Monday, 8 September 2014 | 23 comments

Chickpea & barley salad with toasted spice vinaigrette. Also, the Internet.

In the wide world of the Internet, it’s easy to get cynical about how rapidly and easily ideas are repackaged, reposted, and reshared, ad infinitum. You could say this about serious subjects, like news coverage, or about less serious subjects, like celebrity gossip. You could also say it about food-related content. Take, for instance, the phenomenon of what I call the “wedding salad” (because nearly every catered salad you’re served at a wedding is a variation on this). It consists of spinach/arugula, goat cheese/feta, dried cherries/cranberries, nuts (sometimes candied), and a vinaigrette. The wedding salad is omnipresent, and for good reason: it is delicious and time-tested. It’s hard to mess up. But the public does not need four million recipes for this salad. Moreover, I worry that all the recipes detailing minor variations on this wedding salad esotericize* something that should be simple. In other words, maybe the recipe should really be: Here is how you make a salad. A nice template for a salad is a tender green + a soft cheese + something sweet + something crunchy + something acidic.

This is not to say that people shouldn’t share ideas—goodness knows the Internet is an amazing way to do that—but it also means that I think we suffer a bit for a lack of creativity, and that we’re more derivative than we realize (I will be the first to admit that I’m probably complicit in this).

Grain salads are also one of those things that is made more difficult than it needs to be, and for which there are many recipes that claim to be different or unusual and are really just variations of the same. The template here would be grain/seed + protein and/or green thing + optional cheese + vinaigrette. Farro, butternut squash, and goat cheese salad. Quinoa and kale pilaf. They’re everywhere. And again, they’re lovely, but the tiny tweaks aren’t worthy of a million search results.

So, why am I posting about a grain salad, after I basically said the world doesn’t need one? Because this vinaigrette is great. The recipe is adapted from one of this summer’s (June, maybe?) issues of Bon Appetit. I haven’t yet tried it on another type of salad, but I bet it’d be great on there too. I do like the combination of chickpeas and barley here, but this was the first time I used the recipe’s green beans as opposed to some sort of leafy green I had languishing in the crisper.

I am off to Wichita, Kansas (to see some new babies!) and then immediately to Dar Es Salaam, because that’s how my silly life works. Maybe somewhere between America’s heartland and East Africa I’ll find some original thought to throw out into the universe! Until then.

Chickpea & barley salad with toasted spice vinaigrette

Adapted from Bon Appetit. The vinaigrette is the star here—double the recipe and use it on other things, too.

You’ll need

  1. For the vinaigrette:
  2. 1 teaspoon coriander seeds (or half teaspoon ground coriander)
  3. 1 teaspoon cumin seeds (or half teaspoon ground cumin)
  4. 1 teaspoon fennel seeds (of half teaspoon ground fennel)
  5. 1/4 cup neutral-tasting oil (such as grapeseed oil), or 1/8 cup neutral-tasting oil + 1/8 cup olive oil
  6. 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  7. 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  8. Kosher salt
  9. Freshly ground black pepper
  10. For the grain salad:
  11. 1/2 pound green beans, washed, trimmed, halved OR substitute any seasonal green veggie (Springtime? Asparagus! Winter? Tuscan kale!)
  12. 1 cup pearled barley
  13. 1 teaspoon olive oil
  14. 1 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  15. 4 ounces crumbled feta


  1. Make the vinaigrette: First, toast the spices in a small skillet over medium heat, carefully tossing or stirring so that they don’t burn, no more than 5 minutes, until they are browned and aromatic. If using whole spices, chop them coarsely after they cool.
  2. In a jar or other sealed container, combine oil for vinaigrette, vinegar, dijon, toasted spices, and a pinch of kosher salt. Shake vigorously and taste for seasoning. Season with more salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Set aside.
  3. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. When it’s at a rolling boil, blanch the green beans (or kale or asparagus or whatever) for about three minutes, until still brightly colored and crisp-tender. Remove from pot and transfer to an ice bath to stop the cooking with a slotted spoon, strainer, or spider skimmer.
  4. Bring the same pot of water back to a boil. Drop in the barley and give it a quick stir. Reduce to a simmer and simmer for about 20 minutes, until barley is tender but still chewy and toothsome. Drain barley in a colander.
  5. In a bowl or on a platter, toss barley, green beans, rinsed chickpeas, and vinaigrette. Top with feta. Serve immediately, or refrigerate for serving over the course of the next week.

* WordPress claims that this is not a word, but I’m pretty sure it is. If anyone wants to back me up, I’d like that.

** After I wrote this post I read this article and, polarizing title aside, I agree with a lot of it. I’m particularly in agreement about feeling exhausted and numbed by 1) a lack of quality in Internet writing or 2) the way most Internet reading smacks of just being written for the content mill. It’s strange that I use the Internet as a creative outlet even though, after what I’ve written here, it sounds like I’m not even sure I believe it can really be used that way with any integrity. Blegh.

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§ 23 responses to Chickpea & barley salad with toasted spice vinaigrette. Also, the Internet.

  • I was just thinking this when I saw a recipe for a cold soba noodle salad over on Serious Eats. But then I opened the link and I have to say it was an unusual take. Haha. It is a problem though, especially as the internet seems to inspire everyone constantly angling for their turn in the spotlight. Anyway, this salad looks great. Enjoy your trip.

  • You know, what I’m after is writing that moves me and food that tastes good. I can take or leave the fresh spin. In the online food writing world especially, the volume of available content is staggering now, and I’m rarely willing to sift through it anymore looking for something new – I just want to read things that are truly lovely, and maybe (maybe) get up and go cook the things that you people I trust have said I should.

    I love coming here. Looking forward to reading that article.

  • I doff my hat to you. Thank you for the salad template. I love it. I have a “rough guide” for granola that breaks down ingredient combinations. Again, it’s something simple that has been made into something unnecessarily complicated.

  • Hey, there is nothing wrong with posting things that are great! There’s always someone out there who might be discovering it for the first time, right? Anyway, this salad sounds delicious! Green beans and barley for the win!

    • Susan Jasper

      I agree that as a seasoned cook and baker I often think things seem overly complicated and repetitive. However, I facilitate cooking classes at a co=op and am continually surprised by the number of people, of all ages, that do not share my experience. And perhaps some of these bloggers fall into the newer cook/baker category and don’t realize how simple many recipes really are and can be!

  • According to Merriam-Webster Online: esotericize ( verb): to make difficult to understand; to make esoteric. I agree with you. To make salads and vinaigrettes is easy; we shouldn’t be relying too much on recipes. We should use our imagination and creativity when cooking.

  • I was just about to post on this same recipe! I made it twice in two days purely for that incredible vinaigrette.

    Safe travels!

  • I have moments when I wonder what is the point of my blog because the internet already has everything. I guess it pushes us to be more creative, but at the same time, as we push forward, I find some of the basic techniques get lost along the way. I just blogged about cream puffs on Monday, and there are a million pâte à choux recipes out there so it’s not like I was contributing something novel. Still, I wanted to make them because they are something I don’t make often.

    Anyways, this salad is awesome. I love topping my salads with grains like cooked barley, farro, or millet!

    • I question whether there’s any point in blogging too (who needs another recipe for brownies?). But I attempt to reassure myself that it’s the stories that come along with the recipes that are important too. I love stories about the everyday! People have been having babies and dealing with difficult in-laws and travelling forever but the human experience is so personal that it never ceases to interest me.

  • The salad looks fabulous and I’ll definitely be trying that vinaigrette. Hope your trips bring lots of fun and inspiration.

  • Hmm. I agree that there are infinite versions of practically everything out there on the web, but I don’t think that means we should give up on making, or finding, quality content online. I think what’s most unhelpful is the search engines—google etc. are not set up to find the most beautiful, the most meaningful things, because it takes a human, not a computer program, to do that. I’ve been thinking lately about the irony of following mentions on blogs I love to find more good things, essentially internet word-of-mouth, because the search is terrible at subtlety and can be manipulated so easily.

    If it helps, I found your blog that way (following a link from The Year in Food), and it’s now one of my inspirations—in blogging and in life. We still have choices; to post less frequently—about things we really care about, to take the time to work on writing instead of dashing things off, to read what is worthwhile instead of skimming everything that comes along. Keep up the good work, and don’t let the mounds of internet garbage get you down!

  • Do you think it has something to do with the monetization of people’s blogs? Instead of seeing these little writing spaces as art projects, so much of the internet is geared to make money. I feel like recipes are increasingly recycled so that people can post on a “schedule” so they get hits so they can make money or get a cookbook deal or advertisement. It takes time to wrestle with the stories about our lives, but if you have to post every wednesday to fulfill your sponsors you end up with lots of fluff and repetition, no? I just finished reading Julia Child’s “Life in France” and was really inspired how it took her years (years!) to come up with a decent simple recipe for crusted fish. Her publishers waited too. I don’t think she would have thrived in our current high volume environment. Thanks for your post; good thoughts to ponder.

  • Sarah

    Sounds familiar…my friend had a stint in Idaho on her way to China for work. Gov’mint town :)

  • I am a writer who until recently, never blogged. I struggled with the idea last year, thinking the last thing the world needs is more useless content that keeps people at the screen for any longer. I kept thinking there are plenty of successful writers out there who never had to say, “I got my start from a blog.” and I wanted to be one of them.

    Alas, I’ve succumbed because at the end of the day, I like to write. And it seems you do too.

  • Amy

    Thanks for the inspiration for sprucing up a dish I made last night (steamed green beans + chopped parsley & mint + minced preserved lemon* + olive oil + salt + pepper). This vinaigrette sounds like the perfect addition, especially with chickpeas.

    * I was taste testing, decided to add the lemon, and my thought on the next taste was, “There you are!”. Which pretty much sums up how I feel about preserved lemons effect on many dishes.

  • Thanks for the recipe, I made it for dinner last night and it just hit the spot. I like the “philosophy” of taking some basic building blocks and combing them in new ways, it works particulary well with salads i find. I will have fun playing with this one.
    Also thanks for your thoughts and the link to the article you talk about, I agree with most of it too. It made me realize how carried away that whole “system” has gotten.
    Love your blog, thoughts recipes and all.

    PS: the font you use for the main text displays kind of strange on my computer, i.e. hard to read. I have windows 7 and viewed it with different browsers no change. Just thought i’d mention it…

  • Happy trails. I’m off to Kansas next month — never been there, but ostensibly I’m studying the state. So, better check it out!

    Even if it’s derivative, I think the different combinations people come up with can spark ideas. Some internet food bloggers do it better than others, no doubt. But even when it’s simple, if I haven’t thought of that combination before, it’s a kind of small grace. An inspiration.

    Yeah… food blogs and writing. Well written blogs are few and far between. It doesn’t seem to be the main emphasis for most bloggers. I guess it’s hard to make recipes, take photos, write, promote — AND do it all well. And for free. And, for that matter, often. Quite a tall order.

  • Sarah, I always enjoy reading your posts and your recipes inspire. Thank you taking the time to be here for us on the internets.

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