Table for One: Pearl Barley with (Leftover) Roast Chicken, Figs and Aged Balsamic

As often as we can my husband and I eat supper together at the table. It’s our time to unwind, laugh and reconnect at the end of the day. But with irregular, often opposing work schedules, it’s not uncommon that my supper companion is the cat (who’s only engaging if the bottom of his food bowl is visible).

This might be for one night, or it might be more prolonged. While not preferable, it’s something we’re accustomed to. My top tip: make extra of key ingredients that happily make repeat appearances. It might not be sexy, but the beauty of leftovers is that there is pre-prepped food left over. For instance, a whole roast chicken from the weekend provided meat for two suppers and three quick lunches, plus nearly three quarts of rich, flavorful bone stock.

When I’m in for a stretch of solo suppers, a stocked refrigerator and freezer ensures there’s good food to fill my belly. This iteration of my leftovers plates is a mash-up, featuring barley (from a batch made for breakfast earlier this week), pieces of that leftover roast chicken, and figs (frozen from the summer harvest), brightened up with an aged balsamic vinaigrette and a scattering of fresh mint leaves (still kicking in the garden!).

Barley chicken fig balsamic

I’ve written the recipe to make two servings. If you only need one, pack what remains in a jar or container for the next meal at home, or take it on the hoof to work or wherever you’re headed. Give it a shake, dig straight in. And don’t pass this by if you’re without mint or figs — use any tender herbs or greens you have on hand, and play around with other fruits. The citrus family is in season now, and I can imagine slices of blood orange, tangerine or kumquat and a handful of peppery arugula or winter spinach standing up well to the bold flavor of aged balsamic.

What’s in it for me?

Barley, a nutty, chewy, fiber-rich whole grain, makes this plate satisfying, good for the heart and will help stabilize blood sugars. Barley also provides antioxidant protection with its high levels of manganese and selenium.

The chicken is a great source of high-quality lean protein (but can easily be replaced with your favorite plant-based protein), as well as B vitamins and phosphorous for energy and to maintain healthy teeth, bones and nails

Figs add an abundance of nutritional goodness as well. They’re a non-dairy source of calcium, as well as the vitamins K and B6, heart-healthy potassium, and a variety of antioxidants. They’re also positively loaded with fiber, keeping your digestive system happy. (They’re also a prenatal power food and touted to boost fertility in women!)

If all that weren’t enough, the organic compound menthol, responsible for the characteristic flavor of mint does more than just banish bad breath. It relaxes smooth muscle, which can calm stomachaches, nausea, vomiting/morning sickness, and may relieve some symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, such as gas and bloating.

So let’s recap: 1.) Make extra food. 2.) Leftovers are sexy. 3.) Eat more figs. 4.) Always make extra!

There’s no reason a supper of leftovers can’t be healthy, nourishing and leave you wanting more. While you’re at it, go ahead and set the table, light a candle, put on some music, and enjoy the heck out of this special solo meal.

Cheers, Heather

Tell me… What’s your go-to when dining alone?

Pearl barley with (leftover) roast chicken, figs and aged balsamic vinaigrette
Prep Time
Cook Time
Total Time
Recipe Type: Entree, main, whole grains, poultry
Makes: 2 servings
  • 1 Tbsp aged balsamic vinegar, plus more to finish
  • 2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp kosher flake salt (or other good quality salt)
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 cup cooked pearl barley (*see HGN Notes for cooking instructions if you don't have leftovers to begin with)
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 1/2 small garlic clove, thinly sliced
  • a pinch of red chilli flakes (use to your discretion and heat preference)
  • 6 oz (about 1/2 cup) leftover roast chicken meat, shredded or chopped into small pieces (*see HGN Notes for my favorite recipe)
  • 2 small scallions, thinly sliced diagonally
  • 5 oz (about 4 to 5 small, or 1/2 to 3/4 cup) fresh figs, quartered -- thawed, if from frozen
  • a small handful of fresh mint leaves
  1. In a small bowl, whisk together the aged balsamic, extra virgin olive oil, salt and a few cracks of black pepper. Taste, and adjust flavors as necessary. Set aside.
  2. Place barley in a heavy-bottomed saucepan with 2 cups water or chicken/veg stock. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, 5 to 8 minutes or until heated through. Season very lightly with a pinch of salt. Set aside, covered, to keep warm.
  3. Meanwhile, heat 1 tsp olive oil in a small nonstick skillet over medium-high. Once hot, add garlic and chilli flakes, and cook 1 minute until fragrant. Be careful not to let the garlic burn. Quickly add the chicken, toss to coat, and cook 1 to 2 minutes more to just warm through. Turn off the heat, and stir in the balsamic vinaigrette and chopped scallions.
  4. Divide the warm barley between two plates, and top with the warm glazed chicken, making sure to get every bit of the vinaigrette out of the pan on onto the plate (so much flavor!). Scatter over the figs and fresh mint leaves. Finish with another light drizzle of aged balsamic. Serve warm.
HGN Notes
To cook a 3-cup batch of pearl barley: Place 1 cup pearl barley in a bowl and add enough water to cover by about 1 inch. Set aside on the counter to soak at least 1 hour, up to overnight. Drain and rinse the barley. (*This step isn’t required, but it does decrease cooking time and may improve digestibility.) When ready to cook, add barley and 3 cups water to a medium saucepan and bring to a boil, uncovered, over high heat. (It likes to "foam up," so keep an eye on the pot to make sure it doesn't boil over. Give it a quick stir or remove it briefly from the heat if it gets out of control.) Once boiling, reduce heat to low, cover and keep at a gentle simmer 35 to 45 minutes, adding more water if the pan dries. The barley is cooked when it is tender yet chewy and has tripled in volume. Off the heat, fluff the barley with a fork, re-cover, and set aside to cool (or use after 5 minutes of resting). Once barley is completely cool, portion into several airtight containers to store in the refrigerator up to 1 week, or freezer up to 6 months. (*For unsoaked barley, begin checking for doneness at 45 minutes. If it's not ready, continue cooking, adding more water as needed, until the barley is tender. This may take as long as 90 minutes.)

If you're running short on time, quick-cooking barley is a perfectly fine substitute and is ready in about 15 minutes. If you want a smaller batch, keep in mind the general cooking ratio of 1 part barley to 3 parts water.

The best roasted chicken comes from Thomas Keller: (It's so tender, juicy and flavorful, I've never been tempted to "slather the meat with butter" as the article suggests ... but that's just me.)

+ Use any tender herbs or greens you have on hand, such as basil, chives, parsley, tarragon, rosemary, arugula, cress or baby spinach.
+ Experiment with different seasonal fresh fruits, thawed frozen fruits, or dried fruits.

Recipe heavily adapted from Martha Stewart Living.

+ + + +

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