I’ll be honest. I don’t really get the whole kale thing. Yes, it’s dark and leafy and pulsing with iron. Yes, kale chips are tasty (although, so is almost anything else, if you toss with oil and salt and roast it to a crisp). But I’m really not convinced that kale is the hot, trendy, it-girl food of the moment. I’m just not a huge fan, no matter how delicately it’s sauteed or how vigorously it’s massaged. Eating a kale salad, to me, is like chewing the rough end of a bottle brush.
Now. With all that said, I’ll be the first to admit that kale has its place in the world. Say, for example, in this soup.
Mushroom barley soup is a classic on its own–and with good reason. As in so many great Eastern European foodstuffs, the mix of hardy grain and earthy fungus is a source of comfort, a taste of home. But with a mess of kale leaves cut into ribbons and wilted into the pot, it becomes something else entirely. The broth softens the kale’s brushy edges, making it tender and supple. Suddenly, a stodgy old favorite becomes a hearty winter meal in a bowl, fortifying and warm without the attendant weight or guilt.
This is the kind of soup that demands a good gutsy broth. For the photographed batch, I raided my freezer for rich, chestnut-colored turkey stock, made from the carcass of my family’s Thanksgiving bird. If I didn’t have that, my first choice would probably be beef stock; normally I don’t go in for big cow flavor, but beef loves both mushrooms and barley so much that it seems like a natural. If you prefer a vegan soup, just swap out the stock for a strong vegetable broth–something dark and mushroomy, I would think.
Yes, kale has its place. Keep your massaged bottle-brush salads; I have my soup bowl.
Mushroom Barley Soup with Kale (serves 6-8)
Adapted from Recipes for Health
1 bunch (8-10 oz) curly kale or cavolo nero (dinosaur kale)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium white or yellow onion, diced
3/4 lb (12 oz) white or brown mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
2 large or 4 small garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp salt, plus more to taste
3/4 cup whole (hulled) or pearl barley
2-3 thyme sprigs
1 rosemary sprig
1 bay leaf
8 cups (2 quarts) stock or broth
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Wash the kale thoroughly, and cut the leaves away from the stems. Set the leaves aside, and finely dice the stems.
In a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, kale stems, and a pinch of salt, and saute for about 5 minutes, or until the onions start to turn translucent. Add mushrooms and saute for another 3-5 minutes, or until the onions are translucent and the mushrooms are beginning to soften. Add garlic and 1/2 tsp salt, and saute for another 5 minutes, or until the mixture is fragrant and juicy. Add barley, thyme sprigs, rosemary sprig, bay leaf, and broth. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 45 minutes, or until the barley is just starting to get tender.
While the soup is simmering, slice the kale leaves crosswise into 1-inch ribbons. After 45 minutes of simmering, remove the thyme stems, rosemary sprig, and bay leaf from the soup. Add the kale, cover, and simmer for another 15-20 minutes, or until the kale and barley are tender. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then ladle into bowls and serve immediately.
Leftover soup will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days, or in the freezer for up to 2 months. The barley will continue absorbing liquid, so you may need to thin the soup with a little water or broth before reheating it.