This barley pilaf is a flavourful one-pan barley recipe. The rose harissa adds a subtle floral flavour and a not-so-subtle spicy hit. And the combination of salty olives, sweet tomatoes, fresh parsley leaves, zesty lemon and nutritious leafy greens will have you coming back for more.
Best of all? It’s super easy to make and very versatile – perfect for meal prep.
Enjoy it as a main dish or a barley side dish. The harissa pilaf is also a delicious base for a vegetarian grain bowl or make-ahead work lunch – top it with sliced avocado and leftover veggies, and you’re good to go!
Why you’ll love barley pilaf
This barley pilaf is a flavourful, one-pan dish that combines the nutty taste of pearl barley with the smoky-spicy flavour of rose harissa and the briny, salty taste of kalamata olives.
There are many reasons to make harissa pilaf today:
- It’s an easy one-pan meal: All you need is a large skillet or frying pan with a lid. And with a few simple ingredients, you can have it on the table in 40 minutes.
- It’s flexible: Don’t worry if you don’t have all the ingredients ready to go. I suggest plenty of substitutes and alternatives in the next section. This easy barley recipe is very forgiving.
- It’s versatile: Serve it as a side dish, a vegetarian main, or a grain bowl base. Top it with leftover veg, avocado, and nuts for a more substantial meal. Or serve it as part of a mezze spread.
- It’s freezer-friendly: You can freeze leftovers in an airtight container for up to three months. Defrost the pilaf, then reheat it in your skillet to warm through.
And did I mention it’s also nutritious and utterly delicious?
What is barley pilaf?
Pilaf is traditionally a rice dish, though some regions use wheat. It involves cooking grains in stock with spices, vegetables or meat.
The goal is to achieve cooked grains that do not stick.
This barley pilaf is not traditional. But barley is my all-time favourite grain. The flavour is nutty and earthy, and the texture is delightfully toothsome.
And the pearl barley grains do not stick – perfect for foolproof pilaf.
Ingredients and substitutions
This barley pilaf is an easy flavour-packed barley side dish that pairs perfectly with roasted chicken or fish.
And the recipe is very flexible. So, you can substitute ingredients to suit your pantry and palate:
- Barley: I use pearl barley because it cooks quicker. But you can also use hulled barley – give the whole grain an extra 10 minutes to cook. And add a splash of water if the pan dries out too quickly. Or try it with brown rice for a more traditional rice pilaf.
- Olive oil: I use extra virgin olive oil for flavour. But you can also use vegetable oil if you prefer.
- Harissa: This recipe calls for rose harissa paste. But you can use any harissa. Or if you don’t have any, try the recipe with a harissa substitute.
- Aliums: Use a large or medium onion and two cloves garlic. Or switch things up and opt for green onions or shallots.
- Tomatoes: Cherry tomatoes are perfect in this pilaf. They are small and sweet. But you can also use rosa tomatoes, grape tomatoes, or another small varietal. Or add diced Roma tomatoes for a saucier pilaf.
- Vegetable stock: I use vegetable stock for this recipe. But you can also use chicken stock or chicken broth if you don’t need this barley side dish to be plant-based.
- Olives: I prefer unpitted olives as they taste better than the pitted ones. To use, I break the olives open by hand and tear the olive flesh into two halves. But you can use your favourite.
- Lemon: This recipe calls for lemon juice and zest. You can substitute with lime juice and zest. Or add a drizzle of pomegranate molasses to your finished dish for a sweet acidic kick.
- Spinach: The baby spinach plays a nutritious supporting role as leafy greens often do. You can use kale, Swiss chard or another green leafy veg. Or omit it in favour of a side of roast broccoli.
Change the flavour of this barley side dish depending on what you have available.
- Add odds and ends lurking at the back of your fridge – or some cooked veggie leftovers.
- Sprinkle with toasted nuts and seeds or any herbs that need to be used up.
Can I use leftover cooked barley to make pilaf?
You sure can. It’s a great way to use leftover cooked barley (or other cooked grains).
Replace the 1 ⅓ cups of uncooked barley with 4 cups of cooked barley. Add the barley without the stock in step two and heat the barley through. Add a splash of water to loosen the mixture, if necessary. Then jump to the last step.
You may need to adjust the seasoning.
How to make pearl barley pilaf
This pearl barley pilaf gets a serious flavour boost with the rose harissa paste. And the combination of salty olives, sweet tomatoes, fresh parsley and lemon zest is the perfect friend to the spicy and floral harissa.
But you can add any veggies you’re in the mood for. The steps remain the same. Cook your raw veggies, add your pearl barley and vegetable stock, finish it off with a few cooked veggies and sprinkle with more fresh flavours!
Step 1: Cook the raw ingredients
Start by gathering your ingredients and place a large frying pan (for which you have a lid) on medium-high heat.
Then add the olive oil and chopped onion and cook until the onions are soft and golden, stirring frequently. It should take about 8 minutes. Turn it down to medium heat if your onions are browning too quickly.
Add the garlic and cook for another minute or two until fragrant. Don’t let the garlic burn.
This is where I stir in the harissa paste and the tomatoes. But you can add mushrooms or any raw veg you have lurking in your fridge. Pearl barley pilaf is a great way to use up those odds and ends.
Step 2: Add the uncooked pearl barley and stock
Add the uncooked barley to the pan and mix it well with the harissa and onion – or whatever veggie mix you have going on. Toast together for a few minutes before adding the stock and a teaspoon of salt.
Turn the heat up high. Once it reaches a simmer, place the lid on the pan and lower the heat. Leave to simmer gently for 15 minutes.
Remove the lid and turn up the heat again for a brisk simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated and the barley is cooked but still retains a nice toothsome bite – about 10 minutes.
Add a splash of boiling water if the pan dries out too quickly.
Step 3: Stir in cooked veggies and leafy greens
Next, stir in the last of the veggies. This can be pops of flavour (like olives), leafy greens that just need to be wilted, or any ready-cooked leftover veggies (think cooked broccoli, cauliflower or pumpkin).
Remove the pan from the heat and stir through chopped fresh herbs, lemon juice and freshly ground black pepper to taste, reserving some herbs to scatter over the plated dish. Taste and adjust the seasoning if required.
Serve the pilaf straight out of the pan or spoon it into a shallow serving bowl. Scatter with lemon zest and the remaining chopped parsley.
Serving suggestions for barley pilaf
This harissa pilaf is a flavourful one-pan dish that’s perfect for an easy weeknight barley dinner or a tasty barley side dish.
As a barley side dish
This barley pilaf makes a great side dish for roasted chicken, grilled steak, or fish. Or serve it with a vegetarian centrepiece like roasted cauliflower with tahini. Add a bowl of simply dressed crunchy green salad leaves to complete the meal.
Easy work lunch grain bowls
Make a large batch of harissa barley pilaf, divide it into portions and refrigerate it individually. Then, every morning before work, top the bowl with last night’s leftover veg or another handful of fresh leafy greens, some avocado, mast-o khiar (Persian cucumber and yoghurt sauce) and a scattering of walnuts.
Leftover barley soup
You can even turn leftover barley into a comforting soup. Add the leftovers to simmering chicken broth (or vegetable stock) and cook until the barley is warm. Bulk up the soup with carrots, celery or lentils for a substantial meal.
Refrigerate leftovers in an airtight container for up to 3 days. Reheat the pilaf in a pan with a little olive oil or pop it into the microwave.
Or serve the barley as a grain salad at room temperature. But don’t let cooked barley (or other grains) sit at room temperature for more than an hour.
You can also freeze leftover barley pilaf for up to three months. Defrost the barley overnight in the fridge. Then reheat it thoroughly in a stovetop skillet or the microwave.
Frequently asked questions
You can easily replace rice with barley for a nutritious side dish. Barley is a heartier grain with a nutty flavour, so it pairs especially well with roast chicken, vegetables, and fish. Just keep in mind that barley cooks longer than rice.
No, barley does not taste much like rice. Barley has a nuttier and earthier flavour than rice and a chewier texture.
Yes, you can eat pearl barley like rice. Pearl barley is a polished barley with the outer hull and some, or all, of the outer bran layer removed. It is no longer a whole-grain. But it has a softer texture closer to rice.
- A large frying pan (or pot) with fitted lid.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled, bashed and sliced
- 3 tablespoons rose harissa, see notes
- 2 cups cherry or rosa tomatoes
- 1⅓ cups uncooked pearl barley
- 2 cups light vegetable stock
- ½ cup kalamata olives (about 25 olives), destoned and torn in half
- ¾ cup parsley, roughly chopped
- 3 cups baby spinach
- 1 lemon, juice and zest
- Place a large frying pan, for which you have a lid, on medium-high heat. Once hot, add the olive oil and the onion. Cook until the onions start to turn soft and golden, stirring frequently. It should take about 8 minutes. Reduce the heat if your onions are browning too quickly. Add the garlic and cook for another minute or two until fragrant. Take care not to let the garlic burn.
- Stir the harissa paste into the onion mixture and add the tomatoes. Cook until the tomatoes start to burst – about 3 minutes. Put the uncooked barley into the pan and mix it well with the harissa and onion mix. Allow it to toast for a minute –stirring often – before you add the stock and a teaspoon of salt. Turn the heat up high. Once it reaches a simmer, place the lid on the pan and lower the heat. Leave to simmer gently for 15 minutes.
- Remove the lid and turn up the heat for a brisk simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated and the barley is cooked but still retains a nice bite – about 10 minutes. Add a splash of boiling water if the pan dries out too quickly.
- Stir in the olives. Add the baby spinach and stir through. Remove from the heat and stir through most of the chopped parsley, lemon juice and a good grind of black pepper, reserving some parsley to scatter over the plated dish. Taste and adjust the seasoning if required. Serve the pilaf straight out of the pan or spoon it into a bowl. Scatter with the remaining parsley and lemon zest.
- I prefer unpitted olives as I believe they taste better than the pitted ones. To use, I break the olives open by hand and tear the olive flesh into two halves.
- You will need a large pan with a fitted lid for this recipe. If you don’t have one, you can use a deep pot. But reducing the sauce may take longer. The larger the surface area of your pan, the faster the liquid will evaporate.
Try more Middle Eastern side dishes and sauces
- Harissa roasted cauliflower: A buttery, spicy and indulgent vegetarian main to serve with Persian yoghurt.
- Arabic salad: A classic Middle Eastern-style chopped salad to serve alongside the yoghurt side dish.
- Kuku sabzi: An easy Persian herb frittata recipe packed with greens and just enough eggs to hold it all together.
- Sumac onions: Deliciously tart sumac-marinated red onions make a versatile Middle Eastern condiment.