This is a vegetarian-option soup that I think might well be just as hearty, delicious and sustaining without the (optional) beef... but I had a scant pound of chuck roast waiting patiently in the fridge, so what was I to do?
At this point, I am starting to feel that I am developing some insights, however twee and insubstantial, into the Nature of Making a Good Soup. To that end, I would welcome your questions (e.g., "What if I want to cook a stock all day, then puree the vegetables and mix them back in? Will that make my soup better or worser?" ...or "Why are you so damn set on bouquets garnis, anyway?"). Please send 'em my way if you got 'em, and I will answer them to the best of my ability (or to the limits of the virtually limitless knowledge of Harold McGee or Shirley Corriher, anyway).
Mushroom, Barley (and Optional Beef) Soup
Serves six or thereabouts
FOR THE MEAT OPTION:
2 Tbsp olive oil
One-half to one-pound beef chuck or round roast, cut into small cubes
2 cups water
4 cups beef broth
1/3 cup barley
FOR THE VEG OPTION:
6 cups vegetable broth (plus maybe a little more water, if needed)
2/3 cups barley
FOR BOTH OPTIONS:
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 ribs celery, diced small
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced small
1 pound (or thereabouts) fresh mushrooms, sliced
Generous pinch salt; a few grindings pepper; a sprinkle of chile flakes, if you like
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 14.5-oz can diced tomatoes OR (my preference) diced tomatoes with chiles
Bouquet garni: several parsley stems and a bay leaf, tied together with twine or cheesecloth
Salt & pepper
If making the meat option: Heat 2 Tbsp olive oil in a saucepan. Add beef and cook, turning occasionally, until browned on all sides. Drain well. Add water. Bring just to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, while preparing vegetables.
If making the veg option: Ignore the previous step.
Heat 2 Tbsp olive oil in a soup pot over medium-low heat. Add onion, celery, carrots and mushrooms. Cook, stirring frequently, until onion is translucent and mushrooms have given up their liquid, 7 to 10 minutes. Add garlic, salt, pepper and chile flakes; cook, stirring, 1 minute more.
Add contents of either meat option OR veg option, plus tomatoes and bouquet garni. Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer until barley is tender, about 40 minutes.
Fish out bouquet garni; taste and correct seasoning as needed. Serve with bread or crackers for sopping up the broth.