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A Hearty, Healthy, Easy Vegetable Soup

Christopher Kimball re-creates a winter-favorite farmhouse recipe

Chef Chris Kimball Vegetable Soup

Jonny Valiant

Serve winter-perfect Farmhouse Vegetable and Barley Soup with a slice of bread and warm conversation.

En español | I grew up working on a Vermont dairy farm, a small farm on the town line, in the 1960s. The midday meal was prepared by Marie Briggs, a bespectacled woman of hearty stock: forearms thick from kneading, sturdy black-heeled shoes, hair wound tight in a bun. The kitchen sink was equipped with a water pump, not a tap; the stove's fuel was wood; and the "facilities" were outdoors, not far from the old corncrib.

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Food on a farm is dependable. It is craft, not art. And that is why I love farmhouse fare. Nobody is tarting up the plate with squiggles of puree or serving baby vegetables. (The only baby vegetables on the farm were ones that didn't grow fast enough before first frost.) And, of course, farmhouse soup is the ultimate example of frugality, since it requires no more than a quick trip to the root cellar, plus water, seasonings and a large pot. This notion, making do with dead-of-winter produce, is still appealing to the culinary purist in me. It also reminds me of those deep-snow winters, walking into the farmhouse, the smell of yeast, wet dog and molasses welcoming the visitor like a warm blanket. And then Marie, no matter the time of day, would offer a thick slice of homemade sandwich bread with a rich smear of fresh butter.

Although Marie would have used water, I thought that canned chicken broth (you can use vegetable broth if you like) was a good place to start when I first re-created this soup. But I wanted to enhance the flavor, because commercial broths are lackluster on their own. Two ingredients came to mind: soy sauce and dried porcini mushrooms. In small quantities, these two items add a lot of extra flavor through a pairing of glutamates and nucleotides: Soy sauce is rich in the former, and the mushrooms offer the latter. These flavor enhancers have no personality of their own; they simply boost the other flavors in the pot.

The vegetables were pretty straightforward: potatoes, a turnip, cabbage and frozen peas. What was less clear was how to add body to the soup. One recipe suggested adding oatmeal, but this reminded me more of gruel than soup. Although Marie would have added cornmeal, a common farmhouse ingredient, I found that a half cup of pearl barley was perfect; it added the desired heft with just the right texture.

The final ingredient was an idea I borrowed from an Irish cookbook: Just before serving, I added a dollop of butter mixed with fresh thyme and lemon zest. This gave a burst of flavor to a rich base.

Although the soups at the Yellow Farmhouse were good, I have to admit that this version is better. By using a bit of science (glutamates and nucleotides) and a few tricks from other cookbooks (adding barley and a flavored butter at the end), I was able to produce a dead-of-winter soup that would brighten up any farmhouse even on a bitterly cold day.

But while I may have a better recipe, I still miss the conversation. The farmer, Floyd Bentley, sat hunched over on the green corduroy sofa, arms hinged and resting on his thighs, cigarette dangling from a corner of his mouth, his eyes lightly hooded and rheumy. He spoke only when he had something to say, which wasn't often.

Then, at the dinner table in the front parlor, he would suddenly look up, remembering a particularly good story, and might start in on the time two brothers, Claude and Chester Hayes, illegally shot a deer at night and didn't want to get caught. They had to pass by the home of Charlie Randall — a particularly nosy neighbor — so they parked the large doe between them on the buckboard, figuring that Charlie, with his poor eyesight, would think it was just a third person. The next day, Charlie approached Chester in the country store and asked who was sitting between him and Claude. Chester said, "Oh, just a local girl." Charlie shot back, "Kinda ugly, ain't she?"

Floyd's tale would end, we would smile, and then the assembled gathering got back to the matter at hand: dinner. As I said, the food was fuel, not art. It was the stories that were told around the table that mattered.

Farmhouse Vegetable and Barley Soup

Serves 6 to 8

  • ⅛ ounce dried porcini mushrooms
  • 8 sprigs fresh parsley; plus 3 tablespoons parsley, chopped
  • 4 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1-1/2 pounds leeks, white and light-green parts sliced 1/2-inch thick and washed thoroughly
  • 2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 2 celery ribs, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
  • ⅓ cup dry white wine (preferably acidic and un-oaked, such as sauvignon blanc)
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • Salt and pepper
  • 6 cups water
  • 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup pearl barley
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and smashed
  • 1-1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 turnip, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch pieces
  • 1-1/2 cups chopped green cabbage
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice

1. Grind porcini to a fine meal with spice grinder, 10 to 30 seconds. Using twine, tie together parsley sprigs, thyme and bay leaf.

2. Melt butter in large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add leeks, carrots, celery, wine, soy sauce and 2 teaspoons salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid has evaporated and celery has softened, about 10 minutes.

3. Add water, broth, barley, 2 teaspoons of the porcini powder, the herb bundle and garlic; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for 25 minutes.

4. Add potatoes, turnip and cabbage; simmer until barley, potatoes, turnip and cabbage are tender, 18 to 20 minutes.

5. Remove from heat; remove herb bundle. Stir in remaining ingredients. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve.

6. Pass Lemon-Thyme Butter (recipe follows) at the table, or garnish with bacon, cheddar or croutons.

Lemon-Thyme Butter

Makes 6 tablespoons

  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
  • 3/4 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest, plus 1/4 teaspoon juice
  • Pinch salt

Combine all ingredients in a bowl.

Nutrients per serving for vegetable soup: 130 calories, 4g protein, 21g carbo-hydrates, 5g fiber, 3g fat, 8mg cholesterol, 363mg sodium

Nutrients per serving for flavored butter: 78 calories, 0g protein, 0g car-bohydrates, 0g fiber, 9g fat, 23mg cholesterol, 22mg sodium

Christopher Kimball is the founder and editor of Cook's Illustrated, and host of America's Test Kitchen.

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