Friday, February 16, 2007

Pantry Soup

After months of complaining about all the stuff jammed into our too-small kitchen pantry, my wife reached the end of her patience and started re-organizing during this week's bitter cold snap. (Really, I was just about to do it myself, I swear!) We set up a folding table in the foyer and, under threat of death if I touched anything, I watched my wife pull everything off the pantry shelves and begin composing little groups of similar items on the folding table, and on the kitchen counters, and on the kitchen table. "Look! How many bags of brown sugar do you suppose I've found?" she asked with just a bit of sarcasm in her voice. Can I help it that I teach classes where we use a lot of brown sugar?

What I did notice among all the odds and ends were small, half-used bags of pink beans, bundled together with rubber bands, and another little balled-up package of pearled barley. I remembered an eight-cup container of left-over chicken stock I'd recently made, just taking up space in the fridge. And the idea of some kind of soup began to form in my head. Because I don't have a recipe for this particular soup, and because I can't think of a better way to celebrate our newly organized pantry, I'm calling it "Pantry Soup." Otherwise, you might call it "beans and barley soup," but as you will see, this soup really is a mongrel.

I confess, "Pantry Soup" is not entirely my invention, merely a riff on a dish I found years ago in Bert Greene's The Grains Cookbook. (But isn't the power of suggestion wonderful, to say nothing of one's food memory bank?) Besides being a terrific reference for just about every grain in the world, this particular book contains a few recipes you'd have to consider definite keepers. One is the recipe for chollent that Greene borrowed from My Mother's Cookbook by someone named Fanny Silverstein. Those familiar with Jewish traditions may have fond or not-so-fond memories of chollent, the pot roast traditionally served on the sabbath. In orthodox practice, Jews are not permitted to engage in any kind of work--including cooking--on the sabbath day. So what they did in order to have a hot meal was take the cooking pot containing the pot roast ingredients to the local baker's the day before. At the end of the day, the pot would go into the oven as the fire was dying and remain there until the following morning, when it would be retrieved by the family intending to eat it. Apparently, some pot roasts survived this overnight treatment better than others. For those not interested in waiting overnight, Bert Greene's (or should I say Ms. Silverstein's) version only takes four hours of baking at 250 degrees. The main ingredients are: One big slab of chuck roast, preferably a blade roast with the bone in; one cup of pink beans; one cup of pearled barley; the usual soup vegetables, along with a small fistful of Hangarian paprika and powedered ginger. This was the sort of thing I had in mind when I saw the little bundles of pink beans and barley coming out of our over-stuffed pantry, minus the slab of beef.

Besides making a huge pot of soup, I also discovered something about my friends the pink beans. I had always assumed that the intense flavor of my chollent owed to the unctuousness of the beef blade roast. But after making "Pantry Soup," I realized this impression was faulty. Much of the intense flavor actually comes from the beans. Otherwise, the soup looks very much like the chollent, with the starchy barley, the beans, and not-too-much stock combining in a wonderfully velvety, deeply flavorful pottage. I wish I could say I measured exactly what I was putting into the pot as I was making this soup. But in the spirit of just cleaning out the pantry, I didn't, and now I regret that a little, but not too much, regret not being an ingredient we use around soups. I know the finished soup was a little heavy on the beans and barley, and required adding more stock. This is where we get to the mongrel part, because I ran out of the pre-made chicken stock and had to use what was left in a container of beef broth. Then I had to fetch a can of what I thought was chicken stock from our other pantry, but that turned out to be beef broth as well. So in the end the soup tasted even more like the aforementioned chollent than I would otherwise have a right to expect.

Anyway, here's approximately what you do to arrive at "Pantry Soup":

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and diced small
2 large carrots, peeled and diced small
1 teaspoon coarse salt
2 large cloves garlic, smashed and minced
1 cup pink beans
1 cup pearled barley
8 cups stock (can be chicken, beef, vegetable or combination, more as desired)
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil over high heat until it just begins to smoke. Toss the onion and carrot into the pot and lower the heat to medium-low. Stir in salt. Cook until onion is soft, about 8 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook another minute. Add beans, barley and stock. Increase heat until soup just begins to boil, then reduce heat to low, cover the pot and allow soup to cook until the beans are perfectly tender, three hours or more. Season with pepper. If the soup seems too thick, add more stock or water. Serve hot with a good, crusty bread.


your FinL said...


Otherwise, I really enjoyed it.

your FinL said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kimberly said...


FABULOUS... the read was a treat... so well written I could actually hear Lane's voice asking about the brown sugar... sarcasim and all!!!

Look forward to more!