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Beef and Barley Soup

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This hearty, filling beef and barley soup recipe is just the thing to warm your soul on a cold winter night. If you like shiitake mushrooms, you’ll find this a pleasing mushroom soup recipe, also.

This soup is rich with the savory tastes of sauteed vegetables, seared beef and homemade beef stock. The barley and the shiitake mushroom work in tandem, amping up each other’s distinctive brand of comforting chewiness.

You can sub in boughten beef stock. But, for some incredibly luscious beefiness, do consider getting yourself some bones and making your own. Check out my beef stock recipe.

File this one under recipe beef barley soup. You can also count it as a mushroom soup recipe, thanks to the shiitake.

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Beef and barley soup recipe

Key elements

Red wine. This somehow makes the beefy flavor … beefier. The complexity of the wine resonates with and amplifies the deep, baritone flavors of the stock and the browned meat.

Apple cider vinegar. Add this just before serving. To learn more about what the ACV contributes, taste the beef barley soup just before you add it. You’ll taste that something’s missing — that there’s a certain subtle but disturbing flatness. Then stir in the apple cider vinegar, and taste the soup again. Wow! A brilliant spark shoots through and illuminates the flavors. Our friend acid — never forget it!

Amount of liquid. If you want more liquid in the soup, add more beef stock rather than adding water. Adding water will water it down. (Who’da thunk it?)

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Inspiration

In my quest for the perfect beef and barley soup recipe (which I do believe I have achieved here! — or anyway, I like it an awful lot), I tweaked a Cook’s Country recipe (Oct.-Nov. 2007 issue).

I own every Cook’s Country issue ever printed, and I am a big fan. But even though they put their recipes through rigorous testing, I always find great reasons to make my own amendments, spins and tweaks. As you learn how to cook, you’ll likely find yourself doing the same thing.

Next I’ll walk you through the changes I made to create my own beef and barley soup recipe, with my rationale for each.

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My tweaks

Less garlic. Compared to the Cook’s Country beef barley soup recipe, I cut way back on the garlic. I don’t think beef barley soup should be overtly garlicky, do you?

More apple cider vinegar. I doubled the apple cider vinegar. A lovely zing!

Natural fat. I used beef tallow instead of vegetable oil. I try to avoid vegetable oil (except olive) whenever possible because it’s nutritionally inferior to traditional natural fats, like Ftallow, and it likely contains GMO crops. I got the tallow from making beef stock. After the stock cooled, I lifted it off and refrigerated it.

Specified salt amount. Recipes that say “salt and pepper” and don’t tell you how much just drive me wild! Wild, I tell you! (It’s one of my peeves with CC magazine, but they’re not alone.) At the end of cooking time, you can adjust salt a little. But you can’t make up for not having close to the right amount in the first place. Especially with grains and with meat. The salt integrates itself into the substance of the food. I will always go through the trouble to figure out how much salt a recipe needs, and then tell you what that its!

Streamlined thyme prep. Instead of going through the fussy work of stripping the tiny thyme leaves off the stem, I just put the sprig in the pot, submerged. That’s really all you need to do. For the “1 tablespoon” measure I specify, just look at the thyme and guess at how much sprig you need to equate to a tablespoon of leaves. The exact measure is not critical.

Added dried mushrooms. Shiitake mushrooms have been a favorite in barley soup for me ever since back in my macrobiotic days.

Added parsley. Bright flecks of green brighten this soup up visually and make it more cheering. The floral herbiness of parsley, I think, locks in the whole recipe, too.

Longer cooking time. Oh, yeah, and instead of cooking this for an hour — the beef was still hard work on the ol’ jawbone — I let it go for three. It just kept getting better. If you need to shave off some time, you can probably get away with two hours, but I think one hour is just too short to do justice to this beef and barley soup recipe.

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Substitutions guide

No beef broth? If you don’t have homemade beef broth but you do have homemade chicken broth, go ahead and use that instead. You won’t get the intense beefiness that this beef barley soup recipe is designed to deliver, but you will get a pretty darn good, loveable soup.

No homemade broth? If you don’t have homemade bone broth from any type of critter, you can certainly use your favorite beef or even chicken broth or stock from a can or carton. Please read the label: choose a brand with the shortest ingredient list you can find. If you see monosodium glutamate on the label, put it back on the shelf!

If you’re using commercial broth, please add soup bones. See note within the recipe.

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Notes for leftovers

Reheating tips. When having tasty leftovers the next day, wait until you’ve warmed it a bit before you add liquid. As it warms, it will become more liquidy, because much of it it solid or at least very thick at refrigerator temperature.

This beef and barley soup recipe thickens in the refrigerator. That’s partly because the gelatin of the stock is solid when refrigerated. It’s also because the starch granules in the barley grain continue to swell and absorb liquid as time goes by.

Restoring soupiness. When having the leftovers, you might want to add water to thin the original beef and barley soup. You might have eaten all the delicious broth and want to get it back closer to its original soupiness. You can add water, but, as mentioned earlier, that thins out the flavor. It’s better to add more stock. Happily, adding stock makes it ever beefier; it won’t throw off the recipe.

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Low-carb versions

Barley. Barley is a grain. It’s a whole grain, and not ultra-refined, so that’s a good thing. But if you are restricting carbohydrate, the barley is something you will need to make a conscious choice about. Fortunately, it’s easy to modify the carb count of this beef and barley soup recipe.

For a lower-carb version, reduce the amount of barley as much as you please. Reduce salt in conjunction with the barley. One teaspoon of the 2 teaspoons salt called for in this beef and barley soup recipe is there for proper cooking and seasoning of the barley. Therefore, if you cut the barley in half, use only 1 1/2 teaspoons salt.

For a low-carb beef stew using this beef and barley soup recipe as a basis, just eliminate the barley altogether. Reduce salt to 1 teaspoon.

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Serving suggestions

  • This beef and barley soup recipe makes a glorious one-pot meal. Because of the starch provided by the barley, you don’t even need to serve it with bread.
  • It also works well as a small course to introduce a larger meal.
  • Red wine — the same kind as you used in the beef and barley soup recipe itself — is a natural pairing.

Beef and barley soup

The recipe

Yield: Four quarts

Temperature and time

Simmering: Low flame, 3 hours

Ingredients

  • 3 pounds chuck meat, cut in 3/4″ cubes
  • 3 tablespoons beef fat or vegetable oil
  • 2 onions, diced large
  • 2 carrots, cut in half rings
  • 2 to 3 cloves garlic
  • 4 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • Several grindings black pepper
  • 14 oz. can diced tomatoes
  • 1 oz. dried shiitake mushrooms, crumbled, hard stems removed
  • 1/2 cup red wine (I used Bota Box Malpac in January 2011)
  • 4 to 6 cups homemade beef stock*
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme, on the stem, or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 cup pearled barley**
  • 1/3 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

*If using commercial stock, add one or two beef bones for better beef flavor (and nutrition).

**For a lower-carb version, reduce the amount of barley as you please. Reduce salt in conjunction with the barley. For a low-carb beef stew, eliminate the barley altogether and reduce salt to 1 teaspoon.

Equipment that bears mentioning

  • Dutch oven
  • Cast iron or steel skillets: one to three 8-inch diameter, one or two 12-inch diameter. Or any skillet, preferably not nonstick.
  • Tongs or a turner (usually called a spatula)
  • Chef’s knife

In a nutshell

  1. Brown chuck in skillet and remove.
  2. Brown onions.
  3. Add tomato paste and brown it, too.
  4. Add garlic but don’t let it brown.
  5. Put everything except vinegar in a pot.
  6. Cook until tender.
  7. Add vinegar.

Detailed instructions

  1. Brown the beef. Add a tablespoon of fat or oil to each of the skillets. Heat skillet(s) over maximum high heat for about three minutes, until extremely hot. When the fat is shimmering and tiny droplets of water that you flick (carefully) through the air from your fingertips sizzle and disappear instantly, the skillets are ready.
  2. While the skillets are heating, add four cups beef broth (and bones, if using) to your Dutch oven and begin heating, over medium heat.
  3. Add the beef to the skillet(s), leaving about an inch of space in between each piece, and sear on one side without disturbing it (it’ll stick and tear) until it eventually loosens as it browns.
  4. If all the beef doesn’t fit with the amount of empty space described, you’ll need to wait and deal with the rest of the beef after you’re done with the first batch. If the pieces of beef are too close together, the water being released will not be able to evaporate, and you’ll find that the beef is just swimming in its own juice instead of searing and browning. The water that accumulates will keep the pan temperature down to little higher than boiling, also.
  5. Using more than one skillet at a time cuts down the amount of time this task requires. More space is better, so if you can’t fit it all at once, just do half the beef in one go.
  6. After one side is nicely seared — this will take about five minutes, but will vary depending on the skillet material and thickness and your individual stove — turn the pieces to the other side with a turner or tongs and sear the other side. If you overcrowded the pan, you won’t be able to get any browning on the second side.
  7. Turn the heat under the skillets to medium. Remove the beef pieces to your Dutch oven. Place them in carefully — watch you don’t splash hot liquid.

  1. Brown the veggies. Add a tablespoon of fat and the onions to one of the skillets and the can of tomatoes (including liquid) to the other. (If you’re using only one skillet, hold off on the tomatoes for now.) Cook the onions until softened and beginning to caramelize, about eight minutes.
  2. While the onions are cooking, turn your attention to the skillet with the tomatoes. Use a turner or a wooden spoon to help the tomato liquid deglaze the fond (the delicious browned bits stuck to the bottom). Transfer the tomato-fond mixture into the Dutch oven.
  3. Add the carrots and toss them together. Cook for another few minutes, until the carrots begin to soften. Add the tomato paste and toss together. Cook for another few minutes. Add the garlic and cook for about a minute — don’t let the garlic brown, or it will become bitter. Add the vegetables to the Dutch oven.

  1. Deglaze the skillet(s). Add red wine to the empty vegetable skillet. Stir and scrape to deglaze the fond. If you didn’t use a second skillet, add the can of tomatoes to the wine-fond mixture and cook to reduce by half. If you reduce so much that the fond starts sticking back down, just add a little stock from the Dutch oven to loosen.

  1. Everything (almost!) in the pot. Add the wine-fond mixture to the Dutch oven.
  2. Add the thyme sprig and submerge. Add the barley.
  3. Congratulations! You’ve assembled a beautiful soup. Now let time and gentle heat do the rest.

  1. Simmer. Cover. Adjust heat so that it’s gently simmering. Cook for about three hours, until the meat is tender.

  1. Final touches. Add the parsley near the end, so it stays bright and herbal. Add the vinegar just before serving.

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