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Mushroom Barley Soup

February 28, 2012

The winter doldrums are here. Although maybe they are not. You see, I have no innate understanding of seasons. Living most of one’s life in southern Florida and Northern California will do that to a person.

But the farmers markets are drying up. Even the carrots and other storage vegetables are getting limp, and tables once full of potatoes are scattered with what’s left from the root cellars. There isn’t a lot of inspiration to be found there.

And I seem to have lost my will to take on new cooking projects. Spring mocks us from just past the edge of the horizon, and I’ve halfheartedly taken on the project of eating through the stored up goodies lurking in the chest freezer. When spring comes, that thing is going to need a good defrosting.

This would probably be a great time to make a delicious soup, if only my kids would eat the stuff. For some reason they don’t actually consider it food, and certainly they don’t think of it as dinner.

Naturally, I learned all of this when I made an extra large pot of mushroom barley soup.

Do you all know Braden? He has an evolving local food blog which is called Cooking Three Times. Anyhow, he approached me about testing out one of his recipes in development.

I thought this was interesting for a couple of reasons.

1) Sometimes I get locked into a comfort zone of easy and familiar dishes, and it’s nice to be shaken out of that complacency with a new random cooking project.

2) He needed people to follow the recipe exactly as it is written, and since having children, I’ve done precious little of that in the last several years. I thought it would be a fun challenge.

And it was.

Over the years my cooking style has evolved into one that eschews measuring ingredients in favor of using them all up. Not to say that I’m imprecise. Rather, I attempt to adjust my recipes to use normal quantities of groceries. I recognize that this is crazy.

So my chana masala uses a whole box of spice blend, two pounds of dried chickpeas and a whole can of diced tomatoes. When I make rice, I make it by the one-pound bag instead of measuring out cups. I find it much easier to deal with leftover rice than remnant bags of aging dried goods.

For Braden’s recipe I needed:
4 tbsp. (1/2 stick) butter
1 pound mushrooms, sliced
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup pearled barley, rinsed
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1/3 cup sherry
8 cups unsalted beef stock
fresh thyme
chopped fresh rosemary leaves
chopped fresh parsley

At least supermarket beef stock comes in 4-cup Tetra Paks. But I was left with a ton of barley, a bottle of sherry and a whole mess of herbs. The aromatics vegetables I stock at home, so those were no big deal. I do not feel compelled to use carrots one pound at a time.

If I were going to make this recipe, I’d do it a bit differently, with a focus on building flavor in the Italian style. So I would start with my fat, which would be half butter and half olive oil on medium-high heat.

From there I’d soften the aromatics based on cooking time. I’d start with finely diced carrot, then diced celery, followed by finely diced onion, and ending with the minced garlic salting as I went (all that knife work would be labor intensive, but it would get you bites of each vegetable in every spoonful of soup).

When the garlic became intensely aromatic, I would add the diced mushrooms, stirring constantly until they absorbed the remaining fat in the pan. Then I would salt them, turn the heat to low, and cover the pan to let them sweat for ten minutes. After the mushrooms sweat out their liquid it would be time to remove the lid and simmer it off over a medium-high heat.

I did really enjoy the technique of building a roux in the pan by mixing in flour at this stage. Frankly, I thought Braden’s recipe could have gone even a bit further by adding three or even four tablespoons of flour to the vegetables.

Once that is completed, it’s time to mix in the rinsed pearled barley to form what Marcella calls an insaporire, which brings the flavor of the aromatics into the grain. Personally, I love barley, and I wouldn’t be shy about using a lot more than just a ½ cup. I might experiment with a half pound, but I suspect that will turn this more into a stew than a soup.

Now it’s sherry time. My guideline here is don’t use anything too sweet, and don’t use anything that you wouldn’t drink on its own. Those are rules to live by. After the sherry comes the broth. He had a specific brand recommendation that I used at full strength. I’d probably mix that up a bit with Pacific’s organic beef broth. Braden asked that I add the beef broth in a cup at a time. I found that useful for the first few cups to make sure the flour didn’t get lumpy, then after the first three or four you can really just let it loose, add the thyme and rosemary, and let it simmer.

Fresh herbs really add a lot to the soup. But they also add a lot to its cost and you will have a lot left over. Plus, to make matters worse, you aren’t going to find really good-looking organic thyme or rosemary in an Albany winter. For this you could substitute dried herbs by simply making a sachet out of a coffee filter and a staple and letting it steep in the soup for about 15 minutes or so.

But do not skip the bright and fresh counterpoint that the chopped parsley adds to the completed dish.

Most importantly, make sure you’ve got some mushroom barley soup eaters on hand, because that’s what I needed most. And now that I’ve thought my variation on this recipe out a bit more, perhaps now I’ll actually get off my ass and make it.

Maybe that night I’ll make the kids a box of Mac & Cheese. They’ll be thrilled, and I can take comfort in my hot bowl of mushroom barley soup. Barley is great stuff, and I don’t get enough of it.

Okay. I’ve just got to pick up some mushrooms.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 28, 2012 11:10 am

    If you have the winter doldrums, why not take a ride to the Asian Supermarket and pick up some Asian vegis and make a nice stir fry. They usually have duck legs there which cook up very nicely. You could also pick up a piece of frozen Unagi (fresh water barbecued eel) and make a cucumber salad with seasoned rice vinegar. Winter, even without snow, is a tough time to find variety but you can get some interesting things. Oh, and don’t forget the beech mushrooms.

  2. Tonia permalink
    February 28, 2012 12:21 pm

    This sounds delicious. I agree on the finely dicing. The only change I would make would be to use Pacific’s mushroom broth for a vegetarian version. I love that stuff!

  3. February 28, 2012 12:30 pm

    Drool. My hubby doesn’t care for mushrooms but he’s been slowly letting me introduce them into various parts of our meal (in fact, he flat out loved them in a recent chicken/asparagus/shiitake stir fry I came up with)….so maybe I’ll give this a whirl and see if he still loves me at the end of the day.

  4. February 28, 2012 1:47 pm

    I have one kid who thinks soup isn’t a meal. The other is more reasonable.

  5. February 28, 2012 3:17 pm

    Y’know, I don’t really consider soup to be a meal, either. There’s not enough substance to it. Stew, sure. Soup paired with a sandwich to give me some bulk, sure. But not soup alone.

  6. February 28, 2012 4:43 pm

    Am I missing something? You comment on Braden’s recipe but you don’t provide the recipe. And it’s not on his website either. (At least it’s not listed or obtainable by search.) What kind of mushrooms are these anyway?

  7. February 28, 2012 5:20 pm

    Funny, I’ve made so many soups in the past six months that I didn’t even notice the instructions for the recipe were missing until I read this comment!

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