Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Sausage, Barley, and Alien Soup

At first we were afraid. Very afraid. Imagine, Emma the Innocent is innocently chopping vegetables for a nice pot o' sausage, barley, and mushroom soup. Engineer the Brilliant is expounding on vector-based something-or-other, which involve moments of gobbledegook and forces corresponding to jibberish. Emma the Innocent nods sagely and pulls another parsnip from the grocery bag....or DOES she?! Screams of terror! Vector-based forces collide in moments! Counter attack--we'll EAT him out!
When that proved too crunchy and tasteless, we decided to make friends. Here's the Engineer and his new friend communing.
Aw, shucks. We're gonna miss that little guy!And then we decided to sacrifice him to the Gods of Hunger and put him in our soup pot. As if in comic retribution, the resulting soup was bitter and lacked depth of flavor. I've made this soup before with wonderful, no-leftovers-left-over results, so I can only conclude that parsnips are not a good substitute for carrots (which I loathe) in this particular dish. The whole time I choked down my bowl, I kept thinking, "Dang. I really just want the taste of potatoes in this." So next time? Potatoes.

In an attempt to salvage the rest of the pot, I tried sprinkling my next bowl with a healthy portion of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. (Cheese can never hurt, right? Though I was worried about
wasting my lovely Parmigiano Reggiano...) While parsnips still are definitely not the best choice for this soup, with the addition of cheese, the soup went from "inedible" to "acceptably decent." It wasn't until days later while reading "Umami: A Taste By Any Other Name" by Rowan Jacobson (published in The Art of Eating, Issue No. 72) when I realized that what was lacking in the soup--and what the Parmesan made up for--was the flavor of umami.

Umami literally means "the essence of deliciousness" in Japanese, and is a legitimate fifth taste with its very own taste buds alongside those responding to sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. At its most basic, the flavor of umami comes from the amino acid glutamate (of the ill-famed MSG additive). The umami flavor can perhaps best be described as 'savory'
and is found in protein based foods where the protein has begun to break down--like aged and cured beef, anchovies, soy sauce, and, yes, you guessed it, Parmesan cheese. In fact, the little tiny white crystals in Parmigiano Reggiano are granules of an amino acid with umami flavor. As Rowan Jacobsen says in his article, "Whenever a soup or sauce 'needs something,' chances are that something is umami--and, chances are, a Western cook will mistakenly add salt instead." Oops. Guilty. Too bad I didn't read that article until after I'd made the soup...

Here is the soup recipe for your very own experiments. Unless you feel like playing around with umami, I'd recommend leaving the parsnips to their alien conspiracies. The original recipe
(found HERE) calls for celery and carrots, but since I don't like those things, I leave them out. I might try adding potatoes for a little more body and starch next time I make it, but I've also made it a few times with the recipe exactly as I've written it below and loved it. Enjoy!

Sausage, Barley, & Mushroom Soup
Makes 4-6 one-cup servings
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 4 links of turkey or chicken sausage (spicy or sweet, as you prefer)--slit each link down the center and remove from casing. Break into crumbly pieces with your fingers. (Or you can chop them if you're grossed out.)
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tablespoons fresh thyme, chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups of portobello or baby bella mushrooms (I use 1 carton from the store)
  • 5 cups shiitake mushrooms (about 1/2 lb), stems discarded and chopped (this is best when mushrooms are in season and you can find them at farmer's markets. Otherwise, I add a second carton of baby bella mushrooms.)
  • 1 cup barley
  • 6 cups chicken stock
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
In a large stock pot, saute the onion in a few teaspoons of oil until soft and translucent. Add the sausage and cook until the sausage is browned. Add garlic, bay leaf, and thyme and stir until garlic is fragrant. Add mushrooms and cook until mushrooms just begin to sweat and shrivel. Add chicken broth and barley.

With the lid off, bring the soup to a boil. Once boiling, cover and reduce to a simmer. The soup is done when the barley is tender. If you have quick-cooking barley, the soup will be ready in about 15 minutes. Regular pearl barley will take about 45 minutes. Check seasonings and add salt and pepper to taste.

WeightWatcher's Notes: I use Al Fresco Chicken Sausage in this soup, which is 70% less fat than regular sausage. It comes in a lot of good flavors and the quality is good for use in soups like this. Depending on the flavor you get, one link is 3 - 4 points. The pot usually makes about 6 cups or more, so a serving is about 3.5 points for a one-cup serving. Depending on the type of sausage you find, you should double check the points. The total for the entire pot of soup before adding the sausage is 6 points.

And don't forget, Parsnip Aliens have feelings too.

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