Back in the proverbial days of yore, I spent several years of my life in a relationship with a man who had very strong feelings about the definition of a meal. More specifically, he felt that a meal was not deserving of the title unless it was served on a plate. Meals that required a bowl simply did not count. In hindsight, this was probably a not-so-subtle stab at my dietary preferences; I was/am a long-time vegetarian, and he was very much a meat -and-three-veg type of guy. Either way, I called bullshit then, and I certainly haven’t changed my opinion in the intervening years. I probably still use bowls more often than plates, and not only as a counter to my clumsiness. And when you are wont to indulge in some table-free eating, cradling a warm bowl of food in your lap is so much cosier than balancing a plate.
So many delicious meals call for a bowl. First and foremost: SOUP. I am pretty sure that soup was probably on the top of my ex’s “not-a-real-meal” hit list but, just throwing it out there: he was completely wrong. It’s a rare week when I don’t make multiple batches of soup. Even in summer. Even in our Australian summer. Soup makes me a happy camper. It’s healthy but comforting, and usually very low effort. And it’s probably my #1 favourite way of making sure that I eat enough vegetables. Salads are all well and good but offer me a choice of soup or salad and the soup is going to win, hands down, 90% of the time.
There are a quite a few soups in my repertoire, but any account of my eating habits would be lost without an account of three soups in particular. The Soups (tomato/bean/barley, sweet potato/pumpkin, broccoli/cauliflower). Seriously, probably not a single week has gone by over the last few years where I haven’t made one of these soups. And for good reason.
My MVP, the tomato, bean, and barley soup (aka, the soup of my 2016) , has been in rotation, in various different forms, for a long time now. It started life as a potato and barley soup cooked from a charmingly old school Australian Women’s Weekly cookbook – one of those early vegetarian cookbooks that confusingly called for carob instead of chocolate in all of the desserts, as if chocolate consisted mostly of beef dripping and hooves. It’s changed a fair bit over the years, however. Since the original cookbook and I have long since parted ways, there’s no way to tell how much my current version resembles its progenitor. Not much, I suspect, beyond the presence of a couple of key ingredients. Over the years I ditched the potato, pared the seasonings back a little, later started seasoning in a different direction entirely (chilli!), added some more vegetables, threw in some beans, and so on.
The finished product is nothing fancy, but it’s also healthy, filling, comforting, reheats well, and doesn’t really require very much from you. When I need to feel like I’m taking proper care of myself, in spite of everything, I fall back on this soup, and it is yet to let me down.
Finally, some notes on variations: this soup can easily be modified depending on what you have kicking about. And that’s why this is such a friendly soup. It’s easygoing, and really more of a template than anything else. I rarely make the exact same version of this soup twice in a row. I use plain old water, not stock, as a base for the soup for two reasons: A) I find that the tomatoes and the bay leaves make a tasty enough liquid on their own, and B) I live with someone who has to watch their salt intake very carefully, so I tend to steer clear of stock where possible, and add seasonings to taste when the soup reaches my bowl. That said, if you want to use stock you should go right ahead: I bet it will be even more delicious!
The chilli doesn’t result in a particularly spicy soup, but if you’re averse, just leave it out.
I would be a filthy liar if I claimed that I ever actually measured the barley (couple of small handfuls) or the olive oil (just pour in a slug of it).
If you are in a rush or too hungry to mess around with 30+ minutes of cooking time, ditch the barley and toss in some soup pasta instead. It provides similar substance but cook up in a much shorter time (10 minutes, give or take, depending on the size of the pasta), so you can insert it into your face quicker! You can also soak the barley beforehand to cut down on cooking time; I do this whenever I have the foresight, which is honestly not all that often. An hour or so beforehand, rinse the barley, place it in a bowl, and cover it with freshly boiled water, and set aside to soak. Unless there’s lots of excess water (i.e. more than a cup), I don’t even bother draining it; I just toss the whole lot into the soup with the tomatoes.
Sometimes I use a bottle of passata instead of tinned tomatoes. Torn up kale can happily substitute for the spinach, and of course you can use regular spinach instead of baby; just tear it up a bit first. If I don’t have celery in the fridge, I don’t tend to bother going out and getting a whole bunch just for this; I just make a celery-less version. Similarly, as long as you’ve got some greens, the absence of parsley is not the end of the world.
Long story short: don’t be a slave to the recipe. This soup just wants you to be happy!
A Simple and Happy Vegetable, Bean, and Barley Stew:
You will need:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 brown onion, finely chopped
3 x cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 x medium sized carrot, finely chopped
1 x stick celery, finely chopped
2-3 x bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon chilli flakes/crushed red pepper
2 x 400g can of chopped tomatoes (seasoned or not, as you please)
2/3 cup pearl barley, rinsed
1 x 400g can of three bean mix (or five bean mix if you are feeling particularly beany), drained and rinsed.
couple of handfuls of baby spinach
a handful of fresh parsley, finely chopped
Heat the oil in a large saucepan and then add the onions. Add the bay leaves, carrot, celery, and garlic (I tend to add ingredients in this order, chopping as I go rather than prepping it beforehand). Cook until the vegetables are softened and the onion is just beginning to brown. Stir in the chilli flakes.
Add the contents of the tins of tomatoes, the drained beans, and the barley. Pour in some hot water (I use a recently boiled jug). You’ll want to add about 500ml of hot water, though I never measure. I usually refill my tomato cans about half full, give them a swirl to get every last bit of tomato, and add this to the soup. Cover and bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer.
Cook until the barley is plump and beginning to break down a little. I usually give it about 30 minutes. You can stir during this time if you want, but you don’t need to. Remove the soup from the heat and stir in the spinach and the chopped parsley. Pick out the bay leaf if you can be bothered. I almost inevitably cannot be bothered. Season to taste, ladle into bowls, and eat.
Seriously, I feel a whole lot less overwhelmed by the general state of things when I have a dinner than can be served with a ladle.
And please note that this soup can very profitably be served with toasted cheese or garlic toast. Yes indeed.