I have a great fondness for peasant foods: simple ingredients, un-messed with and natural.
With the current cost of living crisis putting the strain on everyone outside of Whitehall, I have been looking as posting some of these peasant foods on the blog, to help stretch the household purse a little further. It has also been something of a dilemma, because for some time now I’ve dithered about whether the recipes here should be a help or a distraction, something budget-friendly and easy or some small treat that can be enjoyed as a brief respite from the daily grind.
Anyhoo… Today it’s budget friendly and easy.
Mulgipuder is a hearty Estonian dish which translates as ‘porridge from the Mulgi region’. It is comprised of cooked potatoes and barley, with a topping of some sort. It can be enjoyed as a side dish and also as a main course, and by varying the toppings it can be adapted to all dietary preferences and tastes.
The usual topping is pork based, usually ham, gammon or bacon with some fried onions – the saltiness of the preserved meat and the richness of the fried onions a fantastic contrast to the seeming austerity of the potato mix. Substituting the bacon with red and yellow peppers, mushrooms or eggplant etc. makes it vegetarian and vegan friendly. Made too much for one sitting? No problem – you can cook the leftovers the next day in a pan with a little oil like bubble and squeak, making sure to nurture lots of BCBs¹ as Terry Pratchett would say.
I also promised you ‘easy’ so whilst the potatoes and barley can be made in a saucepan on the stovetop, I’ve found a better way (which will use less electricity) is to throw them into the slow cooker, set it and forget it. Toasting the barley beforehand not only gives it a fantastic aroma and flavour, it also drastically reduces the cooking time to four hours on Low.
You can boost the flavour of the potatoes and barley by cooking some onion in with them if liked, or even using stock instead of water. I like the above combination, as the very Spartan nature of the potatoes and barley make the richness of the toppings sing that much more.
Even with such a simple dish as this, there are variations. Some recipes really embrace the ‘porridge’ aspect of the dish and mash whatever liquid remains in with the barley and potatoes. I’ve chosen a much drier style, removing the potatoes when cooked and allowing them to steam dry before mashing, and simmering the barley in any remaining liquid until it evaporates, then mixing the two together.
Serves 4 as a meal in itself.
200g pearl barley
1 kg maris piper potatoes
1 large onion, chopped (optional)
1 litre water
2 large onions
4tbs vegetable oil
100g cooking bacon, chopped finely (optional)
2 aubergines, peeled and diced (optional)
2-3 red and/or yellow peppers, seeded and chopped (optional)
250g mushrooms, sliced (optional)
sour cream/creme fraiche/sauces to your liking to serve
- Put the barley into a dry pan and stir over medium heat until browned and toasted (5-10 minutes).
- Peel the potatoes and cut them into 3-4 pieces (roast potato size). You want them to be cooked through by the time the barley is done.
- Put the barley in the slow cooker, stir through the chopped onion if using, add the potatoes on top and pour in the water. The water will now cover the potatoes and this is fine – they are going to steam while the barley cooks.
- Set the slow cooker on Low and cook for 4 hours.
- If the potatoes are cooked, lift them out with a strainer and allow them to steam dry in a pan on the hob.
- Taste the barley to see if it is cooked to your taste – a little al dente makes a nice contrast with the soft potato. If there is excess liquid left, turn the heat to High and continue to cook with the lid off until it has evaporated, stirring occasionally. Make sure the barley doesn’t stick or burn.
- Mash the potatoes, stir through the barley and season with salt and pepper. Keep warm.
- Slice the onions and cook in the oil until softened and starting to caramelise.
- Add the bacon (or any of the substitutions) and continue cooking until the bacon is starting to brown at the edges. Taste and season with salt and pepper – although if you’re using bacon, it might already be salty enough.
- To serve: Spoon some of the potato/barley mixture into a warmed bowl and make a well in the middle. Add your toppings and a spoonful of the oil they were cooked in, and serve.
¹Originally this acronym referred to ‘burnt crunchy bits’, but go for the much tastier ‘brown crunchy bits’.