Sunday, 12 October 2008

Potage Champignon-Orge (Mushroom-Barley Soup)

Unlike many other immigrants to America, my Eastern European grandparents and great-grandparents had little nostalgia for the motherland. America was, for them, truly a place where the streets were paved with gold, where their Jewish faith was not an impediment to success and where hard work held forth the promise of prosperity for themselves and their families.

As observant Jews (who therefore didn't combine milk and meat, or eat any pork products), many of the most typical dishes of their native countries never appeared on their tables. Nor do I recall any specific family recipes which made the boat journeys from Kiev and eastern Poland. The food we ate was generic Ashkenazic fare, adapted for American appetites: chicken soup with matzo balls, noodle pudding (kugel), pot roasts and brisket, and cakes bought from a kosher bakery on New York's Lower East Side which adapted such Austro-Hungarian classics as dobosch torte to be suitable for consumption after meat meals. We maintained some lingering affection for mile-high cold cut sandwiches on rye, adorned with half-sweet, half-sour pickles. But the most overt culinary symbols of our peasant roots--borscht, stuffed innards such as kishke (in effect a kosher version of haggis) and the heavy Sabbath stew, cholent--never made it to the second, much less third, generations.

Yet in much the same way that some of the thoroughly Americanized descendants of these immigrants are now exploring their linguistic heritage, Yiddish, I have been making cautious inroads into the repertory of dishes which my family likely ate some hundred years ago. I have not been particularly adventurous or ambitious: the list to date includes such easy-to-like ingredients as schmaltz (great for frying potatoes), and recipes for latkes, rugelach, sour-cream coffee cake and borscht. And, if I'm perfectly honest, these forays have done little to redress the Mediterranean bias of my daily cooking. But as the evenings draw in ever earlier, and I try to resist turning on the heat, the rib-lining soups once favoured during cold Russian winters exercise a certain appeal.

I've made mushroom-barley soup twice in as many weeks, though the repetition was largely due to me burning the broth irreparably on my first try. Gross incompetence aside, it is as forgiving as it is filling. For extra depth, use meat broth, or throw in a few bones or offcuts from your butcher while simmering. (In this case, you might want to chill the soup for a day, and skim off the fat before serving.) You could also use porcini stock cubes or vegetable broth, as I did. And while I poured in some beer while the soup simmered, white wine, vermouth or sherry would all highlight the sweet, earthy vegetable flavours. Finally, either hulled or unhulled barley can be used; in the case of the latter, you may want to par-cook it separately to avoid turning the vegetables into mush while it softens.

Mushroom-Barley Soup
Active time: 30 minutes; Total time: approximately 1 hour 15 minutes, if using fast-cooking barley
Serves 2 as a hearty dinner with bread and cheese

olive oil
2 small onions OR 1 small onion + 1 leek
1 carrot
1 stalk celery
just over 1 pound white and/or cremini (baby bella) mushrooms
2 tbsp mixed dried mushrooms
2 cloves garlic
1-2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1/3 bottle lager or another light-bodied beer
1/2 cup hulled barley
meat bones or offcuts (optional)

Place the dried mushrooms in a heat-proof bowl and cover with about 2 cups of boiling water. In a large, heavy-bottomed pot capable of holding all the raw mushrooms, melt a nub of butter and add a light film of oil. Coarsely chop the onions, carrot and celery and add, sauteeing on a medium-low heat until fully softened. Salt and pepper generously. While these cook, clean and chop the mushrooms relatively finely. (You can use the trimmed stems if not too woody.) Add to the pot and raise the heat, cooking until the mushrooms give up all their water and lose half their volume. Chop garlic and rosemary and add. Remove the dried mushrooms from their liquid, chop and add, cooking for a further 2-3 minutes. Pour in beer and mushroom soaking liquid (leaving off the bottom inch to avoid grit) and bring to a boil. Add meat, if using. After the liquid reduces slightly, add barley and enough broth to cover generously. Reduce heat, cover and cook until the barley is al dente. Check periodically, adding extra broth if required. Season to taste and serve.

Leaving out the optional meat, I hope this qualifies for No Croutons Required, the monthly soup-blogging event. Check it out here after 20 October.


Lisa said...

Indeed this does qualify for our event. I can never get enough mushrooms. Thanks for this delightful entry.

Shira said...

Thanks, Lisa. Looking forward to seeing the roundup.


Sophie said...

I'm slowly trying to put recipes together from my family's past as well. I like the tips you offer, this sounds like an ideal warm meal for a cold day. I would love to feature it on our Demy, the first and only digital recipe reader. Please email if you're interested. Thanks! :)

You can find out about it here:

lisa said...

Mmmmmm, lovely! I am with Lisa, I absolutely ove mushrooms! This is a soup that is right up my street. Thanks for entering it into the challenge.