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One of my winter standbys is this delicious mushroom barley “risotto”. The amazingness of this dish is directly related to the amazingness of the mushroom stock, which in turn is dependent on the quality of the mushrooms that go into it. So, with this post I want to convince you of two things: 1) there’s no reason you can’t make vegetable stock from scratch on a weeknight, and 2) buy these porcini mushrooms right now.

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Since the second one is easier, let’s start with that. The porcini mushrooms from NutsOnline.com are so superior to any other dried mushrooms that I’ve tried before that they hardly belong in the same category (and no, they’re not paying me to say that, unfortunately). Most dried mushrooms that you get from the grocery store are pale, brittle little bits that have only a bare whiff of scent, and cost about $7 per ounce. These, by contrast, are dark and velvety in appearance, have a rich mushroomy aroma, and cost just over $1 per ounce. I add them to everything I make that has mushrooms in it, and they dramatically enhance the flavor. In conclusion, buy some now!

Now back to the first point: everyone should make their own vegetable stock on a regular basis. I realized fairly early on how inadequate store-bought stock is for most purposes. Nevertheless, for a while I continued to buy it because of the relative inconvenience of making chicken stock. Since I eat relatively little meat and poultry these days, I rarely have bones lying around. However, shortly after acquiring Deborah Madison’s amazing vegetarian cookbook (which I use so often that it’s falling apart at the seams—I recommend everything about it except for the binding), I tried her vegetable stock recipes, and they totally changed the way I use stock in my cooking. Before it was a luxury, only to be used if absolutely necessary; now I use it to add flavor to a wide variety of dishes. Of course, there are some dishes that really need a meaty stock (French onion soup, say), but I find that I almost never miss the meaty flavor. In fact, the last time I made French onion soup I used the same rich mushroom stock that I use for the barley risotto (recipe below), and even the devoted carnivores were completely satisfied. In any case, vegetable stock more than makes up for its non-meatiness with ease of preparation. I regularly make a quick vegetable stock on the same night as the soup I plan to put it in: it takes about 10 minutes of prep and half an hour of cooking. Unlike bone-based stocks, vegetable stock does not improve with long cooking; most of the flavor can be extracted from the vegetables in 30-40 minutes. Below, I’m including a recipe for a basic vegetable stock in addition to the mushroom stock I used for the risotto.

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Mushroom Barley Risotto

  • 6 cups mushroom stock (recipe below)
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 large onion, finely diced, divided
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 cup pearl barley (the “pearl” part is important; if you get “hulled” barley your risotto won’t be very creamy)
  • 3/4 cup dry red (or white) wine
  • 1/4 cup butter, divided
  • 12-16 oz. white or portobello mushrooms, thinly sliced
  • Juice of 1 lemon, divided
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme or sage (or a combination)
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped parsley

Bring the stock to a simmer on a back burner. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a heavy pan or soup pot over medium heat. Add all but 1/2 cup of the onion and two-thirds of the garlic and cook until the onion is translucent. (A little extra cooking won’t hurt anything, but don’t let the garlic burn.) Stir in the barley and cook for 1 minute. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the wine. Cook, stirring frequently, until the liquid is nearly absorbed. Add 2 1/2 cups of the stock and simmer, covered, until the liquid is nearly absorbed, about 15-20 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the mushrooms. Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter and the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a wide skillet over medium heat. Add the remaining 1/2 cup of onion and cook, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes. Turn the heat to medium-high and stir in the mushrooms. Sauté until just browned around the edges, about 5 minutes. Add the remaining garlic, season with salt and pepper, and squeeze the juice of half the lemon over all. Stir, then turn off the heat and set aside.

Once the initial stock has been absorbed into the barley, begin adding stock in 1/2 cup increments, waiting until each addition is absorbed before adding more. During this stage you should stir the barley and scrape the bottom of the pot very frequently. (The stirring is part of what makes the dish creamy in the end.) When you’ve added an additional 2-3 cups of stock, start tasting the barley to see if it’s tender. It should take about 30 minutes of gradually adding stock for the barley to finish cooking. You may not need to use all the stock.

When the barley is done, stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, cheese, herbs, and remaining lemon juice. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve garnished with extra cheese and/or parsley.

Mushroom Stock

Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

  • 1/2-1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms, with any loose dirt shaken off
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 celery ribs
  • 4 ounces white mushrooms, plus any mushroom trimmings from whatever you’re making
  • 1 cup chopped leek greens and roots, or 1 bunch scallions
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
  • 2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
  • 6 thyme sprigs, or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 8 branches parsley
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 10 sage leaves, or 1 tablespoon dried sage
  • 2 teaspoons salt

Soak the dried mushrooms in near-boiling water to cover. Scrub the vegetables and chop into 1-inch chunks. Heat the oil in a soup pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion, carrots, and celery and cook until the onion is well browned, about 15 minutes. Add the porcini and their soaking liquid, scraping the bottom of the pot to loosen the browned bits. Add all the remaining ingredients and 9 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 45 minutes. Strain right away. (You can pull the porcini out of the boiled vegetables, chop them up, and add them to the mushrooms in the risotto if you like.)

Basic Vegetable Stock

Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

  • 1 large onion
  • 2 large carrots
  • 2 celery ribs (including some leaves, if any are available)
  • 1 bunch scallions, including the greens (optional if you have leek greens)
  • Optional: trimmings from your fridge or any vegetables you plan to use in your dish, for example:
    • Greens and roots from 1-2 leeks
    • Scrubbed potato skins
    • Chard stems
    • Mushroom stems
    • Cilantro stems
    • Extra herbs
    • 1/2 cup nuts
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon nutritional yeast (optional; I found this at Whole Foods)
  • 8 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
  • 8 parsley branches
  • 6 thyme sprigs, or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 teaspoons salt

Scrub the vegetables and chop them into 1-inch chunks. Heat the oil in a soup pot over high heat. Add the vegetables, yeast (if using), garlic, and herbs and cook for up to 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until browned. Add the salt and 8 cups of cold water, scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen any browned bits as you add the liquid. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Strain immediately.

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