Fair warning–if I had to pick one type of dish to eat for the next four months, it would be soup, hands down.
Soup is so much more than the sum of its parts: water; bits and pieces of vegetables and herbs; maybe a little meat for flavor and richness; maybe some grains, beans, or noodles for heft. Those are the basic ingredients, but the end result is soul-satisfying like no other: it’s curling under a blanket with a warm bowl in your hands, inhaling the rising steam while the wind howls past the window; it’s dipping the golden corner of a gooey grilled cheese into the unmistakable reddish-orange creaminess of tomato soup; it’s essentially a big hug in a bowl.
I love making a huge pot of steamy, simmering delicousness on Sunday and not having to think about cooking dinner or packing a lunch for at least three days. I love how soup warms me up from the inside out; allows me to satisfy my carb cravings with a hefty slice of bread and salty butter, fluffy dumplings, or a perfect grilled cheese; keeps my hands toasty warm as I wrap my fingers around the bowl. No other single dish can do all of those things the way soup can.
I have two soups in the queue to share, the first stick-to-your-ribs rich, the other equally satisfying but a perfect prescription for when I start to feel like I’ve over-indulged a bit and need a reset.
This first soup is one of those great freezer-clearing recipes that uses up whatever vegetable odds and ens you have around, adds some incredibly flavorful but inexpensive cuts of meat, and finishes by cooking the grains in the broth, leading to a soup that’s creamy and pretty much defines stick-to-your-ribs. It makes enough to satisfy a crowd but the ingredients are about as humble as they get.
So with the first snow in Chicago appearing this week, I’m grabbing my favorite cozy blanket, my biggest stock pot, and cooking up some comfort in a bowl–how about you?
Beef Barley Soup with Oxtail Broth
Don’t freak out! Oxtails aren’t scary, and actually lend a ton of flavor at very little cost. Also, if you can find a nice little butcher shop and ask for a pack of oxtails, the butchers will all go “Oooh, what are you cooking and can we come over for dinner?” Quite fun. However, if you can’t find oxtails, you can use two beef shanks. Also, as I’ve mentioned before, my family does not know how to make a small amount of food, so either be prepared to have a soup party to enjoy the fruits of your labors with friends or plan to eat soup for a week–unfortunately the potatoes and mushrooms don’t freeze well.
4-5 large or 6-7 small or medium oxtail pieces, trimmed of any large pieces of fat
1 medium beef shank
Any vegetable pieces like carrot, celery, onion, or mushroom ends; garlic cloves; and/or parsley
Small handful of black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 large onion, diced
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 medium potato, cubed
1 cup button mushrooms, stemmed and quartered
1/2 cup peas
1/2 cup corn
1/2 cup pearl barley
7-8 cups broth
Salt and pepper to taste
In your largest stock pot, add oxtails and just cover with cold water. Bring to a simmer, then discard the water and repeat twice more. This process will get rid of most of the scum that would otherwise float to the top of your broth.
Add the beef shank and any vegetables to your pot (a slow cooker also would come in handy here), plus bay leaves and peppercorns, and cover with water (about 8 cups in my slow cooker). Bring to a simmer and allow to cook for around 5 hours over low heat.
Remove meat to a cutting board and allow to cool slightly. Discard vegetables and strain broth into another large pot or bowl. If you have time, let the broth set in the fridge overnight to make it much easier to skim off the fat. Pull meat from bones and chop into small-ish pieces, discarding any bits of gristle or fat.
Heat a pot over medium heat and add oil. Add onion, carrot, and garlic, season lightly with salt and pepper, and cook just until the vegetables start to soften. Add the barley, stir, then add broth. Be aware that the barley will expand A LOT, so be cautious if you’re one of those people (like me) who tends to just double amounts willy-nilly, you may end up needing to add more broth or water as the soup cooks.
Simmer for about 40 minutes until the barley is about 3/4 cooked through and still a little chewy in the center. Add reserved beef, celery, potatoes, and mushrooms, and continue to simmer until potatoes are cooked through (about 20 minutes depending on the size of your potato pieces). By this time, the barley should be cooked through as well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
You can add the corn and peas directly to the soup at the very end or, as I like to do, add a small amount of each to my bowl and then top with the steaming hot soup. Serve with crusty bread and butter.