This is one of my most popular dishes from my restaurant days, in its preferred variation. Given that asparagus season is going strong, I thought it was time to share it. It tastes wonderful, looks fabulous, and is actually easy to make.
I hope to be tempting you to get back into the kitchen. Are you ready? Let’s do it!
BARLEY CAKE WITH ASPARAGUS, SHRIMP & SAFFRON
yields: 4 portions
- 250 gr. (9 oz.) pearled barley, cooked & drained
- 10 medium green asparagus, rinsed and trimmed of the woodier ends
- 20 medium fresh shrimp, shelled
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and halved lengthwise, core removed
- small bundle (ca 3 Tablespoons) Italian flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
- extra-virgin olive oil
- sea salt
- black pepper, freshly ground
- 1/2 teaspoon good quality saffron powder
- 2 teaspoons loosely packed saffron stems for garnish
You will also need a stainless steel cake ring about 2 & 1/2 to 3 inches in diameter
About cooking & storing barley. Barley needs to be soaked for a few hours first, then rinsed and then cooked in hot salt water (like for pasta) until tender (usually about 45 minutes). Then drained and rinsed with cold water.
It can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for a few days. Since cooked barley, as it sits, tends to “drool”, before using it to prepare a salad or a sautéed dish like this one, you may need to rinse it again.
Given the soaking time + extra long boiling time, If I am preparing something with barley, I like to cook a bit more than the recipe requires, and then use it in other preparations, other salads, or soups.
STEP 1 – Cut the tips of the asparagus just a little under where the tiny buds end. With a small, sharp paring knife split the tips in half lengthwise and set aside. Now cut the stems in half lengthwise, and again cut the halves in half once more, obtaining four thinner strips for each asparagus stem. Align the strips and chop them crosswise into small pieces. Set aside.
Run the blade of small sharp knife along the back of each shrimp to remove the vein, then continue to deepen the cut until the shrimp is almost split in half but not quite. This is called ‘butterflied’. Set aside.
STEP 2 – Heat 3 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil and 3 garlic cloves in a medium/large sauté pan. When the garlic starts sizzling, add the chopped asparagus, season with salt and pepper, flip/stir lightly, lower the heat and cook for a few seconds. Add about 3 & 1/2 cups of cooked barley, season with salt and pepper and flip/stir. Add the saffron powder and flip/stir to blend. Add a little more extra-virgin olive oil as needed. Cook for a couple of minutes until the barley has heated through and has gathered flavor. Set aside.
In a medium sauté pan, heat 2 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil and 1 garlic clove. Add the asparagus tips, season with salt and pepper, flip/stir lightly, lower the heat and cook for about 20 seconds. Add the shrimp, season again and flip/stir gently, cooking until the shrimp has turned pink, about 1 minute. Remove from heat and set aside.
STEP 3 – COMPOSITION – Place the stainless steel ring at the center of a warm plate. Fill it with the saffron barley and press lightly with a spoon to form a small cake. Gently slide the ring off, taking care not to break the cake. Decorate with the asparagus tips and the shrimp (about 5 half-tips of asparagus, and 5 shrimp per portion) around the cake. Drizzle a little extra-virgin olive oil around the cake, sprinkle lightly with freshly chopped parsley and saffron stems. Repeat as needed and serve immediately.
NOTES: This preparation is excellent served hot, at room temperature, or even cold as a salad. Once completed, it can be allowed to cool completely, and then stored covered in the refrigerator for about 2-3 days. Reheat only once.
ALTERNATIVES – Scallops, scampi (real scampis are available only in Southern Europe, so if you are located over there, they will work well), and small lobster slices can be good alternatives to the shrimp.
Barley, like most grains, is very versatile and goes well with many ingredients. The asparagus can be substituted with other vegetables like zucchini, pumpkin, mushrooms etc. You want to make sure that the saffron flavor will be a good match for the alternative ingredients you use. A curried version of this dish is also excellent.
If you enjoyed this recipe, here are more that are perfect for spring: