Heartwarming Barley Soup

This is the perfect comfort food.

As soon as this soup starts simmering, you’ll see (and smell) why this was one of my grandmother’s best recipes, and one of my favorites. The key, as always, is to use good stock and to let it simmer for a while to marry all of the flavors.

You can use any type of fresh mushroom for this recipe; I had a lot of oyster mushrooms and creminis in my CSA box, so that’s what I used. I would just stay away from any canned mushrooms because they will be extra chewy in this slow-cooked soup. Also, I use a good chicken stock, but if you want to keep this recipe vegetarian, simply use vegetable stock or mushroom stock instead. Personally, I like the additional flavor from the chicken in this soup. And don’t skimp on the garlic – it’s one head of garlic, not one clove. That’s not a typo!

Also, a quick word about the barley: use caution. I’ve heard more horror stories this week about a soup that should have been good, if only it hadn’t become a huge blob of sticky barley with a few slices of carrot in between. One cup of dried barley — pearl or regular — cooks to THREE CUPS of cooked barley. This recipe is for 6 servings of soup, and uses only one cup of dried barley. And it’s plenty.

Of course, if your leftovers happen to be too thick, simply add a bit more stock, reheat, and you’ll be fine.


Mushroom Barley Soup

  • 1 cup dried pearl barley
  • 2 lbs. various fresh mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 quart, plus 2 cups, chicken stock
  • 3-4 carrots, chopped
  • 2-3 small red potatoes, chopped
  • 1 large parsnip, diced
  • one large yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 head of garlic, diced
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • fresh dill, chopped

First, start to sautee the garlic and onion in a large pot and cook until fragrant. Add the carrots, potatoes and parsnip, add more oil if needed, and season with salt and pepper.

Cook for 1-2 minutes, then add a quart of the chicken stock and the barley. Bring to a boil, then add the mushrooms. Reduce the heat and cover, then let simmer for about 30-40 minutes, or until the barley is cooked. Taste the soup, add more salt and pepper or more stock if needed. Sprinkle on fresh dill and serve hot.

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mushroom barley soup recipe card


Butternut Squash Soup and Chickpea Cassoulet

Autumn produce is all about comfort food, and butternut squash is the key ingredient for the season’s best recipes.

This month, I teamed up with Melissa’s Produce to come up with some recipes using their new fall line of produce. Melissa’s Pinterest page is positively captivating, and it was hard to narrow it down to a few different types of recipes. I decided to make a full dinner — soup and a hearty entrée — but first, I needed to get into that squash.

The best and easiest way to get the most out of your hard-skinned winter squashes — from pumpkins to butternut squash to red kuri — is to cut them into manageable pieces and roast or grill them. Once the pieces are cool, the rinds come off really easily and you can use the squash for anything.

roasted butternut squash

I usually roast one or two at the same time, then keep the chunks in the fridge to use in soups, salads, stir-frys, even desserts. Just check out all of the recipes that other local food bloggers came up with for this challenge, below!

roasted butternut squash

Using the box of produce from Melissa’s, I decided to make a full meal, including a hearty soup and a fast-cooking spin on a classic cassoulet.

Spicy Butternut Squash Soup

  • 1/2 medium butternut squash, roasted and cubed
  • 1 Granny Smith apple, diced
  • 2 tbsp ghee or butter
  • 2 shallots, sliced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1 quart vegetable stock
  • 2 tbsp. red Thai curry paste (*or 1 small can of tomatillo salsa for milder flavor)
  • handful of fresh pine nuts, toasted
  • 1 cup grated cheddar cheese
  • 2 tbsp sour cream for garnish

After the butternut squash is roasted and peeled, cook the pieces in a pot with butter or ghee as well as the garlic and apple. (Sautee the shallots in a separate pan and set aside when caramelized.) When the garlic/apple/squash mixture is heated thoroughly, add the curry paste and stock, and bring to a boil.

Spicy Butternut Squash and Apple soup
(*Note: Thai curry paste is very spicy. If you’re serving people who are sensitive to too much heat, substitute 1 can of green tomatillo salsa for the red curry paste. You’ll still get the peppery flavor without all the burn.)

Once the soup has been brought to a boil, cover the pot, turn the heat down, and let it simmer for about 20 minutes. Using an immersion blender, puree the soup until smooth, then add in the grated cheese and 1 tablespoon of sour cream. Mix thoroughly.

When serving, add a dollop of sour cream, and garnish with the caramelized shallots and toasted pine nuts.

spicy butternut squash soup recipe card

* * *

For the entrée, we have an awesome quick cassoulet. Traditionally a cassoulet is a French peasant dish made with pheasant, mutton, and frankly, whatever meat and beans were available. Traditionally, it’s also slow cooked for upwards of 4-6 hours, using dried beans and employing fancy French cooking pots. Mine uses a simple cast-iron skillet and is heavy on the hearty, fall vegetables and pre-steamed beans from Melissa’s. So, instead of taking 6 hours, my recipe takes less than two hours total – including all of the chopping. Perfect for a cold weeknight.

Fall Vegetable Cassoulet

  • 1/2 medium butternut squash, roasted and cubed
  • 1 package of pre-steamed chickpeas
  • 4-5 baby yellow Dutch potatoes
  • 1 package of your favorite breakfast sausage (I used one with sage and pork)
  • 1 boneless chicken breast, cubed
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 3-4 carrots, diced
  • 3-4 shallots, diced
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic, diced
  • 4 slices of bacon, chopped (I used my homemade bacon)
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 sprig of fresh rosemary, chopped
  • 2-3 chives, diced
  • 3-4 tbsp olive oil

Slice, dice and chop all of your vegetables. Add olive oil to your deep-dish cast-iron pan and start to caramelize the carrots, shallot, garlic and onion with the chicken breast, bacon and sausage. Sautee for about 5-10 minutes, until the meat is browned and the vegetables are cooked through, then mix in the chickpeas, butternut squash and potatoes.


Fill the pan with stock and bring to a boil, then cover, lower the heat, and let simmer for about 45 minutes. Try to not peek and let out all the steam — which will be hard to do when it starts to smell really good. When it’s ready, the liquid will have mostly cooked out, and what’s left will be a thick sauce. Serve with diced chive for garnish.

cassoulet recipe card

I’ve never really been a fan of pre-prepared produce before, but I am starting to change my mind. After taking a peek at the delicious pre-steamed blackeyed peas, chickpeas and fava beans, I had to take full advantage. The pre-steamed chickpeas turn allowed me to make a slow-cooked classic in less than a couple of hours, and this awesome, super-fast warm potato salad.

Quick Warm Potato Salad

  • 1 package of Melissa’s pre-steamed, peeled baby potatoes
  • 5 slices of bacon (try homemade bacon)
  • 2 shallots, diced
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
  • 3 tbsp butter
  • 3 tbsp sour cream

Dice the bacon and cook in a cast-iron pan with a pat of butter. Once the bacon is browned (not fully cooked, but close), add the shallots, more butter and the pre-steamed potatoes. Brown the potatoes on all sides for about 2 minutes on each side and season with salt and pepper while cooking.

Remove from heat and put in a bowl with more butter, feta cheese and sour cream. Toss briskly and serve immediately.

Warm Potato Salad with Bacon and Shallot

Disclaimer: Melissa’s Produce graciously provided most of the produce I used in this post, but no other financial consideration was given for my opinions or ideas.

$5 Challenge for Fall: Vegetarian Value Meal

I really love these $5 slow food challenges. Slow Food USA challenged chefs and food bloggers to “take back the value meal” by demonstrating that buying fast food, usually for about $5 per person, might seem like it’s saving money in the short-term, but is worse for us in the long run. Of course, slow food doesn’t cost more than fast food, it’s just … well, slow.

In the past, I have blown away the $5-per-person goal with an epic slow-cooked smoked chicken posole and a simple beef phô that anyone can make. Although both of those recipes can be adapted for vegetarians by eliminating the meat, this recipe is a bit more seasonal and spicy, and frankly, it’s wonderful. It’s so thick and hearty and spicy, you won’t miss the meat. The other two challenges were also crock-pot recipes, and this only takes about 30 minutes — 45 minutes to an hour total active and inactive time, if you include the time it takes to roast the pumpkin.

Pumpkin-Potato Curry (Or Soup)

(Try it as a rice dish or as a creamy soup … or both.)

Ingredient list and cost breakdown:

  • about 2 medium-sized cooking pumpkins: $0.35 per pound, about $2.00 total*;
  • 3-4 large russet potatoes: about $1.00 ($3.99 for a 5-lb. bag);
  • 3-4 large carrots, peeled and chopped, about $1.00 ($2.50 for a large bag);
  • 2-3 tablespoons of green or red Thai curry paste; about $1.00 ($3.75 for a 4-oz jar);
  • 1 large onion, chopped; about $0.70;
  • 2 granny smith apples, chopped: about $1.50;
  • 4 cups cooked rice; about $1.00 (about 1/2 of a bag that cost $1.99)**;
  • 32-oz vegetable stock; $2.50;
  • 1 can of coconut milk; $2.59;
  • about half a bag of frozen green peas; about $1.40 ($2.79 for a whole bag);
  • about a cup of brown sugar; about $0.45 ($1.69 for a 4-cup bag);
  • fresh chopped ginger; about $0.50 ($1.76 for a big chunk of ginger root, use about 1 tablespoon of peeled, chopped ginger);
  • salt and pepper (you should have this in your kitchen already, but if you need to buy a set of pre-filled salt and pepper shakers to make this dish, it’s $2.19 for the set)

As you can see, most of these ingredients are available in packages that will allow you to still have potatoes, carrots, rice, etc., left over after this meal. If you just go by what this meal actually costs, i.e., the portion of ingredients you use out of the whole package, then it costs a total of $15.64, or $3.13 per serving. If you buy all of these ingredients in money-saving packages and go by what it all costs, total, including a pack of salt and pepper, the total is $29.95. That’s still $5.99 per person. Lots of you probably have a half-bag of rice, or a sack of potatoes, or an extra couple of apples lying around, or a chunk of ginger root in your freezer, to use in a recipe. I would recommend buying the larger packages if you have the means, especially for things like a jar of curry paste, which lasts a long time and is a great addition to lots of dishes. Also, if you make your own vegetable stock (try this easy way using kitchen scraps), you can save that money as well.

(*A couple things about pumpkins: First, make sure these are the smaller cooking pumpkins, not the big jack-o’-lantern kind. The big ones will still work in a pinch, but the smaller ones have more flesh, and they are more tender and sweet than the big ones. Secondly, obviously this price is for autumn, when fresh pumpkins are in season and available at your local grocery store, farmer’s market, or pumpkin patch, and they’re pretty cheap. If you MUST, and you can’t find a real pumpkin anywhere, use canned “pure pumpkin” puree for this recipe, which you can get year-round for $2.99 for a 29-oz. can. Just make sure it’s pure pumpkin, without added sugar and spices and whatnot.)

First, prepare the pumpkin. This part is fun.

I took this very easy pumpkin-preparing tutorial from the Pioneer Woman’s blog and basically eliminated the last step of pureeing the pumpkin. Essentially, you slice it, scrape the seeds out (don’t forget to save them for flavoring and roasting later!), and roast the slices over high heat. Let it cool so you can handle it with your bare hands, then the rind comes off very easily and you can take the pumpkin for all of its tasty meat inside.

This is delectable for pureeing for pies, tarts, desserts and pumpkin fruit butters, or for keeping in chunky form for curries, stews, and, as Ree Drummond explains, just for eating by itself. (It is very difficult to handle a chunk of freshly roasted, slightly warm, sweet pumpkin flesh and to NOT just pop a chunk of it in your mouth. Try to save enough for the curry.) The day I made this recipe for the first time, I roasted a few pumpkins and used some for this curry and the rest for a fabulous spiced pumpkin apple butter.

While the pumpkin is roasting, chop the potatoes, carrots, apples and onion, and start it cooking in a large pot with a bit of oil. Add the coconut milk, about half of the container of stock, frozen peas, curry paste and brown sugar, and let simmer until vegetables are soft. By this time, the pumpkin should be nice and soft as well, so let it cool off a bit after you take it from the oven, then peel the rind off, rough-chop the pumpkin, and toss the chunks into the pot. Add a bit more stock at this point, as well as the salt and pepper to taste. Be sure to taste it … you might want to add a bit more sugar or pepper or stock. Then let it simmer for another 10 minutes or so, so that all of the flavors mix in together.

** Rice vs. Soup: I served this on a bed of cooked white rice, but you can also stop here, and simply puree or blend these cooked ingredients into a liquid for a sweet and spicy soup. (In fact, if you aren’t feeding a house full of people on this meal, you may want to do both, just so you don’t get tired of the same dish multiple times. Even fabulous leftovers get old after you have to eat them a few days in a row.) This is delicious as a smooth, creamy soup, or as a thick and chunky curry and rice dish.

Curry 101: Gobi Manchurian and what I learned about cooking Indian food

The more I learn about other cultures, the more I learn how similar we all are. Food is one of the best ways (if not THE best way) to get to know another culture. And as always with this blog, I am trying to experiment and broaden my own horizons as I try to share with my readers a different way to approach a new recipe.

The latest fabulous step in my culinary adventures took place a few days ago when my friends at Urban India in downtown San Diego agreed to let me hang out in their kitchen for a little while to learn the basics. Co-owner and occasional chef Surinder Singh promised to show me how to cook one of my favorite dishes, and to give me the lowdown on curries and sauces.

I should point out that the entire time I was there, I never saw anyone measure anything. Surinder made it clear that it wasn’t necessary. But as we went along, I noticed striking similarities with the way Indian food is cooked and the way … well, the way everyone cooks.

“So, start with some oil or some butter in the pan. Add spices, and add some onions and garlic.”

I nodded. He was speakin’ my language. This is how billions of dinners worldwide begin every day.

“Ok, and then, depending what sort of dish you are making, add some spices. Here’s salt, pepper, turmeric and spices. That last one is a bunch of spices the chef blends together every day. A house blend. These four go in pretty much everything; just in different amounts.”

Clockwise from bottom right: pepper, salt, turmeric, and house blend of spices.

I kept nodding. This is what I’m talking about. Everyone has a house spice, right? (If you don’t, get one. You probably already have 3 or 4 spices you use in nearly every dish you cook. You’re halfway there.) Surinder wouldn’t divulge the contents of his mystery house spice that goes into every dish, but my nose told me it involved caron, coriander, cumin, mustard, thyme and possibly anise or clove.

From that point on, the specific spices, levels of heat and ingredients for each recipe greatly diverge, so we started making my favorite Indian dish: gobi manchurian. Due to religious restrictions – about 90% of India’s population is Hindu or Muslim – it’s nearly impossible to find a beef or pork dish on an Indian menu. All of the meat dishes involve chicken, lamb or goat, and the vast majority of Indian dishes have no meat at all.

Not that you’d miss the meat when it comes to dishes like this. The cauliflower is fried, but using chickpea flour, so it’s perfectly light and delicate … then it’s tossed with sautéed vegetables and a spicy sauce … so you get the heat and spice, the punch of fresh ginger and the tang of the tomato and vinegar, the almost al dente texture of the cooked cauliflower, and the crispiness of the light batter. It’s wonderful.

Gobi Manchurian

(all of the measurements are approximate)

  • 1 medium head of fresh cauliflower, florets sliced into bite-sized pieces
  • about 2-3 cups of chickpea flour
  • 2-3 tablespoons each of carom seeds, whole coriander and corn starch
  • handful of various sliced bell pepper, red and/or white onion, fresh crushed garlic and ginger root, all to taste (see below)
  • dash of water, soy sauce, white vinegar, lemon juice, ketchup and tomato sauce
  • cilantro or parsley for garnish
  • the four spices you see above: chili pepper, sea salt, turmeric and various herbs and spices

Start by slicing the vegetables you plan to use. Surinder works in a fully stocked kitchen, so he already had all of his vegetables prepared, but he used (about) the equivalent of one half an onion, about 3 cloves of garlic and a 1/2-inch chunk of ginger root, and sliced them all together with a few chunks of red and green bell pepper. This was enough for a large dish made with a medium-sized head of cauliflower.

Get your veggies ready to cook and then start with the batter. Mix the four spices, corn starch, chickpea flour and whole herbs together and add water …

… very slowly, only a few tablespoons at a time, and blend with the flour mixture until the batter is thick and there are no lumps.

Coat each piece of cauliflower thoroughly and drop into hot oil.

While the cauliflower is frying (about 5 minutes), start sautéing the sliced vegetables, ginger and garlic, with some good oil and a dash of cumin. Cook over high heat until the vegetables are tender.

Flames optional.

By this time the cauliflower should also be golden-brown.

Remove from the oil (drain slightly if you don’t have a basket in your fryer) and drop the florets into the pan with the sautéed mix.

Then add about a 1/3 cup of tomato sauce, a dash of ketchup, a splash of soy sauce, a glug of vinegar and a shot of lemon juice (you know, approximately). You want enough liquid so the cauliflower is coated but not soaked. Continue to toss all ingredients together and make sure the florets are coated thoroughly.

Dress it up on a plate, garnish with cilantro or parsley, and serve hot.

This is truly an incredible dish. You can adjust the heat to your taste, and even if you are a hard-core meat-eater, you won’t be lonely for meat when you eat this hearty, spicy, crispy but soft, delectable dish.

As you can tell, I really love Indian food. Even the spicy stuff. Living in the South for a long time gave me a great appreciation for the proper use of extreme spice and heat. To me, when you fry a chicken wing and instead of, you know, seasoning it, you just literally drown it in a vinegary hot sauce, it ruins the whole thing. Why impart all that heat for no reason? If I am going to finish the second half of my meal with a tissue in each hand, watery eyes, runny nose and singed taste buds, I want to taste it. If that heat and spice comes with actual flavor, I am all for it. If it’s just there to burn my face off and disguise the fact that you can’t cook, you can keep it.

Sambar soup is a great example of a helluva spicy soup, but it has so much soul, texture, depth and flavor, you won’t mind, even when your eyeballs start to sweat. It’s another amazingly adaptable vegetarian dish, but if you like you can also add meat. The idea is to blend together certain spices and then add whatever vegetables you have on hand. At Urban India, Surinder purchases a sambar soup spicy mix (like this one) and packs the soup full of lentils, potato, carrot, cauliflower, onion, garlic and more. From what I understand, very few people mix their own spices for this particular soup, but the soup mix from Matta’s contains Redgram dal (lentil) powder, salt, coriander powder, sugar, rice flour, tamarind concentrate, red chili powder, cumin powder, fenugreek powder, mustard powder, curry powder, turmeric and cinnamon.

It’s spicy, but it’s amazing.