I proclaim the soup season of 2013-14 officially open. Yeah, yeah, I know, we still have at least six more weeks of this hellish heat and humidity, but I can smell the fall already. There is just something in the way the air smells in the morning, the dew beads on the grass blades, the trees have that end of summer tired look, and dare I say, my AC isn’t running 24/7 anymore, which is a sure sign of the upcoming fall… Is it the fall I smell or the dry mushrooms in my pantry cabinet? Whatever the case may be, it’s time for soup in my house.
This soup requires some basic planning, meaning, that when you know you want it, you have to give yourself one night to soak the dry mushrooms. Of course, you could use the fresh ones, but it just won’t be the same effect. See, the dry mushrooms have this indescribable aroma — a mix of antique wood, great-grandma’s Victorian post cards, old leather bound books with dark yellow pages so old, that their corners disintegrate on contact, ancient dried out wedding bouquet. They smell wonderfully sweet of things old and half-forgotten, as if promising to tell a story of the good old days when you give them a chance. And so when you work with dry mushrooms, you do want them to tell that story, so you have to be patient and gentle : dry mushrooms can’t stand to be rushed — they pay back with tough and bitter chunks of cardboard angrily floating on top of the muddy puddle of a soup.
No, you don’t want to rush the mushrooms. But if you give them time and set the stage just right with complementing flavors, such as fenugreek to enhance that antique wood aroma, and savory mirepoix, and maybe a hint of coriander or cumin, and a bit of wine, they will start telling their story in most wonderful way. Then you add some stock and some potatoes and your grain — traditionally barley, but we are using farro here, which is just as great — and let the story develop itself slowly, deliberately…
And when finally you sit down in front of that bowl of steaming soup, you forget that it’s still hellishly hot and humid outside. You close your eyes, inhale that steam and I promise you that you will see the fall leaves silently waltzing in the air before falling on the soft earth beneath and hear the most wonderful story of the days past, coming right from the depths of your heart…
Dry Mushroom & Leek Soup With Farro
Serves about 6-8 soup enthusiasts of varied ages and hunger level
For the soak:
- 1 cup of dry mushrooms, preferably mixed varieties, I used non-equal quantities of chanterelles and trumpets
- 2 cups of filtered unheated water
- 1/2 tsp salt
For the soup:
- 2 tbsp cooking fat
- 2 stalks celery, diced
- 2-3 medium carrots, diced
- 2 medium size leeks, dark green parts discarded, the rest cut in half, rinsed and sliced thinly
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1/2 tsp fenugreek
- 1/2 tsp cumin (optional)
- 1/2 tsp dry tarragon leaves (optional)
- 1/2 tsp dry basil leaves (optional)
- 1 bay leaf
- 10-15 black peppercorns crushed
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 3-4 cups stock or water, I used light beef stock
- 2 handfuls of pearled farro or barley (approximately 1/2 cup)
- 3 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
- more salt and pepper to taste
- 1/2 cup cream or half-and-half (totally optional)
- fresh parsley to garnish
- The night before making the soup, rinse the dry mushrooms in cold water, then place them into a bowl, cover with filtered water and add 1/2 tsp salt. Let mushrooms sit overnight to rehydrate and generate some mushroom base for you at the same time.
- Word of warning, no matter how well you rinse dry mushrooms, they will retain some of the sand or dirt, so your best course of action is to wait until they are rehydrated, remove them from the soaking water (reserve the water, you will need it later!) and rinse in fresh water a few more times before using in a soup, shaking and agitating the mushrooms vigorously. As for the soaking water, the best way to rid of the remaining grit is to pass it through a paper towel into another bowl — works like a charm!
- Make the soup: cut carrots and celery into small dice. Slice the leeks thinly crosswise. Chop the garlic.
- Heat the cooking fat in a dutch oven or a soup pot, over medium heat. Add leeks, carrots, celery and garlic all at once to the pot, sprinkle some salt and fresh ground pepper, and proceed sautéing in cooking fat, stirring occasionally, for about 7-8 minutes or until they are soft, wilted and translucent.
- Chop the rehydrated and rinsed mushrooms as uniformly as possible, to resemble the size of the vegetable dice above. Add mushrooms to the vegetables, and continue cooking for about 4-5 more minutes, stirring once in a while to prevent scorching.
- Add wine, stir thoroughly, and scrape the bottom of the pot with spatula to loosen all the stuck bits. Cook for another 2-3 minutes, until wine is about reduced in half.
- Add mushroom soaking water (hopefully by now you have already passed it through the paper towel to remove the sand), and stock (or equivalent water amount). Bring to a boil.
- Add potatoes and farro. Bring to a boil again. Reduce heat to low.
- Add all the seasoning and herbs. Check for salt content. Cover the pot and simmer gently for at least 30 minutes, checking farro/barley for doneness periodically. The grain shouldn’t fall apart on contact, and shouldn’t be overly mushy. We are looking for soft pulp with somewhat chewy core. Once the grain reaches that state, the soup is done.
- At this point you may add cream or half-and-half, if you like your soups lighter in color and creamier.
- Garnish with fresh chopped parsley and serve while hot. Slurping is mandatory!