food choices are historically driven largely by climate and terrain. Before the days of modern agriculture and transporting foods from here to there, people ate what they could grow, forage, or hunt on the land that was theirs. For the people of northern Europe, this was particularly challenging, given the harsh winter conditions and short growing season. Rye, barley, and oats, three ancient grains that grow well in the cold, wet weather of the Nordic region and do not require a long growing season, emerged as essential components of the traditional Scandinavian diet.

Barley has been an important crop in the Nordic region since the Stone Age. It was ground into flour to make bread, cooked to make porridge, and malted to be used in the beer-making process. It was (and still is) commonly used as food for livestock. Barley contains more essential amino acids than both wheat and rye and is higher in fiber (.3 oz. per ¼ cup). Although its popularity as a bread flour waned as wheat became more available, barley is currently enjoying a bit of a renaissance. The New Nordic Cuisine movement has brought a fresh perspective to this ancient grain, highlighting its healthful properties and various culinary uses.

This Springtime Barley Salad with Asparagus, Red Pepper and Spinach showcases this Nordic grain in a fresh, new way. Most of us have enjoyed barley in soups and stews, but it also makes a delicious addition to a satisfying salad. There are a few things that really make this salad special: hearty pearl barley, tender spears of seasonal asparagus, creamy goat cheese crumbles, and a sherry vinaigrette that is incredibly simple and just what you need to pull everything together. The salad is tossed in two bowls and while it does require the tiniest bit of extra dishwashing, your efforts will be rewarded. Keeping the baby spinach separate from the asparagus and barley mixture really helps maintain the integrity of the ingredients and prevents bruising the delicate greens. 

Note that this recipe calls for pearl barley (sometimes labeled medium barley at the grocery store). When pearl barley is processed, the bran of the grain is removed, which shortens the cooking time. If you are using hulled barley, which is more minimally processed, it will take significantly longer to cook. 

Springtime Barley Salad with Asparagus, Red Pepper and Spinach

1 tbsp. + 1 tsp. sherry vinegar, divided

1 garlic clove, minced

6 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

1 red bell pepper, cut into a medium dice

8 oz. thin asparagus spears, trimmed and cut into 1-in. pieces

1 medium shallot, sliced thin

1 ½ cups cooked pearl barley, cooled (see note below)

4-5 cups baby spinach

¼ cup sliced almonds, toasted

Soft goat cheese for crumbling over the top

Combine vinegar and garlic together in a medium bowl. Set aside.

In a large nonstick skillet, heat 2 tbsp. of olive oil over medium high heat. Add red pepper and cook until lightly browned and beginning to soften, about 2 minutes. Add asparagus and cook until nearly tender, about 2 minutes. Add shallot and cook until softened, about 1 more minute. Remove from heat and add remaining teaspoon of sherry vinegar. Stir in the barley. Set aside to cool while you make the vinaigrette.

Whisk remaining 4 tbsp. of olive oil into garlic and sherry vinegar mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss spinach with 2 tbsp. of the vinaigrette in a large bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add asparagus and barley mixture to the medium bowl with the remaining vinaigrette. Toss to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

To serve, create a bed of spinach on the bottom of each plate. Arrange the asparagus and barley mixture over the top. Sprinkle with toasted almonds and crumbled goat cheese.

To cook pearl barley: Bring a medium pot of water to a boil over high heat. Season with salt. Add 1 cup pearl barley. Cook until tender, about 25-30 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool. If you want to expedite the cooling process, spread the cooked barley out on a sheet pan and place it in the refrigerator. One cup of dry pearl barley makes about 3 cups cooked, so you will have more than you need. (Barley can be made up to 2 days in advance and stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container.)

This article originally appeared in the May 22, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Kristi Bissell

Kristi Bissell is the founder of True North Kitchen, a Nordic food blog designed for the American home cook. She enjoys creating recipes that celebrate her Scandinavian heritage and that approach traditional Nordic ingredients in a modern, fresh and approachable way. Kristi is a native of Minneapolis and currently resides in Omaha, Neb. When she’s not cooking and baking in her cozy kitchen, Kristi teaches private and corporate yoga classes and leads Scandinavian cooking and baking workshops. For more information, visit her blog,