MAY IT PLEASE THE PALATE: Barely mushroom soup

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“Don’t read the comments.” I tell myself this every time I read an internet article. But I can’t help it. I peek at a few, and I feel brain cells seeping out of my head, through my ears, and onto the floor where they will be mashed and stepped on and forever lost. You’d think this consequence would be enough to keep me from reading the comments, but no. Apparently I don’t have enough brain cells to know better.

One of the most interesting phenomena about reading internet comments is that no matter what the topic of the article, all roads lead to politics. Fashion, sports, celebrity, human interest: you name it.

Someone will eventually get around to blaming Obama, or the right, and then it gets even worse.

What I mean by “it gets even worse” is that these anonymous internet posters are not content to simply post – oh, no. They are compelled to actually start arguing with each other. Complete strangers, who will never interact again, changing no one’s mind, calling each other out in cyberspace. But boy, does it feel good to vent when no one knows who you are.

There is one exception: internet recipes. Blessedly, this is one area that so far where commenters generally avoid confrontation. Generally one is allowed to say “I thought it was a touch salty,” or “Try roasting the eggplant instead of frying for a lighter dish.” Otherwise the line is not crossed.

Which brings me to “Barely Mushroom Soup.” New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, also author of “How to Cook Everything” and “Vegan Before 6 P.M.,” is seen by some as a champion of the “flexitarian” eating lifestyle – or “not strictly” vegetarian. But in this case, his recipe for vegan Mushroom Barley Soup caused a beef with some readers.

From Maria P.: “This is apparently called a ‘Times Classic’ which I have a very difficult time believing. I usually do not write negative things on websites since, if I don't like it, fine, I will just ignore it. But, really, this soup was absolutely tasteless. I love mushrooms; I love barley; I like carrots. But, mixed up according to the recipe left lots to be desired. …I cannot say anything positive about this soup. I hate wasting food—this went in the garbage...”

Others thought it suffered from its substitution of mushrooms for beef. Comments ranged from “Overwhelmingly porcini flavored” to “Almost tasteless.”

Yet many, if not most, loved it – and added their own twist. And here’s why anonymous comments on recipes are actually helpful: Because all these people tested the recipe, and other readers learn from their experience. It’s the scientific method in action. And when “The Anonymous Romanian” suggested a dollop of cream and fresh herbs, I knew exactly what I was going to do.

So here’s my take on Mark Bittman’s Mushroom Barley Soup – with improvements inspired by his readers. It turned out to be delicious.

1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms (about 1 cup)
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ pound shiitake or button mushrooms, stemmed and roughly chopped (I used button)
3 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
1 cup pearl barley
Salt and pepper
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon soy sauce (I used dark)
 3 cups “Better than Bouillon” vegetable or mushroom broth (I used veg)

Soak porcini in 3 cups very hot water. Put olive oil in a medium saucepan and turn heat to high. Add fresh mushrooms and carrots, and cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to brown. Add barley, and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until it begins to brown; sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. Remove the porcini from their soaking liquid, and reserve liquid. Sort through porcini and discard any hard bits.

Add porcini to pot and cook, stirring, for about a minute. Add bay leaf, mushroom soaking water and 3 cups stock. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer; cook until barley is very tender, about 30 minutes. Add soy sauce, and taste. Add salt if necessary and plenty of pepper. Serve hot.

This was tasty and filling, and especially good with my added dollop of buttermilk and chopped fresh dill. But the porcini really makes this dish sing. Bittman calls the dried porcini “The key ingredient … it can be reconstituted in hot water in less than 10 minutes, giving you the best-tasting mushrooms you can find outside the woods and an intensely flavored broth that rivals beef stock.”

What Bittman doesn’t tell you is that dried porcini is $35 a pound. Fortunately, my grocer (Sparrow Market in Ann Arbor) sells it behind the butcher counter by the ounce – and fortunately, this recipe only asks for one.

Lesson learned? In this case the comments didn’t make me dumber, they made the experience better. Think this works for other internet articles? Let me know – I don’t have enough brain cells left to decide.
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Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil rights litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. He occasionally updates his blog at http://mayitpleasethepalate.blogspot.com/.

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