Barley is one of the oldest grains on Earth, domesticated  around 8,000 B.C. in Mesopotamia from its wild relative Hordeum spontaneum. While barley is most commonly used as livestock feed today, its presence in the home kitchen—especially the vegetarian home kitchen—is a must. The health benefits of this humble, ancient grain are numerous and include protection against diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

Furthermore, it has a complex, nutty taste and pasta-like consistency that works great for a breakfast cereal, as a star in soups and as an unexpected delightful texture in salads. Its only drawback is that it contains gluten, which makes it a no-go for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Otherwise, it should be a pantry staple for a healthy and delicious diet.

When the temperature took a dive a week or so ago, I thought I’d make one more pot of soup that had that decidedly “winter” warm-up quality. I went straight for the barley and my friend Leo’s mushrooms. Barley and Mushrooms are like a match made in heaven. The flavors compliment so well. While we are now officially into spring, this soup can still do the trick on a chilly day—for dinner with a salad, some homemade bread and a glass of dry Sauvignon Blanc and for lunch during the following week because it warms up just super. I, in fact, have had this soup for breakfast on a cold winter morning. Be brave.

a bowl of mushroom barley soup

Mushroom Barley Soup is rich in flavor and full of healthy ingredients. It’s also a beautiful golden color that adds to its presentation.

Mushroom Barley Soup


  • Seven to eight cups vegetable stock (You need at least six cups of stock for the soup and a reserved one to two cups for heating up leftovers.)
  • One to two tablespoons red palm oil (This ingredient is a new favorite—my choice is Nutiva. Read more about it at the end of the post.)
  • One large yellow onion, chopped (Shallots would also be very nice in place of the onion, if you have them.)
  • Two to three cloves of garlic, chopped, not minced (If you are like me, you’ll use at least four—great in this recipe.)
  • Two medium carrots, scrubbed and  sliced
  • One and a half cups chopped mushrooms (I used half gray and half pink oysters for this soup. Reconstituted dry mushrooms will work well too, as will fresh  shitakes.)
  • One green bell pepper, chopped
  • A quarter of one hot pepper, diced (I used a ghost pepper from my freezer, which is super hot, but you could choose a jalapeño or even a teaspoon of Harissa. How much heat you want determines your choice.)
  • One tablespoon tamari
  • One tablespoon fresh-grated ginger
  • One quarter-cup dry sherry
  • Two heaping tablespoon miso paste (I used dark red miso to keep the barley idea going.)
  • One half to three-quarters cup pearled barley, rinsed
  • Three cups of spinach leaves
  • A quarter-cup fresh parsley, basil, thyme or cilantro—whichever you prefer or a combination of a couple.
  • Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste


  1. Melt the red palm oil in a very large stock pot or Dutch oven. Add the onion, garlic and carrots with a sprinkle of salt. Sauté about five minutes or so until the vegetables are tender and have started to sweat.
  2. Add the mushrooms and green pepper and continue to sauté for another 10 minutes or so with just another light sprinkle of salt. The mushrooms will start to release liquid and the vegetables should start to lightly caramelize.
  3. Add the fresh-grated ginger, the diced hot pepper (or not, if you are not a fan of heat), the tamari, the sherry and some black pepper to taste. Give it a good stir and cook until all the flavors are mingling., maybe five or six more minutes.
  4. Add six cups of vegetable stock (reserving the rest). Bring to a boil and then reduce to a steady simmer for about an hour.
  5. Add your rinsed barley. Note that as the soup continues to cook, the barley will expand and thicken the soup considerably. Use the reserved broth, a little at a time, if the soup becomes thicker than you would like. Continue to simmer for another half hour or so.
  6. As your soup nears completion, add the spinach leaves. Remove a cup of broth, and stir in your miso in order to melt it. Miso is a fairly delicate food—fermented soy—and over-cooking will destroy its healthy probiotic properties. I’ve always followed the advice of sage vegetarian cooks and included this extra step before adding my miso to a soup pot… Just saying. Along with the melted miso paste, add your fresh herbs, salt and pepper to taste, give it a stir and serve.


This recipe contains a couple of “salty” ingredients besides sea salt: tamari and miso. So be judicious in your addition of salt: just enough in the beginning to achieve the desired sweating and caramelizing of the vegetables and only after taste-testing at the end. You’ll probably need less than usual. And don’t toss the extra stock. This soup gets thicker as it chills. You’ll need that stock for the yummy leftovers!

Red palm oil is a new culinary adventure for me. The oil made a big splash with the endorsement of Dr. Oz. But you can find conflicting opinions across the web about its true health value and potentially negative environmental impact. While I basically don’t accept the idea that foods, in and of themselves, make us thinner, I do believe that organic, sustainably raised red palm oil can have health benefits. You just have to do your homework to make sure you are buying a reliable, Earth-friendly product.

Nutiva won me over for now. I’ve recommended the red palm oil in the Mushroom Barley Soup because it makes it taste good and (I think) adds to the other nutritional powerhouses in this soup—namely the mushrooms, the barley and the miso. (I have, by the way, also developed a taste for red palm oil when sautéing kale—Yum!)

So let me know what you are doing with barley and where you stand on red palm oil. Being brave in the kitchen takes some research, some risk, a willingness to try something new or change old habits and, above all, a love for food.

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