Most beef barley soups are like stews — so thick with grains and chunks of meat that your spoon practically stands up even when you’re not holding on.
This one, however, falls on the lighter, brothier side of the spectrum.
It still has the barley — velour-soft, nubby and soothing. And it still has plenty of tender chunks of juicy, brawny beef.
But it also has enough fragrant liquid to keep all the elements floating, instead of merging into porridgelike solidity.
This is especially good in this recipe because it allows you to really savor the broth itself, heady with spices. Coriander, cumin and paprika work together to give it a gently earthy, almost sweet scent, while a hit of fresh lemon juice and zest at the end brightens everything.
It may not be the typical flavor profile for this kind of homey soup, but it’s not so wildly different that it will scare beef barley lovers away from the pot. It’s just complex enough without being intimidating.
Even better, it’s fairly adaptable. Heat-seekers can indulge by adding the optional cayenne to the broth and some sliced jalapeños to the bowl as a crisp and fiery garnish. Those who prefer things on the milder side can easily leave out one or both. This soup is forgiving like that.
One thing that beef barley fans may notice is the absence of mushrooms, which I replaced with a host of other vegetables — fennel, turnips, parsnips, leeks, carrots and a large quantity of spinach stirred in at the end. The spinach, in particular, is crucial here, adding a dose of much-needed color and a silky texture. Baby kale works, too, though it may need to be heated for an extra minute or so to soften.
Using more vegetables than usual makes it possible to cut back on the barley without letting the beef dominate. And using a bit less barley also encourages brothiness. This is because barley grains are like little sponges, absorbing liquid as the soup sits. So what may seem like a perfectly liquid soup when you first make it inevitably thickens after a few hours, especially if it’s been in the fridge. But just stir in some water or broth when you heat it up, and it will be good to go.
Beef Barley Soup With Lemon
Total time: 3 1/2 hours
1 pound beef stew meat, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 teaspoons kosher salt, more as needed
1 teaspoon black pepper, more as needed
2 tablespoons olive oil, more as needed
3 small or 2 large leeks, thinly sliced
3 celery stalks, diced
1 fennel bulb, diced
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
Large pinch cayenne, optional
1 quart beef or chicken stock
3 sage sprigs
2 rosemary sprigs
2 bay leaves
2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
2 parsnips, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
2 large turnips, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3/4 cups pearled barley
8 ounces/8 cups baby spinach or baby kale
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Finely grated zest of 1 small lemon, plus fresh lemon juice to taste
Thinly sliced jalapeños or other chilies, for serving (optional)
1. Season beef with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Let mixture stand for 30 minutes to 1 hour at room temperature.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add meat and cook in batches, turning occasionally, until well browned, 8 to 10 minutes per batch. Drizzle in additional oil if the pan seems dry. Transfer the browned meat to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain.
3. Add leek, celery, fennel and garlic to the pan; cook until soft, about 7 minutes, adjusting the heat if necessary to prevent burning. Push the vegetables to one side, and, if the pan looks dry, add a bit more oil. Add tomato paste and spices to the cleared spot and cook until tomato paste is darkened and caramelized, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir together vegetables and tomato paste.
4. Return meat to the pot. Pour in stock and 8 cups water. Using kitchen string, tie sage, rosemary and bay leaves into a bundle and drop into pot. Bring the liquid to a simmer over medium heat. Cook, partly covered, for 1 hour.
5. Stir in the carrots, parsnips, turnips, barley, 1 teaspoon salt and remaining 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Simmer until barley is cooked through and meat is tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour more. Pull herb bunch from pot and discard.
6. Stir spinach and parsley into pot until wilted, 2 to 3 minutes (kale may take a few minutes longer), then stir in lemon zest and juice. If soup is too thick, thin it with a little water. Taste and adjust seasonings, if necessary. Serve with chilies, if you like.
Yield: 8 servings