Meatless Monday: White Bean and Barley Soup

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By Emily Paster

People often ask me if I plan my week's menu in advance and shop for the necessary ingredients? I'm sure that's a good strategy, but I have never been able to pull it off. I simply can't decide on Sunday what I will feel like cooking on Wednesday. So my grocery shopping strategy is more loose. I always try to keep a well-stocked pantry with staples like pasta, grains, rice, beans, canned tomatoes and chicken broth that can be pressed into service for lots of different dishes. I also try to have a few core persishable items on hand at all times: onions, red peppers, garlic, carrots, celery, flat-leaf parsley, potatoes, eggs, apples, lemons, milk and cheese. As perishable items go, these will last the best in a cold fridge or the counter. With these items, I can keep my family fed well all week. And that leaves me free in the grocery store to pick up some extras that grab my eye.

This hearty vegetarian soup is one of those recipes that you can make when you feel like there's no food in the house. Everything except the onion, carrots and celery are pantry staples.  And onions, carrots and celery last so long and are so versatile that you have no excuse not to have them on hand at all times. For the most flavorful carrots, buy those with the green tops still on – a trick I learned from reading Ina Garten's cookbooks. For the past few weeks, my local Whole Foods has had beautiful bunches of multi-colored carrots that are both sweet-tasting and pleasing to the eye. The bright hues of these carrots made me want to cook with them all week.

The combination of diced onion, carrot and celery that is at the heart of this soup is known as mirepoix and it is the basis for countless recipes. It is the foundation for many different soups from many different cuisines – you can make a soup based on these ingredients seem French or Italian or North African or even Indian simply by changing the seasonings. In this soup, I went with a Mediterranean flavor enhanced by the herbes de Provence and the addition of pearl barley and white beans.

Pearl barley may not be one of your pantry staples yet, but I recommend it. Pearl barley cooks up fluffy and tender with a nutty flavor and is quite nutritious. We usually see barley in soup but you can actually use it to make risotto, a pilaf or eat it as a salad with fresh vegetables. Like most grains, barley is cooked in liquid until it fluffs up and becomes tender — a process which usually about 40 minutes. But it also holds its shape nicely when simmered for hours in soups and stews, as is the case here. Because barley is so sturdy, you can make this soup well in advance and leave it simmering on the stove without any ill effects.

The heartiness of the barley and the protein provided by the white beans make this soup a vegetarian recipe that will satisfy even the biggest appetites. I call for vegetable broth in the recipe to make this a truly vegetarian — even vegan — recipe, but if that is not important to you, chicken broth would work just as well. Served with some crusty bread and a green salad, this would make an elegant lunch for company or a healthy family dinner.

White Bean and Barley Soup

2 TB olive oil
1 onion, diced
3 ribs celery, diced
4 carrots, peeled and diced
2 tsp. Herbes de Provence
Pinch red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper
28 oz. can whole tomatoes
1 tsp. sugar
8 cups vegetable broth
1 cup pearl barley
14 oz. can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
Splash red wine vinegar
2 TB chopped flat-leaf parsley

Heat olive oil in a large, deep stock pot. Add the diced onion, celery and carrots. Sweat the vegetables over low heat until tender. Season well with salt and pepper, red pepper flakes and herbes de Provence and saute for a few additional minutes until fragrant. Add the canned tomatoes with their juice, crushing the tomatoes with your hand or the back of a spoon. Sprinkle in the sugar. Raise the heat and bring mixture to a boil. Once the soup is boiling, reduce heat and simmer until thickened about 10 minutes. Add the broth and the barley and raise heat again and bring soup to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for at least 30 minutes – although there is no harm in letting the soup simmer for longer. About ten minutes before you want to serve the soup, add the beans. Before serving, add a splash of red wine vinegar and garnish with chopped parsley. Adjust seasonings as necessary.

What are some of your favorite recipes for when it feels like there is no food in the house?

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