The rhubarb plants in my garden don’t care whether I ever get around to them. Every Spring, their crinkled leaves start growing under a coating of snow or ice, sure in the knowledge that it will soon pass. The moment the snow melts, they unfurl with great resolution and optimism. You can’t stop the rhubarb. It wants to be rhubarb bars.
And then they take over the back quadrant of the garden, with leaves the size of elephant ears that shade out the weeds. Every time I walk past, I think, what am I going to make with that rhubarb? Some years, deep in a cookbook project or two, I’ve done nothing more complex than throw them in a pan with some sugar and cook them into a compote. Nothing wrong with toast and rhubarb.
Other years, I’ve had time to make a pretty tart where the rhubarb looks like the spokes of a wheel.
Of the tasty rhubarb scones that even freeze well for later in the summer, when you don’t want to bake.
This year, I wanted to take a treat for the my mindfulness and meditation class. We’ve been together for eight weeks now, doing our best to be in the present moment. Our last class will be bittersweet. These rhubarb bars will be sweet and tangy to go with it.
I’ve also been fooling around with rolled barley. I’m always into whole grains, so when I got a package of rolled “Streaker Barley” from Oregon, I thought I should give it a try. The name, “streaker,” harks back to the fad of running naked, or streaking, at various public events. I’m not sure that the kids today know what streaking is, but we folks who survived the 70’s do. And why would barley be named for a moment of exhibitionism in our shared history?
Because it’s naked barley. You see, most people only make the acquaintance of pearled barley. Traditional barley varieties have the distinction of having a hull that is very hard to remove, so it became the norm to process them by scraping off not just the inedible hull, but also the bran layer. So pearled barley cooks more quickly, gives off bountiful starches to thicken a broth, and has fewer of the health giving qualities that come from bran.
But not naked barley. Naked barley gets its name from the fact that its hull is easily removed, like other whole grains. So it’s naked- get it? And it streaks across the plate, unashamed. Naked, or hull-less barleys cook up more like whole wheat berries, with a long cooking time and a sturdy bran layer that pops when you chew it.
The folks out at The Oregon State Barley Project are working on breeding varieties of barley that grow well in the Pacific Northwest, and finding good uses for them. They are even using a participatory breeding program, working in collaboration with farmers to improve the variety with each successive generation. This barley was grown by Hunton’s Farm, a family farm for 60 years. From there, it was taken to a local mill and flattened into rolled barley, so that I could make it into these bars.
This was a good recipe to try out with barley, to see just how different it would be from rolled oats. Rolled barley is a little thicker and sturdier than even thick, old-fashioned oats, and I like it. It’s almost crisp before you bake it, so there’s no chance of a soggy bar. I made these vegan, with coconut oil for the fat, and kept it simple so I could really taste the barley.
I have to say, the rolled barley is even better for a crumble bar than oats, because of the crunchy, chewy, assertive texture of the grain. It’s also got a little more nuance to the flavor, with all the mild sweetness of oats with a tiny hint of bitterness. The tanginess of rhubarb might well overwhelm another grain, but the barley holds its own.
Pretty good for a naked grain!
Rhubarb Bars with Sliced Almonds
- 2 cups rolled barley
- 2 cups unbleached flour or half whole wheat pastry
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup coconut oil melted
- 1/2 cup non-dairy milk plus a little more
- 1 cup sliced almonds
- 4 cups chopped rhubarb about a pound
- 1 1/2 cup sugar
- 3 tablespoons non-dairy milk
- 3 tablespoons arrowroot
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- Oil a 9x13 inch baking pan and reserve. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
- In a large bowl, combine the rolled barley, flour, brown sugar and salt. Drizzle in the coconut oil and toss to mix in, then stir in the milk. Scoop out 2 cups of the chunkiest part into a medium bowl, and toss with the almonds. Drizzle in a little more milk as needed to make the remaining clumps into a dough. Press into the pan.
- In a medium pot, combine the rhubarb and sugar and place over medium heat. Bring to a simmer as the juices come out of the rhubarb. When the rhubarb is softened and juicy, whisk the milk and arrowroot in a cup, then stir into the simmering rhubarb. Stir until thick. Take off the heat.
- Spread the rhubarb over the bottom crust, the top with the almond mixture.
- Bake for about 40 minutes, until the juices are bubbling up around the edges and the topping is browned. Cool on a rack. For the neatest slices, refrigerate until completely cold. Cut 4 by 6.