Let me begin by saying, very unapologetically, this is not a vegetarian soup! I have made this soup, for many years, with vegetable stock, and it was quite delicious. But this time I made it with homemade beef stock. This soup was savory and meaty, with a richness, fullness and complexity of flavour that I had not tasted in a very long time. I had forgotten how good soup made with homemade beef stock could taste. About 9 years ago my daughter announced she was going vegetarian. I thought it was a phase, but by year 3 I finally wised up to the fact that she meant business. As a result, I vegetarianized all my soup recipes. And I just got used to them that way. It’s amazing how you can get stuck in a culinary rut this way and not even realize it.
It was only after volunteering at a Soup Sisters event last week that I was reminded of how much I loved soup made with beef and chicken stock. I used to make chicken stock weekly and beef and veal stock once in a while. With my daughter is away at university and I decided to embrace the beef. I got some beef bones at the butcher and roasted them with aromatic vegetables until they were all golden brown. I have to admit, I sort of felt like I was cheating and as the aroma of roasting beef bones was wafting out of my oven, I worried she would come in at any moment and catch me in the act of infidelity. I simmered everything for about 5 hours, strained the broth and chilled it overnight. The next day I spooned off the hardened fat, and heated up the stock. It was gorgeous.
I found this recipe for mushroom barley soup in Gourmet magazine (a moment of silence please) many years ago (September 1998 issue). The original recipe comes from Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor Michigan. I have adapted it slightly. If you plan to make it with homemade beef stock (and I implore you to try it, just once, you’ll be hooked!) start a day ahead of time.
Just a few words about mushrooms. I had always been taught that mushrooms should never be washed under running water as they act as a sponge and will become waterlogged. I was instructed to just wipe them with a damp cloth or paper towel. What a tedious task. Well, Cook’s Illustrated has dispelled the washing myth. They did a test (of course they did, you gotta love Cook’s!) where they soaked 6 ounces of mushrooms in a bowl of water for 5 minutes. Then they drained the mushrooms and weighted them again. They only absorbed 1 1/2 teaspoons of water. So go ahead and rinse your mushrooms under cold water. I used regular brown button mushrooms (called crimini) in my soup.
Regarding dried mushrooms, they should be soaked in boiling water for about 10 minutes. Sometimes there is grit in dried mushrooms. If you want to use the flavourful soaking liquid in the soup, strain the liquid through a paper coffee filter if you don’t have any cheesecloth.
I added about a tablespoon of tomato paste to the original recipe. Tomato paste is one of the several foods that contribute to umami. Umami (pronounced oo-mommy) is known as the 5th taste. We all learned about sweet, sour, salty and bitter when we were in school. Turns out the Japanese discovered a 5th taste our tongues could recognize. They maned it umami. It is best described as a savoriness. Simply put, it just makes food taste more delicious. Other foods that contribute to umami include Parmesan Cheese, anchovies, mushrooms, soy sauce and, brace yourself, breast milk. No wonder humans crave this 5th taste!
I finished the soup off with some freshly chopped dill and parsley as well as a spoonful of sherry vinegar. I remembered making beef consommé in culinary school. It was an all day affair involving ground beef and egg whites. Really gross but kind of cool to watch it being made. We finished the consommé off with some dry sherry. I had none in the house so I tried a splash of sherry vinegar and really liked the brightness it added to the soup.
The day I decided to make this, I had no barley so I substituted farro. I really loved the chewy texture of this grain in the soup.