I love mushrooms for their flavor, texture, and meatiness. It's almost odd to say so, but mushrooms do have a texture and deep flavor that reminds me of meat. One of my favorite comfort foods is a bowl of mushroom soup. For me it's just as satisfying as a bowl of chili. Like little sponges, mushrooms easily take on the flavors of other ingredients that they cook with. Sautéing them in garlic or onions makes them especially wonderfully robust. This soup uses cremini mushrooms, the brown button type, and dried porcini mushrooms, which have an intense almost nutty flavor. This soup has a lot of good going for it.
Not surprisingly, there are hundreds of varieties of mushrooms, but surprisingly the ones that we buy in grocery stores are almost all the same. White button, cremini, and portobello are all forms of the common mushroom. All our supermarket mushrooms are cultivated, grown on inoculated logs in mushroom farms. The most popular, button mushrooms, are white as a result of mutation. But the common mushroom is typically brown, such as cremini, or baby bella as they are marketed. When they are large and mature, they are sold as portobello mushrooms. All of these mushrooms are great in the kitchen, but each one has its best use. Portobellos, for example are exceptional when grilled and can be eaten like a burger. Cremini, with their full flavor yet tender size, are perfect for soups.
This soup features that classic combination of mushrooms and barley. Long used in the Middle East, barley is a whole grain that ranks fourth in world production right behind wheat, rice, and maize. Barley has many uses, in soup and stews or made into baked goods or breakfast porridge. Of course it is also an important ingredient in the making of beer and whiskey. Barley looks like a small white oval seed, once cooked it swells into a pearl. It cooks in about 30 minutes or half that time if pre-soaked. Find barley in either regular or pearled form, which has had more of its bran removed my steaming and polishing.
For this recipe, I use regular barley for its whole-grain goodness. But pearl barley would also work fine though it might cook up a little quicker. I don't bother soaking barley, because 35 minutes is not that long of a cooking time. Be sure to use a lot of liquid when cooking barley as the grain absorbs a great deal. Here I reuse the soaking liquid from the dried mushrooms as well as add beef stock. Chicken or vegetable stock are also fine stand-ins. The nice thing about this soup is that you don't need to add any cream to create creaminess. The starch that cooks out of the barley thickens the soup, giving it a very nice consistency. The final dish tastes meaty, earthy, and woody. It's just the right kind of bowl to warm up with on a cold winter day.
Mushroom and Barley Soup
1 1-ounce package dried porcini mushrooms
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large shallots, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 pound cremini mushrooms, cleaned, stems trimmed, and sliced
8 cups beef stock
4 sprigs fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1/2 cup barley, rinsed
fine sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup finely chopped parsley
Add dried mushrooms to a bowl and cover with 2 cups of boiling water. Soak, submerged with a small plate, for 20 minutes. Squeeze liquid from mushrooms and slice. Reserve liquid and strain.
Warm oil in a skillet set over medium-high heat. Add shallots and garlic; sauté until fragrant and translucent, about 2 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook until their liquid releases, about 5 minutes. Add beef stock, thyme, reserved mushroom liquid, and reconstituted porcini. Bring to a boil. Add barley and reduce to a simmer. Cook, partially covered, until barley is tender, about 35 to 40 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in chopped parsley before serving. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.