You, this week, are five. Obviously, this is the post where I veer head-long into fiction, since I can see your six pound self clear as day, barely bigger than a roasting chicken. But let's suppose there's some truth to it. Let's just suppose I've lived a hand-full of years by your side, marveled at the boy you become half a decade out. Where and what and who are you then?
You are my never-ending story. I'm still awfully fond of Kingsolver and LaMott, Lahiri and Berry, but frankly, you leave 'em all in the dust, at least in the wildly entertaining department. Every errand ... school day ... tissue ... dinner ... is just a pesky ellipses between Chapters One and Twelve in your ongoing epic. The costumes, they come, they go, they evolve. (Who knew K'nex could pinch-hit as superhero gear?) But apparently the make-believe bit is here for the long haul. (Hip hooray!)
You are persistence, personified. You solve more problems before lunch than I solve in a month. Never you mind that this world values unraveling insurance snafus over engineering Lego droids. Same basic skills, my boy: focus, determination, flexibility, and a heaping double helping of humor. Your frustation runs high only because your ambitions run higher. The 'twain shall meet. I guarantee it.
You are my rattle and hum. You know noise, know the power of stomp, thump and thwack. You know good drama demands a soundtrack, know Star Wars would've been just a bunch of rinky-dink rockets dangling off monofilament, were it not for Williams' original score. Even though you've never seen it. Quiet and shhhhh top your Most Wanted Words list. And true, I dial down your volume, every now and again. But mostly, I sit one room over, enchanted. Charmed by the way you singsong all day, easy as inhale, unconscious as exhale. Delighted by the little lyrics and sweet soft melodies always drifting by, always different. Doubled over the choral dissonance, the "Me-ga-tron destroyed the world, and Op-ti-mus Prime saved it" set to Twinkle Twinkle.
You are my barrel of monkeys. Wiggling arms, tangled legs, all spin, drape and hang. You scramble up the climbing tower and into the river and between the couch cushions, quicker than quick. Whether prepositions are your favorite part of speech remains to be seen, but over, under, around and through are among your favorite parts of life.
You are my truly, madly, deeply. You wear your heart on your sleeves, and your dungarees, and your hat and mittens too, weather permitting. I mean, really, who needs sad and glad when completely undone and over-the-moon slaphappy are ripe for the picking? Monochrome is nowhere in your palette, or your personality. Thank goodness.
You are the reason I need to learn a thing or three about ISO. I snap and snap and get back mostly blur. You are a spark plug, a coiled spring, a Tigger, a wonderful thing. (Especially, at least where film speed's concerned, when you're plumb tuckered.)
You are my deep kindred spirit, front and center with silver linings and lemonade. When I accidentally shattered your superbot right before bedtime, I braced for outrage, got only shrugs. "I can re-build him, quick." And you did. When we somehow stumbled onto over-population over lunch, over the nifty trick of six billion plus of us on one single planet, you didn't pull a Pollyanna. You were solemn and serious and talked through solutions, sending clean water through "really reeeaaaally big" pipes, cloth napkins to go with our cloth wipe-up rags. Then added, "and mom, that means there are so many more people for us to meet!" Atta boy.
You are my betwixt and between. It's true, you can go from sweet and calm to Sturm und Drang in two siblings flat. You feel the squeeze, don't know how much the middle matters. Yet. (Hubs? PB&J? The Sun? Dude.)
You are my antennae. You greet the world with your fingertips, first, last and always. You are my constant reminder to poke and to prod and see hear and feel and enough with that reserved observation, already.
You are my Hole Is to Dig. We are planners and ponderers, the lot of us, up to our ears in The Implications. You are up to your elbows in Fun, Here, Now! Every walk is an obstacle course, every curb a cliff. Cracks are to dodge, sticks are to drag, "mud is to jump in and slide in and yell doodleedoodleedoo!" A sheep is to pet. Even if it pets you back.
You are my barley buddy, and a patient one at that. Even when we're in the car and on round ninety two of Raffi's Oats and Beans because your sister loves it so, you don't say "any more barley and I'll gag" (which is what I'm thinking), but "boy, I sure love barley." And in no time, I've forgotten all about the downside of Repeat and am pondering the upside of last night's leftovers. Suddenly, yesterday's braised beef has barley soup written all over it.
Now, it seems a little unfair, a touch bait-and-switch, to include a line like "3 cups leftover (anything)" in a recipe. Let's suppose I don't have a nice slump of tender braised beef in my fridge. What, pray tell, (this is me, were I you) shall I do then? Question mark. Exclamation point. Eh?!
Well, I often don't, and that's half the point here. A good barley soup, at least in my book, depends on a slew of good 'shrooms and a broth that's got backbone. Meat, meh. I make it at least as often without as with, and because of this, I depend heavily on a few flavor bombs.
So let's suppose you have nothing, save a yen for one swarthy, swashbuckling, beef-free barley soup. Here's what you do. First, you brown the bejeebers out of your onions and mushrooms. Next, get lazy, and frugal, and devilishly clever. Soak your dear, tiny heap of dried porcini in plenty of hot boiling water, and watch as that plain H2O becomes pure liquid gold. And then there's the soy. Well, soy squared. This part's a little unorthodox, but entirely wonderful. A dollop of miso and smidge of soy sauce improve this soup, exponentially. They leave no fingerprints, just richness and roundness and sultry smart shadows. Umami, in other words, in spades. Which is why, after "3 cups braised beef", I write "optional". And mean it.
Of course, let's just suppose you do want the full package, the beef and the barley, both. Nothing's simpler, just sear and forget, especially on a wet Saturday when you're already indoors, knocking off chores. Plus you can count yourself brilliant, since you've queued up a half week's worth of dinner in one go. My standby brisket takes twenty minutes, tops. This week I tried David Tanis' take, and can't get it out of my mind. Or use your splattered-page favorite. Whatever. What matters is that the beef (chuck or brisket) is melting (braised or oh-so-slow-roasted) and accompanied, if at all possible, by a rich wobbly cup of its own reduced juices. This way is very nice, too. Especially when eaten in the company of a certain fine somebody who, yes, I see, is now five.
Mushroom Barley Soup, with or without Beef
Yield: 6-8 generous servings
Like any soup, this is more suggestion than stern instruction. I made it this way this week; I'll make it another next time. Add peas, up the beef, swap out carrots for parsnips, and so it goes. As long as you have a swaggering stock, you're golden.
About those porcini... they sound a little shi shi, and their per pound price will make your eyes bug out. But here's the thing: a heaping cup weighs maybe two ounces, so divide the price dramatically. And in those few ounces is a heaping huge wollop of flavor, worth every penny. Finally, if you're using the beef, you could skip the porcini. Sort of. Technically.
1 heaping cup dried porcini, added to...
6 cups boiling water or 6 cups stock (vegetable or chicken)
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 large onion, diced
4 cups fresh mushrooms (button, cremini), quartered
1 tsp. tomato paste
1/4 tsp. paprika
1 cup red wine
1 Tbs. miso (I like red here, but they all work beautifully)
1 tsp. soy sauce
1 heaping tsp. dried thyme
1/2 cup barley
3 carrots, chopped into 1/2" pieces
3 cups leftover braised beef, cubed or shredded, optional
1 cup leftover braising juices, the more concentrated, the better
dash vinegar (sherry, balsamic)
salt and pepper, to taste
fresh chopped parsley, for spunk
Boil the 6 cups of water. Place dried porcini in a large, heat-proof bowl. Pour boiling water over porcini, and let sit at least 20 minutes, or up to 4 hours. After reviving, remove mushrooms with a slotted spoon, chop roughly, and set aside. Don't throw away the soaking water; this is your liquid cold. When the time comes to add it to your soup (see below), handle lightly and pour gently, so that any grit settled on the bottom stays behind.
In a heavy soup pot or dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat. When shimmering, add onions, and caramelize well, 8-12 minutes, stirring every so often to prevent burning. When onions are gold in the centers and going chocolate at the edges, tip in the fresh, quartered mushrooms, plus a half teaspoon salt. Stir to coat mushrooms in the oiled onions, cover, and let cook 5-7 minutes, until the mushrooms have released their juices. Remove lid, and continue cooking, 3-5 minutes, until you hear mushrooms begin to sizzle. Now you're beginning to get a good sear. Continue cooking mushrooms another 5-10 minutes, stirring only occasionally, until you see many sides going golden and freckled.
Add tomato paste and paprika to onion/mushroom mixture, stir, and cook 30 seconds. Add wine, scraping up brown bits as you go, a minute or so. Add miso and soy, and stir to dissolve.
Add mushroom soaking liquid (see gentle pouring note, above) or broth, soaked porcini, thyme, barley, carrots, and beef and juices (if using). Return to a near boil, and let simmer, 20-30 minutes, until barley is toothsome and carrots are tender.
Take a few moments to really taste and season. There are so many layers of flavor here (how intense was your miso? how salty your juices?). At this juncture, I usually find it needs a bit more salt, but not much; a wee dash of vinegar, for balance; and a sprinkling of green, if I have it.