Monday, April 11, 2011

My Quest to Eat More Vegetables and Garlicky Mushroom Barley Soup

I want to preface this post by saying that I do not intend to become a vegan (I love cheese too much) or a vegetarian (bacon, enough said).  It is also important to me to continue supporting my local growers who raise high quality meat and poultry in a responsible, sustainable manner.*  So, here's the big issue: I had always believed that a 'real meal' has to include some sort of meat--a concept that is, I think, familiar to a lot of Americans.  For months, I have been purchasing Missouri Grass Fed Beef (locally raised, fully pastured beef) and poultry/eggs from a local grower, but I was still buying the same amount that I always had.  I realized, though, that as much as I love the meat and poultry I've been buying, it wouldn't be possible for everyone to eat sustainably-raised meat without modifying our levels of demand.  The system of large-scale meat production exists because we, as Americans, demand so much meat; we can't change the methods of meat production without lessening our demand.  Also, although I have been fortunate to find products that are not really more expensive than their conventionally-raised counterparts, for some people buying sustainably-raised meat in high quantities might be cost prohibitive, so it would be necessary to eat less of it.  The more I read and write and talk about food, the more I realize that I could do more to practice the ideals that I am preaching about.  As such, I am going to make an effort to modify my own demand for meat and make my diet more vegetable-based, especially during the spring and summer when more locally grown veggies are available.  I'm also going to try to post a new vegetable heavy recipe every week.  Additionally, I'm trying to avoid heavily refined starches and sugars, so I'll try to emphasize whole grains in the recipes.  They won't necessarily be completely vegetarian or vegan, but I'll try to include directions for substitutes for readers with more restricted diets.  This week, I have been doing some serious cookbook perusing.  I'm a fan of Mark Bittman, and I checked out his book How to Cook Everything: Vegetarian Cooking.  He had a soup recipe entitled Boiled Water, and I decided to use that as the base of a mushroom barley soup that loosely followed his recipe.  I've changed the proportions of ingredients slightly.  Here's what I did:

4 c. water
8 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
1 bay leaf

1/2 lb. mushrooms (I used a mix of button and shiitake), thickly sliced
1/2 onion, sliced or diced
1-2 carrots, peeled and sliced into rounds
1/4 c. pearled barley (not whole barley)
Small pat of butter (could use olive oil to make it vegan)
Salt and pepper to taste

I made the broth first by peeling the 8 cloves of garlic and boiling them in the water with the bay leaf, salt, and pepper.  I turned it to a simmer while I prepared the rest of the ingredients.  I added the sliced carrot, barley, and a generous pinch of salt to the broth, brought it up to a boil, then turned it down to a simmer.  While the barley and carrots were simmering, I sauteed the onions in the butter over medium heat for several minutes.  I let them start to caramelize, then added the mushrooms.  I continued cooking the onions and mushrooms together until the mushrooms started to get some color but before they lost too much liquid.  After the barley had been cooking for about 25 minutes, I added the onion/mushroom mixture to the soup.  I let it all simmer together for another 15 minutes or so, until the barley was the texture I desired.  I removed the bay leaf and whole garlic cloves, added some parsley and salt to taste, then ate!  This soup also reheated very well the next day--nothing eases the pain of 30 pages of casebook reading like a bowl of hearty soup!

I love the way Mark Bittman's cookbooks are written.  They are perfect for experimental cooks because the recipes themselves are often basic, but conducive to being modified to suit one's tastes.  Normally I would use chicken stock in a soup like this (as any regular reader knows, I love homemade stock), but by combining two of the recipes from Vegetarian Cooking, I was able to make a completely satisfying vegetarian soup.  You could add any vegetables you had on hand to this soup.  If you weren't concerned about meat, you could of course throw in some chicken or maybe even smoked sausage.  Be creative and enjoy!
*For an interesting discussion of what it means (and does not mean) to call a food system sustainable, see Katherine Gustafson's article here.