Cheap Eats:
  Polish Barley Vegetable Soup with Mushrooms

Hard to believe, but this is column 105 of “Cheap Eats.” Where has the time gone? But then, we’re talking about food here, and that’s a topic that is hard to exhaust. In fact, we haven’t even gotten through all the major world foods—for example, barley.

The cultivation of barley pretty much dates back to the beginning of cultivation. Barley appears to have originated in the Ethiopian highlands up into southeast Asia, but had already spread out from its starting point by the time we first find it recorded in Egyptian hieroglyphics (around 5000 BC). It is listed on Sumerian cuneiform tablets that date to around 3500 BC, and was clearly being used in northwestern Europe by 3000 BC Barley was identified as one of the “two immortal sons of heaven,” along with rice, in India’s Vedic literature, and it was listed as being among the five sacred cultivated plants of China by around 2800 BC.

Now, the thing that really strikes me about all this is that it clearly indicates that people were moving around very early on. We sometimes forget that for millennia, no one stayed in one place for very long, and the farther back one goes, the more this is true. People followed herds or seasons or stories from other wanderers, and everything got spread around, including humans.

Barley was the major grain of the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans. The thing that finally bumped barley out of first place was the spread of using leavening in bread baking. Barley doesn’t have any gluten, so you can’t make raised yeast breads from barley flour—and once the Egyptians figured out how to make raised yeast breads, that was what everyone suddenly wanted. So wheat started to take over in most places. However, barley remained the primary bread grain in Europe until the 1500s. (Not everyone could afford those fancy raised breads.) It was as important in Europe then as rice is in Asia today. But wheat finally won out, as more and more people could afford the technology needed for using yeast in baking.

Barley still holds the number one spot in areas where wheat or other grains are hard to grow, particularly cold, rocky places or places where the soil is too saline. In Tibet, barley is ubiquitous, but it is also popular in northern Germany, Finland, the Italian Alps, the Sahara, the Netherlands, Scotland, and Israel. In Tibet, barley is generally ground fine and mixed with yak butter tea and rolled into balls that you pop in your mouth. (Tibet is gorgeous, but don’t go for the cuisine.) But elsewhere, it appears most commonly in pilafs, stews, and soups. And while barley is no longer the number one grain in the world, it is still widely consumed.

Barley is also important in a lot of places where it is rarely eaten, because you need malted barley to make most beers. More than 10 percent of the annual worldwide barley crop (which runs to hundreds of millions of tons) is used in the production of beer. And then there are the places that distill it into whiskey.

I have always loved barley. My favorite way to consume it has generally been in hearty soups. Krupnik is a delicious, rich soup that is perfect for cold weather. The dried mushrooms can be a bit pricey, but they are immensely flavorful and you really can’t make this recipe without them. Regular grocery stores often have them, but check an ethnic grocer (Eastern European or Italian) for better prices on this essential ingredient. Enjoy.

(Polish Barley Vegetable Soup with Mushrooms)

1 ounce dried cepe (porcini) mushrooms

10 cups beef stock (see Note below)

2‑3 cups beef from making stock (see note)

1 cup pearl barley

¼ cup butter

2 carrots, diced

2 medium potatoes (about 1 pound), peeled and diced

1 stalk celery with leaves, chopped

1 cup green beans, fresh or frozen, cut in ½-inch lengths

Salt and pepper to taste

1 cup sour cream

2 Tbs. finely cut fresh dill leaves (dry is acceptable, too)

In a small bowl, soak mushrooms in 1 cup warm water for 30 minutes. Remove softened mushrooms from liquid and cut into ½-inch dice. Strain the soaking liquid through a coffee filter, or use a fine sieve and watch carefully for sand or grit at the bottom of the bowl. Put beef stock in a large pot and add soaking liquid and chopped mushrooms to the stock.

In a saucepan, bring 2 cups of water to the boil. Stir in barley. Return water to the boil, cover, lower heat, and simmer until all water is absorbed (about 15 minutes). Stir butter into barley, making sure melting butter coats all grains. Set aside.

Add carrots, potatoes, celery, and green beans to stock and bring to the simmer. Stir the barley and butter mixture, to separate grains, then stir barley into the stock, breaking up any clumps of barley. Cover and simmer until barley is tender, about 1 hour. Season to taste. (If stock or broth is salted, you will only need to add pepper.)

You can garnish individual bowls of soup with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of dill, or you can pass a bowl of sour cream, sprinkled with dill, for people to add to their own soup.

Serves 8‑10.


If you don’t have beef stock and the meat from which the beef stock was made, just use beef broth. Cut about 1 pound of stew meat into bite-sized pieces (small bites), brown pieces on all sides, and add to the broth before adding all the other ingredients.

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