Saturday, February 4, 2012

"Beef" Barley Soup

There were three men came out of the West,
Their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow:
John Barleycorn must die.

John Barleycorn is the personification of grain, and there are versions of this song stretching back to at least the Middle Ages. The narrative begins with his first death, when he is "ploughed, sown, [and] harrowed" in, with "clods thrown on his head"; by midsummer, he has "grown a long, long beard, and so become a man," and endures a second death in the form of the harvest. Although this entails further indignities - being cut off at the knees by "men with scythes so sharp" who use pitchforks to "prick him to the heart" before turning him over to the miller, who "grinds him between two stones" - he comes out on top after his transformation into beer and brandy, when "little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl proves the strongest man at last."

The song stresses the use of barley in brewing and distilling, but of course it was also used for food, especially among the working classes who lacked access to the fine wheat reserved for the wealthy. Chaucer's Wife of Bath refers to this homely grain in her comparison of the relative virtues of chastity and marriage:

I nyl envye no virginitee.
Lat hem be breed of pured whete-seed,

And lat us wyves hoten barly-breed;

And yet with barly-breed, Mark telle kan,

Oure Lord Jhesu refresshed many a man.

Word. "But what does all this have to do with soup?" you may ask. Well, John Barleycorn is not only great in the nut-brown bowl and the breadbox, he also makes a rich, hearty soup that's especially suited to winter. When I was growing up, my mother often made beef barley soup (or Scotch broth, which uses lamb), and it was a big favorite of mine. For some reason I've been missing her a lot lately, and sometimes I find it comforting to recreate things she used to cook. Looking through my supplies, I noticed the very last of the barley from when my sister and I cleaned out our mom's madly overstocked kitchen 18 months ago (after growing up in WWII England, she was never going to run out of food again). My course was clear: I used soy curls for the "meat," Better Than Bouillon's "no beef" flavor for the stock, let it all bubble away on the stove for an hour, and the result was remarkably like my memory of the original. It was a big hit with the hungry humans and animals with whom I share a home, and produced a healthy amount of leftovers. Best of all, it made us feel a little closer to Nana, who was always in favor of a little barleycorn.

For the huntsman, he can't hunt the fox,
Nor so loudly to blow his horn,
And the tinker he can't mend kettle nor pot,
Without a little Barleycorn.

"Beef" Barley Soup
~ 2 cups soy curls
~ 8 cups vegetable broth (I used the Better Than Bouillon "no beef" flavor)
~ 2 tbsp. tomato paste
~ 1 tbsp. vegan Worcestershire sauce
~ 1 tsp. each: smoked paprika, Marmite
~ 2 bay leaves
~ 2 tbsp. olive oil
~ 1 large onion, diced
~ 2 tbsp. minced garlic
~ 2 carrots, diced (about a cup)
~ 1 large stalk celery, diced
~ 1 10 oz.package mushrooms, sliced
~ 1 tsp. each: thyme, rosemary, dill
~ A few grinds of black pepper
~ 1 cup barley
~ 1 cup red wine

~ In a pot or beaker, combine the broth, tomato paste, Worcester sauce, paprika, Marmite, and bay leaves. On the stove or in the microwave, bring to a boil, stir well, and add the soy curls. Cover and allow to marinate for at least an hour (the longer they soak, the more flavor they'll absorb).
~ In a large pot, heat the olive oil and sauté the onion over medium heat about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, the celery, and the carrots, and cook about 5 minutes more, until just softened.
~ Add the mushrooms and the dried seasonings, stir well, and cook another 5-7 minutes, until the mushrooms have given up their liquid.
~ Add the barley, cook for a minute, then pour in the red wine. Allow to cook a few minutes while you drain the soy curls and set them aside (reserving the liquid!).
~ Pour in the reserved broth mixture, raise the heat to high, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
~ Add the drained soy curls and continue cooking another 15-20 minutes, or until the barley is tender.
~ Remove the bay leaves and serve hot with crusty bread (all the better if it's a little stale).

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