Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Blessing of Barley

Barley has been an important food crop for the last 10,000 years. The Bible includes barley among the seven blessings that characterized the fertility of the Promised Land. Barley beer is thought to be the first drink developed by neolithic humans. The grain was even used as currency at one time. As the staple cereal of ancient Egypt, it was used to make bread and beer. Nearly half the barley grown in the US today is used in making beer. The other half is used for animal feed, with a small portion going toward human consumption—primarily beef barley soup. For those looking to add some fiber to the diet, barley is the grain that will do it. It has three times the fiber of brown rice, or blueberries, and more than twice the amount in wholewheat spaghetti or an apple.

The word ‘restaurant’ was first used in France in the sixteenth century to describe a richly concentrated, inexpensive soup sold by street vendors and advertised as an antidote to physical exhaustion. In 1765, a Parisian entrepreneur opened a shop specializing in such soups and from that time ‘restaurant’ began to be attached to shops selling soup. From that grew the custom of calling all eating establishments restaurants.

Most of us think of beef barley soup as something best enjoyed in either autumn or winter. It would be premature to call mid-September in Florida autumn, but it is true that the hotter temperatures have begun to slacken, and that might encourage some to say that autumn is just around the corner. Two or three weeks back a recipe for beef mushroom barley soup came to me from a friend, and eager to try it I made a big pot of this ‘autumn’ soup. Though it turned out good, it was deemed a practice run with the promise of being a little tastier next time around. That time came on Saturday. Here is a recipe for beef mushroom barley soup with a richness that may even match the soups from street vendors in France centuries ago.


What you will need:

2 tablespoons, plus 1 additional teaspoon vegetable oil

1 ½ pounds of short ribs and 3 small soup bones

3 carrots, diced

½ of a large onion, diced

2 ribs celery, diced

½ tsp dried thyme

12 oz bottle of beer

8 cups beef broth

1/3 cup pearl barley, rinsed

1 can diced tomatoes (14-15 ounces)

1 tablespoon butter

¾ pound mushrooms, quartered

3 tablespoons minced parsley

Salt and pepper to taste


Heat a large soup pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil. Season the meat generously with salt and pepper. Sear the meat on all sides until well browned—about 15 minutes. Remove the meat from the pan. Reduce the heat to medium and add the additional teaspoon of oil, carrots, onion, and celery and sauté until tender, about 10 minutes. Return the meat to the pan and add the beer and broth. Bring to a boil, adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, cover and cook for 1 ½ hours or until the meat is tender. Remove the meat and take it off the bone. Shred it or cut it and return to the pot. Remove the soup bones and discard. Add the thyme, barley, and tomato. Continue to simmer the soup covered for 45 minutes.

During the last 15 minutes of simmering, in a separate pan heat the butter over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and sauté until golden, about 10 minutes. Season to taste and add them to the soup. Simmer the soup for 15 minutes more. Skim any fat from the surface, add the parsley and adjust the seasoning to taste.

Because it is hearty soup and quite filling, your table will be complete with a green salad and a warm loaf of French bread. Bon appétit!


  1. That looks like a fabulous soup. With the weather in N.C. getting cooler, I will make that soon. Your presentation with the salad is so appealing.

  2. Aaahh, delicious looking. I count myself as a soup man--whether a hot summer day or the cool days of autumn. Of course my main consumption of barley over the years has been in the other more liquid beer foam/form. But there is nothing like a soul-satisfying bowl of good soup from the hearth.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America