Mushroom and Barley Soup


Another winter Monday, another round of snow shoveling. Today’s snow was light and fluffy, with the air temperature at a “comfortable” 20 degrees. Still, it was nice to come back into the house to the aroma of homemade soup simmering on the stove.

Soup is one of the easiest of foods to make from scratch–really!–but it also is something that is hard to pin down to specific recipes. Part of this comes from the great American propensity for wanting carefully calibrated amounts in their cooking instructions, but good soup includes ingredients that just don’t come in pre-measured amounts. Just how big is a “medium onion” and is the clove of garlic listed in the ingredients as big as your thumb or just a little cashew? Even if you are using a 15 oz can of diced tomatoes and chiles, the amount of seasoning varies from brand to brand–and sometimes from one year to the next. There are two other things that make homemade soups wonderfully unique (and sometimes hard to duplicate): broth and the exact choice of ingredients.

Broth (or Stock–see NOTE below)

And then there is the base of most soups–broth. Yes, you can buy fairly standardized broth in the store, and you might even find one that you like especially well. However, the cost is generally far higher than broth you make yourself, and there still is no better broth than that coming from your own kitchen. The problem here is that every time you make broth (or better yet, save it from a prior pork or beef roast or braised chicken), the seasoning will be slightly different, the concentration varying from batch to batch. The bottom line is that every time you make soup with a different broth for the base, there will be a different flavor result. Not a problem. Instead, this is when you get to taste and adjust, taste and adjust. Not quite salty enough? Easy to resolve, just a sprinkle more. But maybe the soup needs a little more “zip.” Maybe, with some recipes, that means a bit of black pepper, a splash of hot sauce or a little diced jalapeno. More often though, it might mean a tiny bit of sugar (or more sweet ingredients–see below) or a splash of vinegar or Worcestershire sauce–or maybe even soy sauce or some other favorite condiment sauce. It’s your soup, so you could to play with what you add.

What if, on the other hand, the broth starts out too salty? If it is just a little over the top, you can add some beans or starchy ingredients to the soup. If the salt is just a little too strong, just adding a cup or two of unseasoned rice, pasta, barley, lentils, or potatoes to the soup may take care of the problem. If it is really salty, you might try the old remedy of cutting a large potato in perhaps two or three chunks and let them simmer for a few minutes. You remove these potatoes and discard, taking a lot of the salt with them.

It is best of course to taste the broth before adding to the soup. If you realize early on that you have an over-salt problem, you may choose to cut the broth with water (or milk for a cream soup) before starting the soup. If you don’t catch the problem before adding other ingredients, you can also double the vegetable and other ingredients and increase the water accordingly.

NOTE:       Do a quick search and you’ll find a variety of explanations for the difference, sometimes completely opposite in the definitions of each. Probably the most consistent distinction is that stock comes from the cooking of a variety of ingredients including bones for non-vegetarian stocks, while broth is made with more meat. However, the bottom line is that the home cook can generally consider these terms interchangeably in any recipes. I will use broth in the rest of this post, just to keep things simple.

All Those Other Ingredients

Even though I have included a recipe here, with specific ingredients and amounts, the truly freeing part of homemade soups is the opportunity to be totally flexible. Unlike the more scientific world of baking, where even small differences in the amount of fat, leavening, flour, etc., can make or break a cake or muffin recipe, soups are where you can really get creative.

Let’s use today’s recipe for an example. This one includes carrot juice and a small amount of canned diced tomatoes. I have to admit that carrot juice is not typically in my pantry, but I found a great buy at Costco and tucked a couple of quarts into the freezer. A soup seemed an ideal time to use it, especially a soup where I might have otherwise added some sliced carrots. It turned out to be a good choice, but the soup ended up losing the bright color of the carrot slices; I happened to have the cup of tomatoes in the refrigerator, left over from an earlier soup of another kind, so that worked well to add a little color while not being a large enough amount to overwhelm with too “tomatoe-y” flavor.

I’ve added a suggested variation if you don’t have carrot juice on hand, but that is only the start of variations you could make. And then you can keep going with your own variations. Maybe you are not crazy about celery, or only have one tired stalk left; reduce the amount or leave it out. I know that the broth I used had some poultry seasoning and sage in it so those flavors were already in the soup; you might want to add one of these–or maybe rosemary or some other herb–in addition to or in place of the herbs I used this time. And if you have some leftover vegetables in the refrigerator, maybe one or more of them might appeal to you in this soup too. But don’t just dump every leftover into the soup just because it’s there. Think first about the combinations. Asparagus is not going to work here, and as I mentioned, too much tomato would probably overwhelm the lovely mushroom/barley flavor combination. However, a cup or so of corn could  be a nice complement–and color brightener besides. Some chopped spinach or kale (kept in the freezer for just this kind of use) could also be a good addition.

I really do recommend this soup as a great way to enjoy mushrooms in a soup that even a lactose intolerant person could have. If you use a vegetable broth/stock as the base, it could even be a good choice for a vegan. (The butter is there because I find that just a little added to the mushrooms as they are sauteed adds great depth of flavor. That too could be left out for a vegan version.)

Barley Mushroom Soup

1 1/2 c hulled or pearl barley
5 to 6 c chicken or other broth

3-4 garlic cloves, minced
Olive or canola oil
2 T butter (optional)
1 large onion—about 2 cups—chopped
1 1/2 c diced celery
8 oz mushrooms, sliced (I used crimini or “baby bella”)
app 1 t each dried marjoram, basil, thyme, black pepper

2 c carrot juice
1 c canned diced tomatoes, with juice
1.  Cook the barley and garlic in the broth according for about  30 to 45  minutes, until just barely soft.
2.  While the barley is cooking, heat a small amount of oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Brown the onions and celery slowly, stirring occasionally.
3.  When the onions become translucent and start to brown, add the butter if used and the sliced mushrooms. Continue sauteeing, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are well-cooked.
4.  Add the mushrooms to the cooked broccoli and stir in the remaining ingredients. Taste and adjust for seasonings. Continue to simmer for about 20 minutes or so to deepen flavors.
This soup is especially good the next day and can be frozen if desired. 

Serves 6 to 8.

Saute 2 to 3 cups of sliced carrots with the onions and celery and substitute added broth or water for the carrot juice. 
Substitute about a cup of cooked and pureed butternut squash for the carrot juice.
Add other vegetables or seasonings as desired. One to two cups of chopped frozen greens (spinach or kale) may be added in step 4. If still frozen, simmer for 30 minutes or so to be sure the flavors are well developed.
Substitute one to two 8 oz cans of mushrooms for the fresh mushrooms, including the liquid in the can. Do not saute with the onions; just add in step 4 directly from the cans.
You could even turn this into a Beef and Barley Mushroom Soup by adding leftover, diced, roast beef or steak, using beef broth instead of the chicken broth. Stir in the meat in step 4 and simmer for at least 20 minutes. 

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