This post is part two of the series that could be subtitled, “Delicious Things I Cooked Using Homemade Beef Stock.” About a week ago the Guardian food blog ran a piece on comfort food. It was a nice musey piece; good ‘food for thought.’ What defines “comfort food?” Certainly it means something a little different for each of us. I agree with Mr. Fearnley-Whittingstall (the post’s author) that comfort food doesn’t need to be heavy stodgy stuff like shepherd’s pie, although I’m not totally persuaded that it can really extend to anything you’re in the mood to eat. I may be ecstatic about the beautiful salad I’ve just made, but that doesn’t make me want to call it “comfort food.” For me, sometimes comfort food is spicy Asian noodle soups like pho or Szechuan beef tendon soup. But usually when I think of “comfort food,” it is something that evokes a feeling of nostalgia. So I think I liked best what my friend Sabrina said, which is that comfort food is food that feels like a hug.
A LOT of Polish food is comfort food to me, since it’s the food I grew up eating. (My mother is Polish.) And I have to admit that I have been feeling pretty nostalgic lately. This soup was one of my favourite things to eat as a little girl, and it reminds me of chilly New York winters and good kitchen smells and (of course) of my mother. Like a lot of peasant food it is strong simple stuff. The nice thing about this soup is it’s fairly adaptable. You can add sliced button mushrooms, or vegetables like carrots or celery, or even potatoes, and you can use a vegetable or chicken broth instead of beef broth, and you’d still be making “krupnik.” I like to keep this soup fairly minimalist and (what I think of as) classic: I use a rich beefy broth, plenty of dried porcinis, and pearl barley. I actually don’t know if this is exactly how my mother makes it, but it tastes right to me.
What’s your comfort food and why is it comfort food? When do you crave it? And who made it for you first?
750 ml good strong beef stock
250 ml boiling water
20-40 grams dried porcini (cepe) mushrooms (depending on how strong and mushroomy you want your soup to be)
75-100 grams pearl barley
Salt and pepper
Additional items as desired, such as chopped fresh parsley or sour cream for garnish, sliced button mushrooms, or diced vegetables
Soak the dried porcini mushrooms in the boiling water for about an hour, or until soft. Strain out and reserve the liquid, and chop the porcini mushrooms into smallish chunks.
Combine the chopped mushrooms, soaking liquid, and beef broth in a medium-sized pot and simmer, covered, for about 45 minutes or until the soup is fully infused with the mushroom flavour. If your mushrooms have swelled during the cooking, you can (if you wish) skim them from the soup and chop them more finely.
Season with salt and pepper. Add the barley and (if using) the mushrooms and/or diced vegetables, and cook for a further 30 minutes or until the barley is cooked and any additional ingredients are soft. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve very hot, topped (if you wish) with fresh chopped parsley and/or sour cream, and accompanied by good crusty bread for dunking.
Makes 4-6 servings.