A lot of people are complaining about the weather, but I don't mind a few weeks in the dead of winter when the high temperatures never break out of the low 30s. This is turtleneck-sweater, curl-up-by-the-fire weather.
It's also the season for heavier soups with winter ingredients, such as root vegetables. Another of my favorite ingredients in such soups is barley, a filling and nutritious grain that swells as it cooks. Its one drawback is that it continues to absorb liquid after it stops cooking. This means that you will probably have to add water to leftover soup.
Generally, when I use barley in a soup I proceed as if I'm making a pot of beef and vegetable soup - enough for six to eight servings - but substitute half a cup of barley for the potatoes. It doesn't seem like much barley for all of that soup, but using more will exacerbate the absorption problem.
If you are uncomfortable making soup without specific guidelines, here's a recipe adapted from Barbara Kafka, columnist and cookbook author, to work from. If you can't imagine a beef and vegetable soup without diced carrot, go ahead and throw some in. It will not alter too drastically the balance of flavors in the recipe.
8 cups beef stock
1 pound beef stew meat, cut into 3/4-inch pieces
1/2 cup pearl barley
1/4 teaspon dried thyme
1/8 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
8 ounces mushrooms, preferably shiitakes, stemmed, wiped clean, and caps cuts into 1-inch pieces
4 ounces parsnips, trimmed, peeled, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 tablespoons kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
In a large saucepan, bring the stock to a boil. Add the beef pieces and poach gently until the meat is tender, about 45 minutes. Remove the beef pieces to a plate and set aside to cool.
Add the barley, 1/4 teaspoon thyme and 1/8 teaspoon oregano, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 1 hour, until the barley is tender.
While the barley is cooking, melt the butter in a small frying pan over medium heat. Stir in the onion and cook, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes, until golden. Stir in the garlic and mushrooms and continue cooking and stirring for 10 minutes more. Add 1/2 cup water and cook until the water has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to a boil, add the parsnips and cook for 3 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Add the mushroom mixture to the pot with the barley, 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme and 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the beef pieces and the parsnips. Heat to the boiling point.
Stir in salt, pepper and orange juice. Leave on the heat a moment, then ladle into wide bowls and serve. Serves 6.