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Lunch Of The Week: Mushroom Barley Soup With Grilled Feta Toast

Better a terrible photo than none at all, that’s what I always say. I couldn’t put my spoon down long enough to take a photo with two hands. That’s all you need to know about this meal.

I know, it’s a big call declaring a Lunch of The Week on Monday, but I’m feeling quietly confident that this will be the one to beat. It’s not a good-looking lunch, but it has hidden depths of deliciousness and you will find yourself a bit in love with it. It is the Stephen Fry of lunch.

This morning May Blossom and I donned aprons and scrubbed out the inside of the oven, which was, to paraphrase Neil from The Young Ones after he sticks his head in their oven to gas himself, dirtier than ovens at the bottom of swamps. It was a thoroughly dispiriting job, and one not made any easier by my insistence on using only bicarbonate of soda and vinegar (and child labour). With every scrub my brain screamed ‘Go buy a can of Mr Muscle, hippie!’, like Rik would have if they had ever actually gotten round to cleaning the oven on the show.

After forty minutes of very hard work, I had a moderately clean oven. I hoped I had managed to remove whatever the culprit was that has been making the element at the top smoke like a bastard whenever we turn the grill on.

To celebrate, I made some soup. I have been thinking a lot lately about my grandmother’s cooking, and mushroom barley soup is a soup she used to make. I think she used beef stock, because her soup was much browner than mine turned out, but since we had a roast chicken for dinner last night and the buzzards I am related to picked the thing carcass almost completely clean, I had some chicken stock handy.

I sautéed a diced onion and five stalks of diced celery in a bit of butter until they were soft, then added two minced cloves of garlic, about three cups of roughly chopped mushrooms (which H gathered from a cardboard box in our local massive multinational supermarket, like a true locavore), five or six dried chinese shitake mushrooms which I soaked in a bit of hot stock for a while and then sliced, a goodly slosh of cooking sherry (cooking sherry should always be measured in sloshes), a bay leaf, some fresh thyme, a cup of pearled barley and a litre of chicken stock.

This I brought to the boil, then I put a lid on the pot, turned it down to a simmer and cooked it for fifteen minutes. That was not the plan. I planned to simmer it for an hour, or until the barley was tender and popping open, but there was a small but determined person was sitting on a trike in front of the door calling ‘Push, Mummy!’, so I switched off the soup. When I returned two hours later, lo and behold the soup was perfectly cooked. Amazing. Used a lot less gas too. It was even the right temperature to serve to a tiny starving bikie.

Once the bikie had eaten an obscene amount and gone to bed, I reheated the soup and H and I ate it with a little squeeze of lemon and slices of toasted bread with fried feta smeared on it. I had planned to toast the feta on the bread under the grill, but alas it seems the grill is not fixed. There is definitely Something Wrong With It. It sends out toxic-smelling white clouds of smoke when heated up. I’m no expert in ovens, but toxic smoke can’t be a good sign. It turns out cleaning the oven was a complete waste of time. I won’t make that mistake again.

Mushroom Barley Soup

20 g butter

1 onion, finely diced

5 stalks celery, finely diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

3 cups roughly chopped mushrooms (any kind. Any edible kind. I don’t need to specify that, do I? You’re not idiots.)

6 dried mushrooms, soaked in hot stock for 15 minutes and sliced (optional)

1 slosh sherry

1 bay leaf

1 tablespoon thyme leaves

1 cup pearled barley

1 litre hot chicken stock.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan and sauté the onion and celery until soft (about 5 minutes). Add the garlic, mushrooms, sherry, bay leaf, thyme, barley, stock and salt and peppper and either (a) simmer for fifteen minutes, remove from heat and leave, covered, for two hours, or (b) simmer until cooked, probably about forty-five minutes to an hour.

Serve with toast and cheese of some description. You could watch QI while you ate this and it would not do you any harm.

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