Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Power of a Mushroom

I was invited to attend a tour last Thursday of the new Hokto Kinoko Mushroom Company's growing facility in nearby San Marcos. Between deadlines and my dog Shayna's surgery for a mast cell tumor that day I wasn't able to make it, but they sent me a large box filled with mushrooms for me to try. Inside were packages of four different kinds of cultivated wild mushrooms, maitake, king trumpet, brown beech and white beech.

I'm making plans to go up on my own for a tour later this month, but in the meantime, well, there were all those mushrooms. I've got some ideas of how to use them in the coming weeks--apparently, they're just fine stored in the refrigerator for about a month--but today, what with the falling rain, a pot of mushroom barley soup seemed like the best way to start.

I've been making this soup for years, just grabbing items in the refrigerator as they inspired me. It was only when I made a batch for a friend who had just had a baby and then she requested the recipe that I finally wrote something up. It's still subject to what I may have on hand but that's the beauty of soup, isn't it. Usually, I use a combination of fresh shitake and crimini mushrooms as well as Swiss chard or kale. Today, I had several shitakes but I also decided to use a package each of the brown and white beech mushrooms and the maitake.

The beech mushrooms, known in Japan as Buna shimeji (brown) and Bunapi™ (white), are stunningly beautiful. They have little fragrance and pose elegantly from the large base they cluster on.

The brown beech are widely considered the most "gourmet" of the oyster-style mushrooms. Both beech varieties (in the wild they grow on wood, often beech trees -- hence the name) are a little sweet, a little nutty and perfect for soups, sauces and stir frying.

Maitaki mushrooms are much more "fungus-y." They look like something right out of a deep dark chilly forest.

And, in fact, in nature they're found on dead or dying deciduous trees in northern temperate forests. These mushrooms have the robust, earthy smell and flavor you'd expect from a fleshy brown fungus. Stir-fry them, saute them, bake them or use them for tempura. I'll play around with them some more later, but they seemed like a good addition to the soup today.

Now, many people like to use the dried shitakes found in Asian markets. I always have a bag on hand, but I love using them fresh. These were so plump and large, they called out to me at Mitsuwa. Here are the last of the bunch, along with pearl barley and a head of garlic also being used in today's soup.

Now to the soup. I like to add beef, in the form of boneless short ribs, to it, which means I also use beef stock as the base. But the beef is, of course, optional. You could add chicken or turkey or just keep it vegetarian, adding a soup stock most appropriate to what you're doing. There's no real need to add the greens, but I like to. Certainly other root vegetables would work here as well. My basics are carrots and onions but parsnips and/or turnips would add a nice sweetness to the soup. And, note, with these mushrooms, I sliced the shitakes but the others I simply separated from one another.

Mushroom Barley Soup


2 cups of mushrooms, sliced

2 large carrots, grated

1 large onion, chopped

2 cloves of minced garlic

3/4 cup of pearl barley

3 cups or so of Swiss chard or kale

Olive oil



1 quart of beef stock (if using meat, otherwise you can use chicken or vegetable stock)

A couple of splashes of good dry sherry or cognac

Optional: one pound of boneless beef short ribs, cut into cubes

Okay, get out a large stock pot. If you're using the beef, heat the pot, add enough oil to cover the bottom, let that heat for a minute till it shimmers and then add the beef. Let the pieces brown on all sides and then remove them and drain the fat from the pot.

Add a splash more olive oil and then add the onions and garlic. Sauté on low heat until the onions turn translucent and then just a little golden.

Then start adding everything else: the mushrooms, carrots and Swiss chard first, then the beef, then the pearl barley. Then add the stock. If one quart isn't enough to cover the contents, I add water, then a couple of splashes of sherry or cognac. Finally, add some salt and pepper to taste.

Stir it to mix it well. Then bring it to a boil and skim the fat. Turn down the heat to simmer and cover the pot. I let it cook a couple of hours and then adjust the salt and pepper.

It freezes really well, too.

That's it. Adjust the amounts if it doesn't look right to you. Add other ingredients you might like.

Serves 6

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  1. Oh my goodness, I'll bet this is amazing! Yum!

    a.k.a. The Hungry Mouse

  2. I think mushrooms are beautiful, and you've really got some lovely ones here. So jealous! And your soup? When I saw on Twitter that you were planning on making some I couldn't wait to see your recipe. Sounds fabulous. Have fun with the rest!

  3. Soup was good! And there's lots of it so I'll have a full freezer for the future.

  4. Gorgeous soup! I'm snacking on some for lunch today :-)

  5. I have been using the beech mushrooms in my udon soup so will give this a try. What is not to love; short ribs, barley and mushrooms, yum. Will the maitake mushrooms be available locally?