January is a month of slurping soups.
There are thick parsnip and apple soups, practically white with cream and a brightness of flavour that makes you suddenly sit up and eat your lunch more alertly than usual. A butternut squash soup drizzled with turmeric yoghurt, in an attempt to coerce flavour into this despondent vegetable (the most vibrant of the squashes I’ll add), seafood chowder thick with chunky potato, smoked haddock, salmon and prawns, and a turkey soup speckled with whole grain mustard and full of leftover Christmas bird from the freezer – a bit more fancy and socially acceptable than Christmas dinner in a blender.
The action of gliding my spoon through a bowl of hot liquid and blowing on that laden spoon is all inherent to January for me. It’s the month to eat a hot lunch so you can go back to work comfortable and ready to concentrate, instead of gently shivering at your desk. A liquid lunch, in the wholesome sense.
Today is was a vegan vegetable and pearl barley soup, different to the rest because this one is a broth of chunky vegetables and grains, chewy and satisfying. I only came across the recipe because we had all in the ingredients – parsnips, carrots, leeks and celery – whiling away in the vegetable drawer, gradually softening with each passing day. Although we love soup in this house, I think we have a compulsion to use the stick blender as much as possible – when in doubt, use the stick blender – so soups with a bite are an anomaly.
However, I think we might be converted.
As the base is broth, this vegetable soup requires your own stock, which sounds like a much bigger and daunting task than it is. All you need to do is roughly chop carrots, celery, leeks, mushrooms and onion, add peppercorns and bay leaves, cover with water and set it to simmer merrily for thirty minutes. The finished liquor will be a golden brown and surprisingly sweet in comparison to the salt-laden cubes we buy from supermarkets.
Dice – or roughly dice if you’re not a perfectionist – all your vegetables, sweat until sweet, then add the garlic, thyme, bay leaves, homemade stock and pearl barley. As I stirred, the soup noticeably thickened as the pearl barley cooked and plumped. It gave this delicate, earthy flavoured soup some robust girth to fill our stomachs.
I served the soup with some cheese toasts because – I mean, do I need a reason other than cheese? This soup is too healthy without them. That said, the Cheddar’s saltiness perfectly complemented the sweet broth, and I do have a strange love of scooping up softened, squidgy toast, heavy with soup.
Meanwhile, today, for the first time in my recent memory, the sun beams through the windows, glittering off the frosty lawn which I simply had to crunch my way across in my dressing gown and slippers to take terrible pictures which don’t do justice to the icy sparkly tranquillity. It’s a soup day.
Vegetable and pearl barley soup
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 onion diced
- 2 carrots peeled and diced
- 2 parsnips peeled and diced
- 4 sticks of celery diced
- 2 leeks quartered into lengths and diced
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 1 tsp dried thyme or 2 tsp fresh thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 1½ l homemade vegetable or chicken stock see notes
- 60 g uncooked pearl barley
- 100 g spring greens and celery leaves
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Put a large cast iron pan or casserole dish on medium heat and the oil. When warm, tip in all the onion, carrot, parsnip, celery and leeks. Coat them in the oil as they sizzle and let them sweat with the lid on for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Crush the garlic and stir it into the vegetables along with the thyme and bay leaves. Cook for a couple of minutes then pour in the stock and season with a good grinding of salt. Simmer for 5-10 minutes to amalgamate the flavours.
- Pour in the pearl barley and cook for another 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, if you would like, prepare some toast with melted cheese on top and don’t let them burn under the grill like I did.
- Once the pearl barley is plump and chewy, add the greens and celery leaves. Stir it all together, season with salt and remove from the heat.
- Serve with cheese toasts or bread, and ground black pepper.