As you may have noticed, I have been making various kinds of mushroom barley soup for ages. I thought I was pretty well set in my methods for both beef barley and vegetarian versions. But I'm here to tell you I was missing the boat big time, because it had not occurred to me to toast the barley. I owe this insight to Daniel Boulud (and co-author Dorie Greenspan-the-great). So very, very good.
It makes total sense. If we toast nuts before we bake, we take our cakes and cookies to the proverbial next level, "up a notch", or whatever you want to call it when food is so good that we are surprised. Toasting leftover bread and smearing it with something damp and tasty turns a chewy crust into an elegant first course. Pre-roasting vegetables for a composed salad, ratatouille, or casserole intensifies their flavors so nicely.
And, of course, toasting a grain before cooking it in liquid is not exactly a new idea. The redfox introduced me to the idea of pre-toasting steel cut oatmeal (in butter, mmmn) some time ago. Cooked slowly thereafter in milk or water, it is seriously delicious. And sure, toasting rice before the liquid is added makes a pilaf or risotto more than just rice. (Not that there is anything at all wrong with "just rice"; it's just a different thing entirely.) I think I even tried a barley pilaf once. Close, but no cigar.
Probably this is such an obvious step that you have already taken it. But if you haven't, I wanted to let you know. Because, despite the seeming simplicity of the idea, I feel a bit like a primitive soul who accidentally spilled some gathered grain into the fire, scooped it up, and finally got it into my pot of water boiling there. Or put out a grain fire with water, and noticed it smelled nice... or something equally feeble and unlikely. You know... "Eureka"?.
In my gratitude for this insight, I have not altered the Boulud recipe a bit, and have yet to try it with any of my usual mushroom-barley shenanigans...not even a drop of Asian (toasted!) sesame oil for the vegetarian version. Because this is a delicious and perfectly balanced recipe as is, though I'm sure it would be nice with a chicken or beef broth in place of the vegetable broth, if you prefer. I served it, as suggested, with a garlic crouton, a/k/a "toast", heh.
Here you are:
2 ounces dried mushrooms (such as morels, porcini, shitakes, and chanterelles)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter or extra virgin olive oil
1 cup pearl barley
1 stalk celery, cut into ¼-inch dice
1 medium leek (white part only), split lengthwise, cut into ¼-inch slices
1 medium onion, cut into ¼-inch dice
1 medium carrot, cut into ¼-inch dice
1 medium turnip, cut into ¼-inch dice
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
6 sage leaves, finely chopped (reserve stems for the herb sachet)
¾ pound assorted fresh mushrooms, trimmed, cleaned, and cut in half
3½ quarts unsalted vegetable stock *
Herb sachet (6 reserved sage stems, 4 sprigs Italian parsley, 2 sprigs thyme, 1 bay leaf, ¼ teaspoon fennel seeds, ¼ teaspoon coriander seeds, and ¼ teaspoon black peppercorns)
Freshly ground white pepper
Put the dried mushrooms in a bowl and pour a pint of warm water over them. Let the mushrooms soak for at least 30 minutes. Remove the mushrooms from the water and squeeze out excess moisture; discard the soaking liquid. Warm one tablespoon of the butter in a small sauté pan over medium heat and add the barley.
Cook the barley, stirring regularly, for about 5 minutes, or until the grains are lightly toasted. Remove pan from the heat and set the barley aside. Warm the remaining two tablespoons butter in a stockpot over medium heat. Add the celery, leek, onion, carrot, turnip, garlic, and salt, and cook until the vegetables soften, about 10 minutes.
Add the sage and add fresh and reconstituted mushrooms. Season with salt to taste and continue to cook until the mushrooms release their moisture. Stir in three quarts of the stock and toss in the herb sachet and barley. Bring the soup to a boil, reduce heat until simmering gently, and cook until the barley is tender and the broth is thoroughly infused, about 1 hour and 10 minutes. (The soup can be cooled and refrigerated at this point. )
Add remaining two cups broth and bring soup to a boil. Season to taste and discard the herb sachet.
Ladle the soup into warm bowls.
From the Cafe Boulud Cookbook by Daniel Boulud and Dorie Greenspan
*Plus more if you wish. As you can see, this is a thick, full meal soup...thick enough to float your spoon. So if you'd like it brothier, you will want to add more. Also, if you are making it ahead, the barley will soak up more of the broth while it waits, and you will want to add more when you serve it.