Mushroom, Barley, and Beef

The first few times I ever combined beef and barley in a soup I instinctively knew that it also needed mushrooms. Maybe they are linked through their earthiness or some preordained symbiotic cooking relationship. I don’t have a good or witty explanation – it is just a great combination. Add some beef and a good stock and you have one of the greatest winter comfort-food soups of western cookery. So the mushrooms called out to me, I shockingly went to the mushroom shelf in the store and bought half a pound. I cleaned, chopped, and sautéed in butter because thats what I had seen on Iron Chef. It worked and I’ve never looked back.

Remy, the unrealistically gifted chef rat from Ratatouille, has an early revelation about special flavor combinations that make good recipes exquisite. A few distinct flavors meld together in just the right fashion and the collective sum reaches new heights. This reminds me of how I describe good counterpoint when teaching – two or more independent lines that are each satisfying all on their own are combined in a special way to create something far better than their individual parts. Wow. Bach, Beethoven, Bartok, (Kellogg?)! And so it happened with mushrooms. Mushrooms sautéed in butter then added to a soup or stew give wonderful undercurrents of earthy goodness. It is an understated flavor that supports the bolder ingredients while creating depth. It also melds well with the addition of a variety of spices like cinnamon, cumin, and cloves. The texture, color, and shape of sautéed mushrooms also melt into the background of many soups and stews.

My daughter has now cultivated her own special disdain for mushrooms. My dad hates mushrooms, I hated mushrooms for decades, and now my daughter hates mushrooms. The sins of the father will be visited upon the child… Now I have an ironical problem – I want to cook with mushrooms in my soups and stews and my daughter will protest with as much strength as I ever mustered. I get sneaky. I chop them really fine, sauté them extra long so they shrink, and I let them disappear into my big soup pot. But I don’t like to lie to or even intentionally deceive my kid. I tell her there might be mushrooms in the soup, I can’t remember, but she surely won’t notice them. She buys into my weak explanation and now I can put mushrooms in soup whenever I like!

I recently made mushroom, barley, and beef soup for my in laws with a rich and concentrated beef bone broth combined with turkey broth. My father in law believes in the healing power of homemade bone broths and I wanted to impress him with something special. My broth was thick, gelatinous, and had a good bit of emulsified fat (I like to leave the fat in my stocks). I then sautéed the mushrooms and onions in good French butter for a long stretch and carefully deglazed the frying pan to capture every bit of flavor. I used a high end pot roast for the beef and cooked it in the pressure cooker after serious browning in the oven. It was a simple soup from beginning to end but I went the extra distance with each step to develop as much flavor as possible. I kept the beef in large chunks so I could put a couple pieces right in the middle of the bowl, and garnished with parsley. Writing this blog may lead to bias, but I think it was the best mushroom, barley, and beef soup I have ever made. In the words of Emeril Lagasse – BAM!

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