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I was just looking for a few corn tortillas to make enchiladas. You know how it goes: you begin an innocent search and find yourself two hours later sitting on the bedroom floor sorting old photos, in the garage alphabetizing your fly fishing ties, in the attic trying on your wedding dress, in the work shed knee deep in stuff you haven’t seen for years, or in the kitchen surrounded by three years worth of bits and bites from the freezer. As November 15 was National Clean Out the Refrigerator Day and everything but the missing tortillas was out of the freezer anyway, I seized the day and dove in—heaven knows I have the time.
The freezer has been out of control for a while now, so I accepted the challenge and will cook only what’s in there until I can see the back wall. Who knows what lurks behind the bag of rolls from Winco, three packs of English muffins, those endless grey-tinged Costco hamburger patties, Ziplocks full of mystery meat, and containers of unmarked leftovers? Aha! I knew we had some frozen shrimp. Yea! There’s that pork tenderloin from last summer. Yuk! What possessed me to save those two pieces of rock cod? OMG, how long have those blueberries been rolling around down there?
Keeping Marie Kondo and her “spark joy” in mind, I tossed frozen fruit, old peas, curled up fish filets, small containers of something brown, two plastics of reddish, curry-like food, some creamy-green ice cubes, old bread ends—these did not spark joy. I kept a tin of chicken pot pie, three freezer bags of minced garlic, those Costco patties, rice, noodles, corn, TJs’ risotto and polenta, two pieces of pork butt, shrimp, scallops, and eight medium-sized pieces of meat that I assume are beef—these sparked moderate joy.
I found one limp carrot and a turnip in the vegetable bin, a half bag of barley from the bean/noodle/nut drawer and a fine beef barley soup was right around the corner. I made my first beef barley soup one morning at Sound Food. After searching through the walk-in for the day’s money makers, soup for lunch was my priority. Blustery weather and the trimmings from last night’s beef stew made for an easy call. Beef barley soup hit the right notes—comforting, cheap, and available. I trimmed, chopped, browned, and stirred with a frequent eye on the ticking clock, the lunch bunch was on their way.
At 11:30 after a two-hour simmer, a peek under the pot lid revealed a sticky, gray, unappetizing mass of barley, beef, and vegetables. Barley has a life of its own: growing, exuding starch, and absorbing all liquid. After that first not eatable failure, I cook the barley separately, rinse it, and add it to the soup for the last 20 minutes.
The lunch bunch did not get soup that day.
The following recipe for soup may seem steppy, but any soup tastes better when you take time to build the flavor base.
Beef barley soup
- 2 tablespoons oil
- 1/2 pound beef cubes, short ribs, or chuck roast
- Salt and ground black pepper to taste
- 1/2 onion, diced
- 2 stalks celery, diced
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 Tbs. minced sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained
- 1 cup chopped canned tomatoes
- 6 cups chicken stock
- 1 carrot, diced
- Other root vegetables: turnips, rhutabags, parsnips, potatoes
- 2 cups chopped cabbage
- 1/3 cup pearl barley, rinsed, cooked, and rinsed again
Heat a large soup pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat; add 1 Tbs. of the oil. Season the meat generously with salt and pepper. Sear the meat on all sides until well browned; this will take 10-15 minutes.
Lower the heat to medium, add remainder of oil to the pan. Add the onion, celery, and thyme to the pan and sauté until tender, about 10 minutes. (Those past-the-prime mushrooms in the bottom of the vegetable bin would fit right in.) Add sun-dried tomatoes—sauté five minutes. Add chopped canned tomatoes, sauté five minutes.
Return the meat to the pan, add chicken stock. Bring to a boil, adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, cover, and cook for 2-3 hours or until the meat is just tender.
While meat and broth are simmering, rinse the barley and cover it with water plus about 2 inches of water. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until barley is tender—usually 45-60 minutes. Drain and rinse.
When the meat is fork tender, add the carrots or other hard vegetables—rutabagas (rutabagas are so hard, they can almost be added with the meat), turnips, parsnips, etc. and simmer for 10 minutes.
Add softer vegetables—cabbage, potatoes, or zucchini—the amount of cooked barley you prefer, and simmer for 20 minutes more.
Season the soup to taste with salt and pepper or Tabasco.