In winter, we crave comfort food. Hearty, aromatic, nourishing barley soup, loaded with vibrant root vegetables, fits the bill.
Most Americans are familiar with beef barley soup. But barley soup can be made with chicken, mushrooms, beans, lentils, or peas, so it can easily be a vegan dish. Even plain barley-vegetable soup is delicious.
Food bloggers offer a variety of barley soups. A quick search found some vegetarian and some meat versions. Among them were Ground Beef and Barley Soup, Mushroom Barley Soup with Miso and Kale (vegan), Barley Minestrone, Slow Cooker Beef-Barley Soup, Mushroom Barley Soup with Ham and Leeks, and many others.
Barley is an ancient grain native to the Middle East. It has been gathered there for 9,000 years and cultivated for more than 7,000, so it’s probably the world’s earliest cultivated grain. Greek Olympians and Roman gladiators attributed their strength to a diet rich in barley. It was once a staple crop in much of Europe, and Europeans brought barley with them to the American continent.
In the ancient Middle East, barley bread and barley porridge were staples. Today, the most common way we use barley is in soup. Its nutty flavor blends well with winter vegetables like carrots, turnips, fennel, mushrooms and celery.
This nutritious cereal grain comes in many forms. It is easier to digest than wheat and is an excellent source of dietary fiber, complex carbohydrates, and protein. In many grains, the fiber is found primarily in the bran; but barley has fiber throughout the kernel, so even heavily pearled (polished) barley contains ample fiber. It is also a good source of vitamin E and the B complex vitamins, as well as the minerals iron, magnesium, chromium, copper, selenium, phosphorus and manganese. The grain also contains beta glucan, a complex sugar that can help lower cholesterol.
Scotch broth is a popular, filling barley soup which is made with lamb or mutton root vegetables (carrots, rutabaga, and turnips) and split peas or lentils. Leeks and cabbages are added after the barley, meat and roots are cooked; this preserves their texture, color and flavors.
In Germany, Graupensuppe Eintopf gets its rich flavor from leek, celery root, carrot, smoked bacon and potatoes.
In mountainous northern Italy, Zuppa d’Orzo is a thick, flavorful soup made with barley.
In Poland, Krupnik is a common soup. The name is derived from krupa, the Slavic word for hulled grains. Barley was a common Eastern European staple because it’s easier to grow in poor soil and cool climates than wheat.
Mushroom barley soup is a staple in most Jewish delis. It has its roots in Eastern European communities, where Aszkenazi Jews prepared a pareve (vegetarian) version of the common staple dish in order to comply with kosher laws. Wild mushrooms were gathered in the autumn woods, dried, and stored for the winter. The soup is served with sour cream.
Mushroom-barley soup was such a common staple that it gave rise to the Yiddish saying, “Beser bay zikh krupnik, eyder bay yenem gebrotns” translated “Better barley soup at home than a roast at someone else’s home.”
Mushroom barley soup is a filling, satisfying meal that needs little else. Barley’s nutty flavor marries well with earthy mushrooms and root vegetables (turnips, parsnips, carrots, leeks or onions). It is easy to prepare; once all the ingredients are added, you just have to let it simmer for about 45 minutes.
In addition to soup, barley was a common ingredient in cholent, the hearty Sabbath stew which simmered overnight after the bread ovens were turned off.
However you make it, robust, filling barley soup is a hearty, healthy, and comforting meal on a chilly winter day.
Mom’s Vegetable Barley Soup (Krupnik)
1 meaty bone (chicken, pork or beef – we usually use chicken)
8 cups water
1 teaspoon salt, or more (to taste)
Few peppercorns, or black pepper, to taste
Few grains allspice
Wedge of celeriac or stalk of celery
Wedge of a mild cabbage, such as savoy, or diced turnip
Several potatoes – 2 cups, diced (peeling optional)
2/3 cup barley
1 cup milk
1 cup minced parsley, for garnish
Place meat in water; add salt & seasonings (bay leaf & allspice berries & peppercorns); bring to a boil. Lower heat to just a simmer. Cook at least, an hour, preferably longer.
Remove bone; cut off meat that didn’t fall off, and return to pot.
Chop veggies; add to soup pot along with barley and potatoes. Simmer another 45 minutes to an hour, until potatoes & barley are soft and thicken the soup.
Taste and adjust seasonings. Add milk, if desired. If soup is too thick, thin with additional broth or milk. Garnish with parsley just before serving.
Makes about 8 cups of soup.
Lentil Barley Soup
3/4 cup dry lentils
1/2 cup barley
4 cups stock or water
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 or 2 bay leaves
1 Tablespoon tamari soy sauce
2 carrots, sliced
1 turnip, diced
1 Tablespoon oil or butter
8 ounces mushrooms, sliced (optional)
2-3 stalks celery, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can diced tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon basil
1/4 cup fresh minced parsley
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan, optional, for garnish
Optional ingredients: 1 pound ham or sausage; 3 cups other vegetables, such as green beans, sweet peppers, peas, corn, cabbage, kale, etc.
In large pot, bring lentils, barley, stock or water salt and pepper, and bay leaves to a boil. Add the tamari, carrots and turnip, cover, and lower heat to simmer.
Heat butter in a skillet. Add the onion, mushrooms celery and garlic. Cook 5 to 7 minutes and add to the soup pot.
Continue cooking about 30 minutes. Add the diced tomatoes, thyme, and basil. Add additional ingredients, if using. Cook another 20 minutes or more, until everything is sufficiently cooked through. Garnish with parsley and freshly grated Parmesan.
Mushroom Barley Soup
6 cups mushroom, vegetable or chicken stock
3/4 cups pearl barley
1 bay leaf
3 dried porcini or shitake mushrooms
1 – 2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 large onion, chopped
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stalk celery (about 1 cup chopped)
1 large carrot, scrubbed and chopped (about 1 cup)
2 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
8 oz. white mushrooms, scrubbed and sliced
Salt and pepper
Fresh minced parsley and sour cream, for serving
In your soup kettle, combine stock, barley, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to simmer and cook about 2 or 2 12 hours.
While barley Is cooking, you have time to do everything else and add to the pot.
In a small saucepan, combine dried mushrooms and 1 1/2 cups water. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat and allow to soak 20 – 30 minutes.
While mushrooms soak, heat 1 Tablespoon oil in a skillet. Peel and dice the onion, sprinkle with salt, and cook on low, covered, 5 minutes.
Wash and chop celery; scrub and chop carrot. Add to the skillet with the onion, stir, and cook another 5 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until everything begins to caramelize.
Clean and slice the white mushrooms and add to the skillet. Continue cooking 2 to 6 minutes, stirring occasionally
Peel and mince the garlic; stir into vegetables in skillet. Remove mushrooms from their soaking liquid (reserve liquid), chop, and stir into the skillet. Continue cooking on low a couple more minutes.
Add vegetables to the soup pot with the cooking barley.
Strain the reserved mushroom liquid through a coffee filter into the skillet. Bring to a boil; cook 2 to 3 minutes, scraping the bottom. Add to the soup pot.
Continue simmering the soup – for a total of 2 hours or a little more. Check occasionally; If the soup becomes too thick, add water.
Taste, and adjust seasonings, adding salt and black pepper as needed.
Serve with fresh minced parsley and a dollop of sour cream.
Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook as Author