I spent the last few weeks of autumn thinking about soups: all the soups I'm going to make, how I'm going to turn sunny salads into warming soups, how I will nourish my body with some of the healthiest food out there. I finally got to it last night.
I started out with a recipe for porcini mushroom soup with barley and pancetta, but ended up with something different entirely. In a mad dash to buy ingredients and get some other grocery shopping done, I stopped at a couple of ethnic markets, but not at any supermarkets: no dried porcini mushrooms to be found. I was also cooking for a friend who's a vegetarian for the month (not to mention a no-caffeine-etarian, and a teetotaler... yikes), so there goes the pancetta, not to mention the beef and chicken broths in the original recipe.
I'd heard of vegetarian beef boullion cubes -- a kosher relative uses them in her French onion soup, so she can have it in the traditional cheesy gratinee style -- but again, no time. So I was stuck with plain old water. Kind of a disaster -- where is this soup going to get its flavor?
Then I remembered something my mom taught me a few days ago: when making polo -- any of a handful of Persian rice dishes with herbs, vegetables, and fruits -- you usually add flavor in the form of the juices from the accompanying meat. However, if you're not serving meat, you just fry some chopped onions in some oil, with salt, pepper, and saffron -- magical ingredient that it is, and this will add all the savory goodness you need. It should also be noted here that the smell of onions frying in oil with saffron is, quite literally, the best smell in the world.
When you have to get somewhere fast, and you're stuck in the gridlock that lately seems to plague every street in Los Angeles at every moment of the day, a couple things happen: you start yelling at other drivers, and you come up with brilliant ideas. Maybe this is just me. I realized I would not have the soup done in time if I went by the recipe. In a fit of genius, I decided to prepare it in a way that cut the cooking time in half: cook the barley separately while chopping vegetables, then add it into the soup pot when you're ready for it. It's another dish to wash, but it's multitasking at its finest.
So, the soup was done in time, and ended up all I expected: nourishing -- with a wide variety of vegetables; richly scented -- with a mix of bulbs, greens, mushroom, and fantastic saffron; and substantial -- from meaty portobello mushrooms and barley. All in all a brighter, friendlier version of the traditional mushroom and barley soup. As we're getting some cold cold days and nights, here's to hoping there will be many more great soups to come.
Portobello and Barley Soup with Saffron
The idea of this recipe is to chop as you go: you can start with whole vegetables, straight from the market (well, washed of course), chop each one, then add it to the pot to sautee while you chop the next. As such, the times for each vegetable to cook are approximate -- they take as long to cook as it takes you to chop the next vegetable.
2 cups water
1/2 cup pearl barley
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
small pinch ground saffron
1/2 cup chopped celery (about 4-5 stalks)
1/2 cup chopped carrots (about 4-5 large, or 20 baby carrots)
1 large portobello mushroom
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup white wine or dry vermouth
4 cups water
4 Swiss chard leaves, cut into lengthwise thirds, then thinly sliced crosswise
Shaved Parmesan cheese
In a small pot, bring 2 cups water to a boil. Add barley, stir. When it returns to a boil, lower heat and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes. If during this time, the water all evaporates, add another 1/2 cup.
Meanwhile, prepare the vegetables. Heat olive oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat. Add shallots and onions; stir. Add saffron to oil in pot and stir. Take care to stir onions and shallots into the saffron, not saffron into onions and shallots, so that you don't end up with all the saffron on the spatula. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring if it begins to brown. Add carrots and celery, stir, cook for about 3 minutes. Add mushrooms, stir, cook for another 5 minutes, or until you smell cooked mushrooms. Add garlic, stir, cook for another 3 minutes. Season generously with salt and pepper.
Add wine or vermouth to vegetables and cook, stirring constantly until mixture no longer smells of alcohol. Add 4 cups of water and stir. Increase heat and bring soup to a boil. Once it's bubbling, pour in barley with any water from the barley pot. Lower heat and simmer for at least 20 minutes, until barley is soft. In the last 10 minutes of cooking, stir in the chard. Taste, and adjust salt and pepper.
Serve with shaved Parmesan cheese and crusty bread.
As a meal, makes 3 servings.
A note on saffron: A lot of cooks throw whole threads into their food, and claim this is the best way. I beg to differ (and so does my mom, which is surely worth more). When you grind it, you expose much more of the saffron's surface area to the food you're working with, and it spreads more evenly throughout the food -- so you get deeper flavor and brighter color, using less. Saffron is quite expensive, so stretching it out this way helps a very small pinch go a long way. Of course, had we world enough and time, we'd grind just the amount we want to use right before we use it... If not, grind it in small batches in your coffee grinder.