Something wonderful happens over the long simmer in the slow cooker: The barley cooks to tender-chewy perfection, the beef becomes meltingly tender, and the liquid thickens to a beautiful gravy. Go with hulled, whole-grain barley here, and skip quick-cooking pearl barley; the latter isn't whole grain, and it will cook to mush over the long simmering time. If you can't find hulled barley, you can try wheat berries, whole-grain farro, rye berries, or Kamut instead. This soup is great for freezing, as it thaws and reheats beautifully.
Serves 8 (serving size: about 1 1/4 cups)
1. Stir together first 8 ingredients in a 6-quart slow cooker. Add thyme sprigs and bay leaves; dollop tomato paste on top.
2. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium-high. Add half of beef; cook until well browned, about 6 minutes, turning once. Add beef to slow cooker. Repeat with remaining 1 tablespoon oil and beef. Scatter carrots over beef. Cover and cook on LOW until meat and grains are tender, about 8 hours. Discard thyme sprigs and bay leaves. Ladle stew into 8 bowls; sprinkle with thyme leaves.