Every time I eat a bowl of this easy-to-prepare mushroom barley soup, I ask myself the same question: How can this be so delicious? It’s one of those soup recipes that is perfect for an afternoon before a big family holiday or just as tasty (and filling—a meal in itself!) paired with a salad and some crusty bread.

Years ago, before Thanksgiving or Chanukah, my mother always had a large pot of soup on the stove for anyone who was hungry late in the afternoon, hours before the main meal was ready. Sometimes it was a thick split pea soup; other times it was minestrone filled with cannellini and kidney beans. But the one I loved best was mushroom barley. In those days, she cooked it with beef broth and boiled beef, which were probably boiled short ribs. The next day, we’d devour the beef with horseradish.

Mushroom barley soup made without beef stock or beef is just as scrumptious. Years ago, I found a recipe in a Mark Bittman cookbook that I enhanced to include a variety of mushrooms, as well as more of the essential ingredients that really give it a flavor boost.

The key to the fragrant stock is dried porcini mushrooms, which add a nutty, earthy flavor, so I don’t recommend leaving them out. Using these mushrooms got me curious, so I did a bit of research about them.

Did you know…

  1. The name porcini means “piglets” in Italian. They’re also known as the king bolete, cèpe (in French) and Steinpilz (the “stone mushroom” in German).
  2. Porcini mushrooms may grow a rather large cap, up to 12 inches in diameter. It’s usually brown or reddish-brown with a slightly sticky texture.
  3. Porcini are mycorrhizal. This means that the underground vegetative growth of the mushroom, called the mycelia, enters into a symbiotic relationship with the roots of plants. Because of this complex relationship that occurs in nature, porcini aren’t easily cultivated, which is why they are expensive.
  4. They are reportedly high in protein content, which makes them a great meat substitute.

The other types of mushrooms that you can use in the soup can vary depending upon what you have on hand, what you like or what you want to experiment with. You can also add more mushrooms than the recipe calls for. Usually, I use shiitake and cremini, but I have also used a mix of white buttons, oyster and chanterelles. And for those who can’t do without the beef in their soup, it can be added when you add the barley, which will cook in about the same amount of time. Alternatively, to add dimension in a vegetarian soup, you can toss in a Parmesan rind or a splash of cognac or wine toward the end.

It there’s a meal-in-a-bowl that’s meant for a cold winter day, you won’t go wrong with a warm serving of mushroom barley soup.