Local cooking schools are a wonderful way to improve your culinary skills and collect outstanding recipes. If you are even luckier, you get to work in one like I did! I managed all the reservations and supported visiting chefs. What a thrill it was to meet the amazing chefs and cookbook authors that came through the Bay Area on book tours. I have incredible memories of meeting some of the biggest names in the food industry, and they were all such nice people. I am convinced that when put side-by-side with luminaries of other industries, food “celebrities” would win the congeniality prize every time!
The cooking school where I worked was right next door to one of the area’s best restaurants, Viognier. This was Gary Danko’s first restaurant of his own and, not surprisingly, an unmitigated success. Not only was I able to learn from the visiting chefs, but I had one of the best chefs in the country working just down the hall. What a learning experience! I was able to observe how a real kitchen worked from behind the scenes and discovered that while working as a chef in a restaurant is mysterious and alluring, in reality they work harder than nearly any other profession. The hours are long, they are on their feet the entire time, they have to deal with unreasonable requests from patrons, and the pay is nearly non-existent. It is truly a career for those passionate about food. Without that passion, they couldn’t stand up to the grind.
Located about 45 minutes south of San Francisco, Viognier is the place for the “Ladies Who Lunch” in the area. There are a number of customer favorites, but one thing they can never take off the menu for fear of a mutiny, is their Wild Mushroom Soup. Thick and creamy with a meatiness usually associated with beef, this soup is made with a wide variety of mushrooms. The exact combination changes depending on what is delivered from the purveyors in the morning. Whenever this soup was served, customers regularly called the manager over to send their complements to the chefs … yes, it was that good!
When you are selecting mushrooms for your soup, don’t be afraid to branch out beyond the normal white buttons and add several varieties. Cremini, porcini, shiitake, oyster, morel, and chanterelle are all readily available in most grocery stores. If you have trouble finding a variety of fresh mushrooms you can supplement with reconstituted dried mushrooms. Using different kinds of mushrooms will obviously change the flavor, but if you don’t puree the soup, they will add a variety of textures as well. Some are meltingly tender and others chewy. Decide what you like and then ask your produce buyer or go to the farmer’s market and have them give you suggestions for types to try. You might just discover an entirely new variety.
I am giving you two recipes for Mushroom Barley soup today. One is creamed and the other is not. They are both delicious, but if you are trying to reduce the calories or prefer broth-based soups to creamed, you have the choice. Or you can live extravagantly and make both for a side-by-side comparison at your next dinner party.
Let’s take a second here and talk about soup bowls. You can serve this in any kind of bowl you like, but because it doesn’t have a lot of color of its own, I like to pick a richly colored bowl to highlight it. Also, if you want your soup to stay warm all through dinner, preheat the bowls before serving. You can do this in a low oven if your bowls are ovenproof, or fill them with very hot tap water to take the chill off. Wipe them dry before ladling in the soup. Garnish each bowl with some freshly chopped herbs that you used in the soup for a bit of extra color. Thin slices of mushroom caps can also be floated on top and let your guests know what kind of soup they are being served.
If you have weekend guests coming for a visit, making a huge pot of soup a day or two ahead gives you the simplest lunch imaginable and frees you up to enjoy your company instead of laboring in the kitchen all day. Serve this with a light salad and slices of homemade or rustic bread and no one will go hungry. Enjoy!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
You’ve heard it before and you will undoubtedly hear it again, don’t wash mushrooms to clean them. Because of their porous surface, mushrooms absorb water, so it is best to just brush them off with a damp clean cloth. If they are really dirty, rinse them quickly and pat dry with paper towels.
- 1/2 cup pearl barley
- 4-1/2 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth, or mushroom broth, divided
- 1 oz dried porcini mushrooms
- 2 cups boiling water
- 2 tsp butter
- 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 cup minced shallots, (about 4 medium)
- 8 cups sliced white mushrooms, (about 20 oz)
- 2 stalks celery, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp minced fresh sage, or 1 tsp dried
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
- 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
- 1 cup dry sherry (NOT “cooking” sherry), white wine, or dry vermouth
- 1/2 cup reduced-fat sour cream
- 1/4 cup minced fresh chives
- Bring barley and 1-1/2 cups broth to a boil in a small saucepan over high heat. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer until tender, 30 to 35 minutes.
- Meanwhile, combine porcinis and boiling water in a medium bowl and soak until softened, about 20 minutes. Line a sieve with paper towels, set it over a bowl and pour in mushrooms and soaking liquid. Reserve the soaking liquid. Transfer the mushrooms to a cutting board and finely chop.
- Heat butter and oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add shallots and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 2 minutes. Add white mushrooms and cook, stirring often, until they start to brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the porcinis, celery, sage, salt and pepper and cook, stirring often, until beginning to soften, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle flour over the vegetables and cook, stirring, until the flour is incorporated, about 1 minute. Add sherry and cook, stirring, until most of the sherry has evaporated, about 1 minute.
- Add the soaking liquid and the remaining 3 cups broth; increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the soup has thickened, 18 to 22 minutes. Soup can be made up to 3 days ahead to this point. Cover and refrigerate soup separately from barley. To serve, combine and reheat.
- Add the cooked barley and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until heated through, about 5 minutes more. Stir in sour cream until smooth. Garnish with chives.
- 1/3 cup quick-cooking barley
- 7 cups water
- 1/4 oz dried porcini mushrooms (about 1/4 cup)
- 1 large leek (white and pale green parts only), halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 2 celery ribs, cut into 1/3-inch dice
- 2 carrots, chopped
- 1/2 lb fresh shiitakes, stems discarded and caps thinly sliced
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 2 tbsp medium-dry Sherry
- 1-3/4 cups low-sodium fat-free beef broth
- 1-1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- Garnish: chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- Simmer barley in 3-1/2 cups water in a 5 to 6-quart heavy pot, uncovered, until almost tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain in a colander.
- While barley is cooking, soak porcini in 1/2 cup water in a small bowl until softened, about 20 minutes. Drain in a sieve lined with a dampened paper towel set over a bowl, reserving liquid. Rinse porcini to remove any grit, and then coarsely chop. Wash sliced leeks in a bowl of water, then lift from water and drain in sieve.
- Heat oil in cleaned pot over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then sauté onion and celery, stirring occasionally, until golden, 6 to 8 minutes. Add carrots, shiitakes, leek, and porcini and sauté, stirring frequently, until liquid mushrooms give off is evaporated and mushrooms are golden, 4 to 6 minutes.
- Stir in tomato paste, Sherry, beef broth, mushroom soaking liquid, barley, salt, pepper, and remaining 3 cups water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until vegetables and barley are tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
- Yield: Makes 8 servings
- Cooks' note: Soup can be made 3 days ahead. Cool, uncovered, then chill, covered. Reheat soup and thin with water as necessary.