Pre-Pessah pottage from the pantry

I look at going through the food cabinets as a sort of treasure hunt.

mushroom barley soup 311 (photo credit: Eric Mencher/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)
mushroom barley soup 311
(photo credit: Eric Mencher/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)
My favorite part of cleaning for Pessah is clearing the excess from my pantry. I look at going through the food cabinets as a sort of treasure hunt – a chance to rediscover forgotten ingredients. For me coming up with good ways to use up pantry foods is a game, not a chore.
I might find a bag of pasta with just a small amount left, not enough for a pasta dish, or perhaps a package of lentils, dried beans or barley with only half a cup remaining. Maybe there’s a packet of vegetable or bean soup mix that I figured I’d use when time is short, and didn’t get around to it. Sometimes I find some seaweed flakes or dehydrated soy chunks, purchased on a whim at a health food store. There might be a few dried tomatoes or, when I’m lucky, I might come across a bag of dried mushrooms left over from trying a Chinese recipe.
My solution for using all of these items is to make a big pot of soup. Just combine the dried ingredients with water, add fresh or frozen vegetables and any seasonings you like and let the soup simmer until you need it.
You can find models for such soups in many cuisines. There are Eastern European barley-mushroom soups and barley-bean soups, which are perfect for using up stored ingredients. I cook both these soups with onion, celery and carrot, and finish them with plenty of fresh parsley and dill to enliven the flavor.
Of course there’s the familiar Italian minestrone, which usually combines pasta and beans with plenty of fresh vegetables and a finishing touch of pesto, as well as pasta e fagioli, a pasta-and-bean soup with a smaller proportion of vegetables than minestrone. Italians have their preferred pasta shapes and bean varieties for these soups, but we can use any ones we have.
Soups similar to minestrone in form but not in flavor are favored in North Africa. A vegetable soup from Algeria combines chickpeas with fine noodles or rice and the usual minestrone vegetables – onion, potato, carrot, zucchini, celery and tomatoes, but with different seasonings: red pepper, cinnamon and fresh coriander. Southern Mediterranean cooks also make meat-flavored soups of chickpeas and green wheat (known as frikeh), chicken soups with lentils, chickpeas and rice and fava beans soups with pasta.
Persian cooks are experts at making pantry soups. Their mung bean soup, often flavored with ground beef, sauteed onions, turmeric and dill, also has pinto beans and rice; vegetarian versions might include turnips and spinach. A hearty, meat-flavored lentil-and-vegetable pottage contains rice and three kinds of beans and is flavored generously with sauteed onions and fresh herbs; a meatless version has cracked wheat as well. Persians also make a vegetable soup with bulgur, rice and three kinds of legumes – chickpeas, kidney beans and lentils, crowned with a dollop of a labaneh-like dairy product.
It’s clear from these everything-in-one-pot soups that just about anything goes. Undoubtedly many of these soups came about when a cook simply used what happened to be on the kitchen shelf. In making them, you can take great liberties in the proportions of ingredients. Each household makes them somewhat differently, according to taste and what is in the cupboard. These satisfying soups are wholesome and convenient to have on hand for these busy days of cleaning and shopping, ready to heat whenever the family is hungry.
The seasoning of this soup is delicate so the taste of the mushrooms comes through. Hungarians flavor it generously with both hot and sweet paprika. You can add spicy beef sausages or cooked chicken to the soup to make it a meaty main-course soup.
25 to 30 gr. dried mushrooms 2 or 3 carrots, diced1 parsley root, diced1 medium onion, diced4 cups broth or water1⁄2 cup pearl barley1 large leek, with 5-cm. green tops,     split, cleaned and sliced3 stalks celery, dicedSalt and freshly ground pepper110 to 225 gr. fresh mushrooms,     halved and sliced (optional)1 or 2 zucchini or white squash     (kishuim), diced1 or 2 cups cooked or drained canned     white beans2 to 3 Tbsp. chopped parsley, dill or     mixture of both
Rinse dried mushrooms and soak 20 minutes in 1 cup hot water. Remove mushrooms, reserving liquid. Dice any large ones.
In a large saucepan combine carrots, parsley root, onion and broth and bring to boil. Reduce heat to low. Add barley, leek, celery, salt and pepper. Add fresh and dried mushrooms. Pour mushroom soaking water into another bowl, leaving behind and discarding the last few tablespoons of liquid, which may be sandy. Add mushroom liquid to soup. Cover and cook for 35 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add zucchini and beans and cook about 10 or 15 minutes longer or until barley is tender. If soup is too thick, add more water. Taste and adjust seasoning. When serving, sprinkle each bowl with chopped herbs.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
This soup is made with whole mung beans, which have dark green skins and are the same beans used to make Chinese bean sprouts. Like barley, mung beans thicken the liquid considerably as they cook and when they cool; gradually add more liquid as the soup simmers, and when reheating it.
You can find mung beans at the shouk, or substitute other small beans, brown lentils or split peas, adjusting their cooking times and the amount of liquid as needed.
Browning the onion in oil is the usual way to begin cooking this soup but I find that chicken gives enough richness to the broth and so I consider this step optional. It’s a thick, stew-like soup enlivened with a profusion of herbs. Fresh pita or other flatbread is the traditional accompaniment.
1 large onion, sliced 1 to 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil or olive oil     (optional)700 gr. chicken drumsticks or thighs3⁄4 cup whole mung beans, sorted and     rinsed 3 large garlic cloves, chopped8 to 10 cups watersalt and freshly ground pepper2 large carrots, sliced (optional)1 tsp. turmeric1⁄2 cup white rice, long or short grain    (see Note below)1⁄3 cup chopped green onions1⁄2 cup chopped parsley1⁄2 cup chopped cilantro (fresh coriander)2 Tbsp. chopped dill or mint
If you’d like to brown the onion, heat oil in a large saucepan, add theonion and saute over medium heat until it begins to brown; if notbrowning the onion, simply put it in the pan. Add chicken, mung beans,garlic and 8 cups water. Add a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Skimoff froth. Cover and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally andadding water if soup becomes too thick.
Add carrots, turmeric, rice, salt, pepper, green onions, 1⁄4 cupparsley, 1⁄4 cup cilantro and 1 tablespoon dill. Cover and simmer for20 minutes or until mung beans, rice and chicken are tender.
Skim fat from soup. Remove chicken pieces and discard skin and bones.Cut meat in strips and return to soup. Stir in remaining parsley,cilantro and dill. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot.
Makes 5 or 6 servings.
Note: If you’d like to use brown rice, add it for the last 40 minutes of simmering.
Faye Levy is the author of Faye Levy’s International Jewish Cookbook.