You can easily make a vegetarian or vegan version of this soup and it will still be delicious. Simply substitute olive oil for butter and vegetable broth for chicken broth. Mushrooms make a flavorful broth on their own and believe me, when you are cooking barley you will cook everything long enough to get the flavor from the mushrooms to infuse the broth.
Most people soak barley overnight before cooking, but my mom never did and neither do I. It cooks up to a nice toothsome tenderness just fine in about 2 hours or so.
So, making this I first sliced up 10 small crimini mushrooms and dry sautéed them. Dry sauté is the best way to cook mushrooms as it draws moisture out which will make their flavor richer and help them keep not get too mushy while cooking. Once you try it you will never go back to just tossing the mushrooms in. All you do is heat the pan to a medium, medium-low and toss the mushrooms in to cook for about 10 minutes. Stir frequently so they don’t stick to the pan.
In the interim, dice one small yellow onion. When the mushrooms are done (10 minutes) add 2 TBSP of butter (or olive oil if you want a vegan version) and add the onions as soon as its melted. Sauté until they are turn transparent. Add some salt and pepper and 2 tsp of dried thyme. You want to add salt and pepper in layers – as you add ingredients. You actually will probably use less because the flavor is integrated throughout.
Meanwhile, peel and chop two carrots and two stalks of celery. Add them to the pot and cook for another five minutes or so, just enough to potentiate their flavor before adding the broth. This will make the broth richer and more flavorful. Add some salt and pepper.
Add 4 cups of chicken broth (or vegetable broth for vegan version) and 1.5 cups of pearl barley. Stir, put the lid on and let cook, on a low boil, stirring every 10 minutes or so for the next hour and half or so. Keep checking to see if the barley is tender after 1.5 hours and remove when you get the right texture. Add salt and pepper to taste.
This is flavorful, rich and very hearty. it is comfort food for me. I love barley with its slight nuttiness and barley and mushrooms are made for each other. This makes four large servings of soup.