Thursday, October 23, 2014

Mushroom Barley Soup

Several years ago, the little hippie natural market down the street was going out of business. I must admit I wasn't terribly crushed to see it go — their prices weren't great, the in-house bakery didn't make the sort of breads and cookies I fancy, and they would never mark produce down to the half-priced bin until it was nearly in a state of active decomposition. But in addition to clearing the way for a less flawed grocery store to move in, their departure had another unexpected benefit: the Going Out of Business Sale.

I remember filling up a few bags of marked-down groceries, though all these years later I don't remember what they were. But here's what I do remember: an enormous, gallon-sized glass jar of dried porcini mushrooms.

Dried porcinis are the shortcut to deep, amazing flavor. They are also beyond expensive. So when I asked a clerk the price on the unmarked jar, I expected something ridiculous. "Um, $20?" he suggested. "But we're in our final days, so everything's half-priced. $10." I grabbed the jar, hit the checkout, and ran home before anyone reconsidered.

It's a deal so good I kinda feel a bit guilty. And it was quite the haul — although the dwindling supply has been transferred to smaller and smaller jars over the years, I'm still making my way through them. But that's okay. Because I can just keep making mushroom barley soup.  

Like many with roots in Eastern Europe, I grew up with mushroom barley soup. It's hearty, delicious, and perfect for these blustery days. This recipe comes from the lovely Zingerman's deli, and uses the dried porcinis to add some fusty oomph to the sliced fresh mushrooms. I upped the vegetable component, because that's what I do, and even stirred in a few ribbons of tender baby collards. Even if you don't have your own stash of dried porcinis, it's still likely a good soup. But with them, it's even better.

Mushroom Barley Soup

adapted from Zingerman's Deli, via Joan Nathan's Jewish Cooking in America
yields one enormous pot of soup (which also freezes well)

1/4 cup dried porcini mushrooms  
2 tablespoons butter, oil or margarine

1 large onion, diced
2 ribs celery with leaves, diced  
1/4 cup parsley (I swapped this out with a few leaves of young collards, as I love me some greens) 

2-3 carrots, peeled and diced  
3 cloves garlic, chopped  
1 pound fresh mushrooms (buttons or criminis), thickly sliced
1 tablespoon flour  
2 quarts broth or water  
1 cup whole barley  
bay leaf

Bring a kettle of water to a boil. Place your dried porcinis in a small heat-proof bowl, and pour the hot water over them to cover completely. Let soak half an hour. Swish out any dirt from the dried mushrooms, transfer to a cutting board, and pour the soaking liquid through a coffee filter or cheesecloth. Reserve this mushroom liquid. Coarsely chop the dried mushrooms, and reserve those as well.

Melt the butter or oil in a large soup pot over a medium heat. Add the onion, celery, half the parsley, carrots, and garlic. Add a pinch of salt and saute, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened but not colored, ~5-7 minutes. Add the mushrooms, and cook until they give off their liquid and soften, another ~7 minutes. (If your pot isn't huge, you can split this process into two pots, and then combine at this point.)

When the mushrooms have softened, sprinkle on the flour, and stir until for a few minutes, until the mixture is well combined and beginning to thicken. Gradually add the broth or water, a cup or so at a time at first, stirring and raising the heat until it begins to simmer. Add all of the liquid, along with the reserved mushrooms and their liquid, and they bay leaf and barley. Stir well, add salt to taste.

Simmer, partially covered, stirring every now and then, for at least an hour, until the barley is tender and the soup is delicious (if you're a hippie like me and want to use some kale or collards, add them in for the last 15 minutes or so).  Remove the bay leaf, add the remaining chopped parsley, adjust seasonings and serve.


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