The Roman gladiators were known as hordearri, or "barley men," according to Rebecca Woods, author of "The Whole Foods Encyclopedia."
Botanically speaking, hordeum vulgare, or barley, was the gladiators' primary food staple. Today most barley ends up malted, in beer or whiskey, or used as animal fodder.
Too bad, because barley's nutty flavor and chewy texture have long made it a tasty addition to breads, cereals and soups in cuisines around the world. But many modern American cooks tend to avoid whole grains such as barley, which requires steaming for up to 45 minutes.
In regional markets where it is available, the "quick" barley featured in the Beef and Barley Vegetable Soup is a more realistic option for the time-pressed cook because other varieties, including hulled, hull-less and lightly pearled varieties, often require a trip to a natural foods or specialty store. Quick barley has been "pearled" - hulls removed and polished - then steamed and rolled so it cooks in just 10 minutes.
Nutritionally speaking, all forms of barley are comparable in fiber and nutrition, says Mary Palmer Sullivan, executive director of the National Barley Foods Council (www.barleyfoods.org), a non-profit based in Spokane, Wash. That's because barley, unlike other grains, retains at least 50 percent fiber throughout the entire kernel, even after the outer bran coating is removed.
One-third cup quick-cooking barley contains 170 calories and 5 grams of fiber. In addition to its high fiber content, barley is low fat, has no cholesterol and contains antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals. Barley is a terrific source of selenium, an antioxidant mineral that combines with vitamin E to fight free radicals.
Pending FDA approval, food manufacturers may be more interested in quick-cooking barley entrees and side dishes because they will be able to tout the heart health of beta-glucans, a type of soluble fiber found only in oats and barley.
"I think barley has been kind of overlooked for so many years, and we just want to get our time," said Palmer Sullivan. "I think we'll be able to do that with more convenience-oriented products."
Shopping tip: The beauty of soup is that it is flexible and an easy way to introduce an uncommon vegetable, such as parsnip, to your family. Feel free to adjust the vegetables to better suit your family's preference; for example use all carrots and omit the parsnip, or substitute peas and carrots for mixed vegetables.
A parsnip is a creamy white root vegetable that looks like a white carrot and can be cooked like a potato. It contains small amounts of iron and vitamin C.
Preparation tip: If eating well during the holiday season seems to get lost in the rush, barley soup may be the answer. It comes together in a slow cooker the night before. Brown the beef and assemble all the ingredients except the potato in a removable slow cooker crock. Cover and refrigerate the filled stoneware bowl overnight.
Pump it up: Substitute hulled or lightly pearled barley from a health food store. Add it to the pot 45 to 60 minutes before the end of the recipe. Add the frozen vegetables 30 minutes before the end of the cooking time.
BEEF AND BARLEY VEGETABLE SOUP
(Makes 8 servings)
1/2 pound ground round
1 onion, chopped
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 potato, peeled and chopped
1 parsnip, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon dried basil leaves
1 (14.5-ounce) can lower-sodium beef broth
1 (14.5-ounce) can no-salt-added whole tomatoes
2 cups lower-sodium vegetable juice cocktail
1 cup water
1/2 cup quick pearled barley
1 cup frozen mixed vegetables
Hot pepper sauce, pepper and salt, to taste
Brown ground beef in skillet over medium high heat; drain. Place in slow cooker crock and add onion, carrots, potato, parsnip, garlic, pepper, basil, beef broth, tomatoes, vegetable juice cocktail and water. Cover and cook on low 7 to 9 hours.
Turn slow cooker to high. Stir to break up whole tomatoes. Stir in barley and frozen mixed vegetables. Cover and cook on high 30 minutes. Just before serving, taste and add hot pepper sauce, pepper and salt to taste.
Per serving: 208 calories (23 percent from fat), 5 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 22 milligrams cholesterol, 29 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams protein, 72 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.