Mushroom Barley Soup

In the realm of dinner party conversations, it seems that like religion and politics, mushrooms are an additional controversial topic that some manners ninny might advise you to avoid. People either love them or hate them and either side will vehemently defend its position. I fall on the love side and since this blog is my soapbox, here’s my latest effort to convince others to learn to love the fungus.

I personally don’t understand how anyone can make a blanket statement that they hate mushrooms when each kind has a different flavor (or in the case of white button ones, no flavor at all.) I love how the flavors run from woodsy shiitakes to meaty flavored porcinis to buttery lobster mushrooms. So when I started thinking about how I would improve a classic mushroom barley soup, I knew the first thing I wanted to do was toss out the usual boring white mushroom and use a variety of mushrooms instead. I used what I could find through my grocery service so in this case, I used a mix of shiitakes, criminis, and rehydrated porcinis.

Mushroom barley tends to feel like a late fall, winter-time soup, but since it was spring when I made this, I made other tweaks to make it feel like a brighter, lighter soup. I added strands of chopped spinach both for its green color and to cut through the beef and mushroom stock with a vegetal flavor. A drizzle of balsamic vinegar added acidic brightness, a contrast to a splash of soy sauce which deepened the umami flavors of the mushrooms. Lastly, a sprinkle of dill lent a lightly floral finish. With a new balance of flavors, I hope any mushroom haters out there might be willing to give this soup a try.

Note: Keep the soup vegan by swapping out the beef stock in exchange for a mix of vegetable and mushroom stock. You can also substitute different mushrooms for ones you find in the store or prefer, just do me a favor and avoid flavorless white button ones.

  • 8 oz shiitake mushrooms
  • 8 oz crimini mushrooms
  • 1.5 oz package of dried porcini mushrooms, rehydrated according to package directions
  • olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, chopped
  • 2 stalks of celery, chopped
  • 2 medium cloves of garlic, minced (about 1.5 teaspoons)
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon tamari soy sauce
  • 10 oz package frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
  • 1/2 cup pearled barley
  • 4 cups beef stock
  • water
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1-2 teaspoons more of chopped fresh dill
  • 1 inch thick slices of baguette brushed with olive oil and baked, topped with shredded Gruyère cheese as an optional garnish

Although mushrooms these days are cultivated and not so dirty as in the past, use a clean, damp kitchen or paper towel to wipe any dirt from the shiitakes and criminis. Slice shiitake and crimini mushrooms, about 1/4 inch thick. When porcinis have rehydrated, remove the mushrooms then line a wire strainer with paper towel or cheesecloth. Place the strainer over a bowl and pour out the hydrating liquid, reserving the strained liquid for adding to the soup. (The paper towel or cheesecloth helps keep out dirt and other particles from the mushrooms.)

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in the bottom of a large soup pot or Dutch oven and heat over medium heat. Add onion and saute until softened, about 5-7 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook until browned, about 10-15 minutes. Mix in carrots, celery, and garlic and continue to saute until carrots soften slightly, another 5-7 minutes. Stir in tomato paste and soy sauce, making sure they coat the vegetables in the soup pot. Pour in the beef stock, reserved porcini water, and an additional cup of water. Bring to a boil then add the barley. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until barley is cooked, about 30-40 minutes. In the last 10 minutes of simmering, add the spinach, using your fingers to break it apart and distribute throughout the soup. Stir in balsamic vinegar, 1 tablespoon of dill, and salt and pepper to taste right before serving. Serve in bowls with an additional sprinkle of dill for garnish and a toasted cheese crostini if you wish.

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