It normally takes a good strong chill in the air to get me thinking about making soups, but I guess I have written January enough times that the food synapses just started firing that way. It doesn’t have to be freezing cold to appreciate a good hearty soup, it can also be a way to make up for some possible caloric excesses during the holidays. I spent part of my holidays in northern California where the mountains are still looking for their first snow of the winter; a tough break for the ski resorts, and hopefully not a hint of a drought in that area where so much great food is grown.
My culinary imagination was sparked by walking through the San Francisco Ferry Plaza farmers market, one of my favorites in my old home town, but since my mother moved into a studio, I don’t get as many opportunities to cook out there, which is probably why I found myself wandering the Birmingham produce aisles, looking at the local availability...plenty of variety: fresh white, shiitake, portabella, even some hedgehog, chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, and lots of dried varieties. The dried variety are a little pricey but they add an intensity to the broth or soup with just a little judicious use.
One of the neat things I saw out in California are personal “mushroom farms”, which are log shaped growing medium and mushroom spores, and all you need to do is add water. My older sister has had great success with these in diverse places like Washington DC and southern California, but I don’t think she has taken to toting them in her checked baggage as she travels the country negotiating union contracts. Some friends of mine do pretty well with the shiitakes up in Blount County, so I may have to search some out locally or try out that internet search thing.
But back to my walk through the Ferry Plaza farmer’s market, where it really came clear to me is that we are developing a great food community here in Birmingham. At Pepper Place on Saturdays, and other markets, not to mention the truck market center every day down on Finley Avenue there are wonderful opportunities for our local chefs to create excellent food. There is great food being cooked all over the Birmingham area, not just in restaurants, but in homes both big and small, and a lot of it begins with a good stock. You can buy good stock in the stores (just be careful of too much salt), There is nothing like the smell of a home made stock as teh aroma simultaneously permeates the air and warms the soul. Chicken, beef, or vegetarian, the stock is what gives a great soup its heart and soul.
So take some time to make a great stock and then start exploring the great world of soups, like the Mushroom Barley soup recipe below. The sherry is really an important ingredient here as it adds a wonderful depth to the soup, especially if you use a nice variety of mushrooms (and a few dried mushrooms for intensity). And a sprinkle of fresh thyme and parmesan cheese just before serving is just marvelous.
Mushroom Barley Soup
2 onions chopped
1 cups celery chopped
2 TB chopped garlic
4 cups quartered button and shiitake mushrooms, 2 cups sliced Portabella mushrooms
2 Tb dried thyme
2 cups white wine or sherry
2 quarts veal, chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup cooked barley to taste salt and pepper optional fresh thyme and Parmesan cheese
Saute the onion until golden brown, add the celery and garlic and cook lightly.
Add the mushrooms and thyme and saute. Deglaze with the wine and reduce by half.
Add the stock and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the cooked barley and simmer for 10 more minutes. Adjust the seasoning and consistency to taste.