A HEARTY SOUP DOESN’T HAVE TO START WITH MEAT
Vegetable soups always sound so virtuous. The cook turns a crisper-full of cold-weather vegetables—carrots, potatoes, leeks, cabbage, and turnips—into a healthy, hearty meal. But virtue isn’t reason enough to make a dish. It must taste good, and without meat in the mix vegetable soup is generally bland and watery.
Homemade stock is one way to solve this problem, but it’s not terribly convenient. Is there a way to use commercial broth and still address the flavor and texture issues? In a word: yes. We begin with umami.
Umami is the fifth taste (along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter); it describes a savory, almost meaty flavor in foods as diverse as Parmesan cheese and tomatoes. The development of umami is a key component in Asian cookery, but this same cooking principle can be applied to any recipe.
Soy sauce and dried porcini mushrooms are concentrated sources of umami, and together they transform vegetable soup into a flavor powerhouse. Soy sauce contains high levels of flavor-enhancing compounds called glutamates, a naturally occurring version of MSG. Mushrooms are rich in flavor-amplifying compounds known as nucleotides.
Soy sauce and dried mushrooms address the flavor deficit associated with the use of commercial, but they don’t address the body issue. To give thin commercial broth more viscosity, we add a handful of barley. As the grains swell, they shed starch. Barley also adds a pleasantly chewy texture to a bowl of soup filled with tender vegetables. This isn’t just healthy eating. This is delicious eating and that’s the point of any recipe.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS
Aromatics on the Double
Sautéing aromatics (leeks, carrots, and celery) provides a savory base of flavor for vegetable soup. But to coax out the flavor of these aromatics even more, we use two ingredients: wine and soy sauce. Wine isn’t surprising, as it’s often used to give dishes a more complex character, but why soy sauce? Soy sauce contains high levels of naturally occurring flavor-enhancing compounds called glutamates.
Make Magic with Mushrooms
Like soy sauce, porcini mushrooms are also rich in flavor-enhancing compounds, but these are called nucleotides. No wonder these mushrooms taste so meaty and make a great addition to vegetable soup. Adding porcini is also a good move because when glutamates and nucleotides are used together, their combined effect strengthens, which has a profound impact on flavor. Porcini mushrooms vary in size, so to accurately measure them we grind the mushrooms to a powder first.
Vegetables alone (even starchy potatoes) don’t produce a soup with great body. Cream dulls the flavor of the vegetables but barley, a nutty grain that swells in liquid, adds just enough heft to the soup—and its appealing chew works well with the chunks of vegetables (potatoes, turnip, peas, and crisp cabbage). Barley takes longer to cook than the vegetables, so we give it a head start by adding it to the pot first. Peas are the outlier veggie in this soup—they cook so quickly, they should be stirred in off the heat, at the end of cooking.
Finishing the soup with lemon juice and chopped parsley adds a burst of fresh brightness, but for another dimension of flavor, we like to serve the soup with butter flavored with thyme and more lemon—just a dollop adds a plush richness and even more brightness.
Dried porcini mushrooms ground to a powder supply flavor while barley provides heft.
Farmhouse Vegetable and Barley Soup
SERVES 6 TO 8
- 25 minutes to prepare vegetables and other ingredients
- 10 minutes to sauté vegetables
- 55 minutes to simmer soup (mostly hands-off)
- 5 minutes to finish soup
- Dutch oven (at least 6 quarts)
Substitutions & Variations
- The soup can be garnished with crisp bacon, crumbled cheddar cheese, or herbed croutons. We especially love the richness added by a compound butter flavored with lemon and thyme.
- Lemon-Thyme Butter : Combine 6 tablespoons softened unsalted butter, 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme, ¾ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest plus ¼ teaspoon juice, and pinch salt in bowl. Dollop butter into individual servings.
- Herbed Croutons : Melt 1 tablespoon unsalted butter in 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Add 1 teaspoon minced fresh parsley and ½ teaspoon minced fresh thyme and cook, stirring constantly, for 20 seconds. Add 4 slices hearty white sandwich bread, cut into ½-inch cubes, and cook, stirring frequently, until light golden brown, 5 to 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
We prefer an acidic, unoaked white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc for this recipe.
- ⅛ ounce dried porcini mushrooms
- 8 sprigs fresh parsley plus 3 tablespoons minced
- 4 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1½ pounds leeks, white and light green parts only, halved lengthwise, sliced ½ inch thick, and washed thoroughly
- 2 carrots, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
- 2 celery ribs, cut into ¼-inch pieces
- ⅓ cup dry white wine
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce
- Salt and pepper
- 6 cups water
- 4 cups chicken broth or vegetable broth
- ½ cup pearl barley
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and smashed
- 1½ pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
- 1 turnip, peeled and cut into ¾-inch pieces
- 1½ cups chopped green cabbage
- 1 cup frozen peas
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- Grind porcini with spice grinder until they resemble fine meal, 10 to 30 seconds. Measure out 2 teaspoons porcini powder; reserve remainder for another use. Using kitchen twine, tie together parsley sprigs, thyme, and bay leaf.
- Melt butter in Dutch oven over medium heat. Add leeks, carrots, celery, wine, soy sauce, and 2 teaspoons salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid has evaporated and celery is softened, about 10 minutes.
- Add water, broth, barley, garlic, porcini powder, and herb bundle; increase heat to high and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, for 25 minutes.
- Add potatoes, turnip, and cabbage; return to simmer and cook until barley, potatoes, turnip, and cabbage are tender, 18 to 20 minutes.
- Remove pot from heat and discard herb bundle. Stir in peas, lemon juice, and minced parsley; season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve.
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