This was a wonderful dish that my mother used to occasionally make when I was growing up. Of course, back then it was mainly barley, a little bit of mushroom, and the rare surprise bit of beef. The day my sister came to visit, the temperature plummeted twenty degrees, and has pretty much stayed there for the last month. For whatever reason, I was remembering this stew again.
As usual, I told my wife I wanted to make something that she'd never had before. She complained, saying that she hated it because she didn't like one of the ingredients (in this case, the barley). I told her to wait and see. I cooked it, she tried it, she fell in love. Try it yourself, you might be surprised.
Annoyingly, while this was a classical inexpensive yet hearty meal, that's not so much the case anymore. For example: the beef. The phrase "ask your butcher..." has a meaning. And it means to avoid talking to people that work in your local supermarket. I'm sure they're nice people, but they are to butchers what my 2 year old niece is to Picasso. They're not butchers, they are meat cutters.
Since this is a stew, I wanted to buy a cheap cut of meat. I went to talk to one of the meat cutters through the little window. I explained that I wanted some stewing meat, did he have a cheap cut available that he could recommend. Sure, he says, and comes right out to go through the meats with me. Well, I was pleased, until he picked up a beautifully marbled piece of ribeye and offered it to me.
"No, I'm sorry, this is for a stew. I need a cheap cut."
"It's on sale though"
"Yes but it's $7.50 a pound. This is really too expensive for stew. It's also the wrong cut; if I were to buy this I would cook it like a steak."
He was confused and went back and came back with something else preposterously expensive, though less so than the ribeye. We went through the same deal again. Finally he offers me the London Broil which he insists is the absolute cheapest cut of meat that they have available. At $3.99 a pound. I wanted to weep. I bought a pair of london broil steaks anyway. I will say that they ended up being delicious in the dish, but my heart bled thinking of how much they cost. Remember, Pathmark is not where you go to get advice from your butcher.
This goes for fishmongers too. A few years ago, I was making bouillabaisse and was chatting with the fishmonger about what fishes he had that he could recommend. When I was growing up, you asked the butcher and the fishmonger and you took their opinion seriously- they often had a better idea than you did how to treat their product. My fishmonger proceeds to tell me that I should throw a porkchop into the stew to make it taste great. I corrected him, explaining that it's a fish stew, not really something for a porkchop. Then he tells me to throw in some tofu, to make it really nice. I never asked him about anything again, after that.
Mushrooms were on sale, so I bought one pound of white and one pound of baby bella. You can feel free as you like to try other varieties of mushroom (and as I live in chinatown, home of fungus, I am tempted to do exactly that) but I bought what was cheap and on sale.
You will need:
1. 6 cans of chicken stock. I used College Inn, 2 cans each of the reduced sodium fat free (I wanted minimum salt), 2 cans regular, 1 can chicken stock vegetable, 1 can chicken stock with roasted garlic.
2. 2 pounds mushrooms (feel free to use more!)
3. a couple of pounds of beef (the beef is meant more to flavor the stew than be a major component. This is a highly savory dish [fuck you, Umami!] with strong mushroom taste. The meat should not overwhelm the mushroom)
4. 2 spanish onions.
6. At least a half stick of butter.
7. 4-5 cloves garlic.
8. 5 cups water.
9. 2 cups dry barley (they look like stunted grey rice grains, if you've never seen them before). Sometimes referred to as pearl barley.
Dump the chicken stock and water into a large pot and heat on high. Once it reaches a boil, bring the heat down so that it just simmers. Add barley.
If you have an assistant, you can do this step at the same time as the next step. Otherwise do it now. Rinse off your mushrooms, then slice them up (keeping both cap and stalk). You want them around 5-7 mm thick (a little bit less than 1/4th of an inch). It's two pounds, so it'll take you a few minutes. Once you're done, gently store them in a large mixing bowl until later.
Medium/rough chop the onions. Don't worry about pretty- they'll pretty much melt into the soup. In a frying pan on medium heat, melt a tablespoon of butter and coat the inside of the pan with the butter. Add the onions. Give them an occasional stir. Crush the garlic and add to the onions. Take a half down stalks of celery, trim the top and bottom and rinse. Chop the celery and add to the onions. Give this mixture an occasional stir until they've softened, say about 5 minutes or so. Dump the mixture into the simmering stock pot.
Melt another tablespoon of butter in the frying pan, and coat the entire bottom. Now here is a trick. Dump a single layer of mushrooms in the pan, then LEAVE THEM ALONE for 2 minutes. Julia Child described it as "Don't Crowd The Mushrooms" as memory serves. Effectivly, if you want them to get nicely browned, you must *not* stir them around a lot. Just leave them alone. After 2 minute, flip them over- you should see a somewhat golden color on the hot side. Now let them sit a further two minutes, allowing both sides a total of 2 minutes in the frying pan on medium heat, then dump the mushrooms into the soup pot. Repeat until all your mushrooms are in the soup pot- this will use up a fair amount of butter since you will add another tablespoon of butter after each batch. Once you're done, add a little bit of water to the frying pan and swirl it around to get any stray juices or anything left behind, then dump that water into the soup pot.
While the mushrooms cook, start cutting up your steak. I like to cut it into bite sized pieces roughly a half inch cubed. When you're done, dump the meat into the pot.
Once everything is in the pot, leave it simmering for 2 hours. Come back to taste. Now, at this point you can eat it, but you have some choices. I didn't bother to season mine- the salt from the chicken stock meant it didn't need any more, and it didn't really need any pepper. You may want to add your own. That said, by this point you'll probably be pretty hungry. I urge you to eat a bowl now if it will satisfy your hunger a bit. But turn off the heat and wait another half an hour. When you try the soup after a half hour of sitting, the character will have completely changed. What is a somewhat mushroomy soup, pleasant enough, will become completely unctuous You may not want to season it and take away from the woodsy, meaty savory taste from the mushrooms. All I'm saying is to wait that half hour, then see how you want to season it.
This isn't the cheapest meal, but it will feed several people for a couple of days, so I guess it works out to around a dollar a bowl. Enjoy!
Comment from Barb this is the sort of cheap meat you want for this recipe. The one pictured is called a Blade Steak. It's from the Shoulder (Chuck) section of the steer.
There are 2 cuts of this steak - the better one above and the cheaper one I've pasted below.
They are both fine for making soup and stew and will give you deep beefy flavour.
Further comments from Andrew: In talking about this post, my mother made several excellent points which I overlooked. First, I would normally have added a couple of bay leaves to the pot, but it slipped my mind entirely. Second, the chicken stock is the quick and easy option. The longer (and obviously superior) version is to take the meat and veggies and pop them in the pot the night before, making a stock. Leave in the fridge overnight to scoop any fat off the top. Next day, take the cooked meat and pop off any bones or fat or whatever, then re-add back to the soup.
My mother also recommends adding a few whole cloves.
This is absolutely what I would normally do, but for two reasons: 1. I went grocery shopping on the day I made the recipe, so I didn't have the stuff to make the night before. 2. It was tough enough convincing my wife to try it as it was, let alone telling her it would take a couple of days. If you're reading this and you've never had mushroom barley soup (of you've had the garbage most restaurants and such serve) and the idea of taking two days to make it seem a bit much, try the recipe as given. If you are familiar with the good stuff and want it even better, make your own stock.
Chicken stock is usually a decent shortcut. Do NOT try to take a shortcut and use canned beef stock. Something about the stuff is so awful- it's all salt and no flavor.
In these increasingly depressing economic times, I think that some of us are increasingly returning to our culinary roots. These roots are often steeped in poverty, with the idea of taking something cheap and making it delicious and filling. In a sense, I think this is great. We talk about America being the melting pot, but what it really often means is that we are moving away from our cultural heritages (the good points, anyway) and becoming more and more bland "American." I'm an American, and proud to be so. But part of the delight of being America is in rubbing elbows with so many different cultures and ideas and ways of life. And cuisines. Some cooks have tried to push us to eat more cheeks and jowls and tripe. I don't know how on board I am with that, but I appreciate the sentiment. If you are like me (and apparently half of America) and live below the poverty line, and you don't want to eat fast food anymore, dishes like this are the kind of thing you need to know about.