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Foraging for the perfect shtetl recipe: Mushroom barley soup then and now

What can a Jewish cookbook from 1946 tell us about the 21st-century Jewish-American experience? Liza Schoenfein, the Forward’s senior food writer, and Jane Ziegelman, a culinary historian, took our signature collection of Yiddish recipes off the shelf and found a direct line from the balaboostas of yore to the kitchens of today. In this installment, Liza and Jane consider the significance of the humble mushroom.

Our Ancestors Knew A Lot More About Mushrooms (And Umami) Than You’d Think, by Jane Ziegelman

The Jewish American Cook Book

The Jewish American Cook Book: Originally published by the Forward in 1946. Image by Forward Association

For our shtetl ancestors, resourcefulness was a survival skill. The shtetl diet was cobbled together from foods that were either store-bought, grown in small kitchen gardens, or foraged in the surrounding countryside. In warm weather, Jewish women picked wild sorrel for schav, a tangy spring-time soup, berries for preserves, and mushrooms that were used in a variety of soups and stews.

The mushrooms which botanists call boletus edulis (we know them better as porcinis) may sound like a luxury commodity, but in Eastern Europe they grew wild in such profusion that in forested areas they were one of the shtetls’ major exports.

Like tomatoes and Parmesan cheese, mushrooms are rich in glutamates, amino acids responsible for the meaty deliciousness known as umami. Fresh mushrooms have plenty of umami, dried mushrooms even more. According to Jeffrey Umansky, a Cleveland-based delicatessen proprietor and fungi aficionado, the drying process breaks down the protein in mushrooms unlocking their umami reserves and making them accessible to our taste buds.

In America, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers settled in tenements on the Lower East Side and found work in the garment trade, sewing linings into coats and finishing button holes. As they gained economic stability, they and their families migrated uptown, because, as people used to say, “luft iz besser in the Bronx!”

Regina Frishwasser

In Frishwasser We Trust: Regina Frishwasser, the Forward’s recipe editor, worked for the newspaper for five decades starting in 1918. Image by The Forward Association

At last, Jews could afford to eat steak dinners like other Americans. But resourcefulness was part of their culinary DNA, and they continued to cook with the old foods of scarcity. In cities like New York, Jewish women engaged in another kind of foraging. Their new hunting grounds were the pushcart markets where they sought out the best goods at the lowest prices.

A fixture of the pushcart market was the mushroom peddler, most times an older gentleman who roamed the streets bedecked with dried mushroom garlands around his neck. A number of other foods were peddled the same way, including onions and dried figs. The mushroom peddler was distinguished by the fact that he also wore edible “bracelets,” bands of dried mushrooms that went up his arm.

In traditional Jewish cooking, mushrooms were used as natural bouillon cubes; an economical way to give foods a meaty flavor without actually using meat. In her 1938 cookbook, “The Vilna Vegetarian,” Fannie Lewando has a recipe for cholent, or sabbath stew, here made with potatoes and beans. Dried mushrooms take the place of flanken or marrow bones. Combined with mashed potatoes and browned onions, dried porcinis were also used as a filling for blintzes.

The most typical of all Jewish mushroom dishes, however, was krupnik, or mushroom barley soup, the traditional food of impoverished yeshiva students. The memoirist Alexander Gurwitz recalls from his yeshiva days the “great copper vessel wrapped in colorful bandanas” from which krupnik was ladled. The rabbi was in charge of serving. The krupnik must not have been too substantial because the boys had gotten into the habit of crumbling cookies (yes, cookies) saved from the previous evening into their soup to thicken it.

In traditional Jewish cooking, mushrooms were used as natural bouillon cubes

In her “Jewish American Cook Book,” Frishwasser includes a number of soups in the krupnik family, all hearty enough to stand on their own. Some are vegetarian, some are made with meat. An example from group two begins with these instructions: “Cook one chopped calf’s foot in 6 cups salted water until the meat falls from the bones.” To this already rich broth are added dried mushrooms, lima beans, barley, carrot, parsnip and celery root.

The version which caught our eye, however, is an all-vegetable krupnik seasoned with mustard seeds, a spice often used to make pickles but unheard of in soup. How it wandered into this recipe is a mystery. Then again, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. The women who submitted their recipes to Frishwasser were culinary pioneers, merging ingredients from different lands, different cultures. To home cooks capable of dreaming up Banana Knishes, and Spaghetti with Carrot Dumplings, what was a stray spoonful of mustard seeds?

Here’s The Original Recipe From The 1946 “Jewish American Cook Book”

Mushroom and Barley Soup

Wash 1 ounce dry mushrooms in hot water. Grate 2 large carrots and 1 large onion on the coarse side of a grater. Bring 6 cups water to a boil, and add 1 teaspoon salt, the mushrooms, carrots, and onion, ½ cup dry yellow split peas, ½ cup fine barley, and ½ teaspoon mustard seeds. Cook over low heat until the peas are soft. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a frying pan, add 1 tablespoon flour and brown; then add 3 tablespoons soup, and cook over a low heat until the sauce thickens. Mix into the soup, and cook for 5 minutes.

And Here’s How We Made An Old Recipe New, by Liza Schoenfein:

Mushroom barley soup

Krupnik: The mushroom barley soup is a new spin on a shtetl standard.

Growing up in the Western Hemisphere before the turn of the new millennium, we were taught that there were four main categories of flavor: sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. (I’m not sure why “spicy” wasn’t included, but there you are.) The concept of umami was introduced in Japan in 1908 by a chemist named Kikunae Ikeda, who was studying the properties of a popular edible kelp called kombu and found that it contained rich stores of monosodium glutamate, and that when dried, it formed tasty crystals of MSG on its surface. In “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen,” food-science authority Harold McGee writes that Ikeda discovered that MSG offered a flavor sensation different from the standard four, and called it umami, which roughly translates to “delicious.”

“For decades,” McGee writes, “Western scientists were skeptical that umami was a genuine taste sensation of its own, and not just a general taste enhancer.” Indeed the closest most 20th-century Americans came to understanding that savory richness could be considered its own taste category was the recognition that MSG was added to Chinese take-out, accompanied by the largely debunked notion that it was responsible for headaches and other distressing postprandial symptoms.

“Beginning in the late 1960s,” McGee writes, “MSG was blamed for the ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’…Many toxicology studies later, toxicologists have concluded that MSG is a harmless ingredient for most people, even in large amounts.”

It wasn’t until the last 15 years or so — thanks in part to star chef David Chang, who opened his first Momofuku restaurant in 2004, and whom The New York Times credited with “the rise of contemporary Asian-American cuisine” — that the food media began bandying the term umami around with abandon, and the general public came to associate its qualities not just with MSG but with parmesan cheese, tomato paste, and soy sauce. (Chang launched “Lucky Peach” magazine in 2011, with an article by McGee in the very first issue that discussed umami and discredited the MSG-related “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” theory.)

Eastern-European Jewish home cooks used dried mushrooms in lieu of meat, bones, or bouillon to add deep savory notes to their soups and stews.

Given the relatively recent rise in umami awareness, it was interesting to learn about the way Eastern-European Jewish home cooks were using dried mushrooms in lieu of meat, bones, or bouillon to add deep savory notes to their soups and stews.

When I started developing a modern version of Regina Frishwasser’s vegetarian mushroom-barley soup, I was impressed by how much delicious “meaty” flavor it derived from just one ounce of dried porcini mushrooms. In the past when I’d made mushroom-barley soup, I’d used fresh mushrooms and beef broth, but this new vegetarian version actually tasted more robust.

The addition of mustard seeds in the original recipe made me raise an eyebrow, because I’d never seen them (or even regular mustard) in a mushroom-barley soup recipe before. I did use them, toasted, in my updated version, and while they didn’t jump out at me, they probably do add a subtle layer of flavor.

They weren’t the only ingredient that I found surprising. What were split peas doing on the list? I was reluctant to even consider adding them to the brew, imagining the degree to which they would interfere with its taste and texture. But I didn’t want to reject the idea out of hand, recognizing that they were meant to make the soup more filling and nutritious. So I borrowed from another of the book’s mushroom-barley soup recipes, which called for lima beans. Unlike mushy split peas, I reasoned, the large, mild-tasting legumes would add heartiness and nutritional value while maintaining their distinct shape.

And so they did. The resulting soup is full of mixed mushrooms — the fresh ones thickly sliced — and the combination of barley and lima beans creates a complete protein and therefore a “square meal.” (My co-author Jane Ziegelman wrote a book by that name, which explains the culinary history of the Depression and the origins of the term.)

Frishwasser finishes her soup by thickening it with flour. I decided not to, because both the barley and the beans act as thickeners, and after it’s been refrigerated overnight, the soup is almost stew-like.

To add even more flavor to the broth, I spiked mine with dry sherry, which imparts a note of nuttiness and some acidity. If this doesn’t interest you, leave it out or substitute a little splash of good wine vinegar.

Mushroom barley soup

Soup’s On: We decided to skip the split peas and substitute lima beans. Image by Liza Schoenfein

Modern Mushroom Barley Soup With Lima Beans

1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms

½ teaspoon mustard seeds

2 tablespoon butter, divided

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 leek, well rinsed and dried, finely chopped

2 ribs celery, finely chopped

1 carrot, finely chopped

1 pound fresh mushrooms such as cremini, white button, shiitake, etc., sliced

1 teaspoon dried tarragon, crushed between palms

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons kosher salt (or to taste)

¼ teaspoon pepper (or to taste)

6 cups water

1 tablespoon tamari

¼ cup dry sherry (optional)

½ cup pearl barley

1 cup dry lima beans (approx. 3 cups cooked), soaked overnight, cooked until tender, and slipped of any loose skins

  1. Rinse the dried mushrooms under running water. In a medium bowl, cover them with 2 cups boiling water. Let sit about 20 minutes. Toast the mustard seeds in a small, dry pan until fragrant, about a minute.

  2. Meanwhile, cook leek, celery and carrot in 1 tablespoon of butter and the oil, stirring occasionally, 5–7 minutes. Add fresh mushrooms, tarragon and additional tablespoon of butter and cook, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes more. (Don’t worry if the mushrooms brown a little as they cook.)

  3. Strain the reconstituted dried mushrooms, making sure to reserve the cooking liquid. Roughly chop mushrooms if they are large. Add to the pot, along with garlic, salt and pepper. Cook, stirring,1–2 minutes.

  4. Add reserved mushroom liquid to the pot along with water, tamari, sherry (if using), and the barley. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer, covered, about 30 minutes, until barley is tender. Add lima beans, simmer about 10 minutes more, adjust seasoning, and serve.

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