I don’t write much any more about the trauma of moving into our first house in Eugene, which I dubbed Raccoon Tree Acres. Why Raccoon Tree Acres? Because the raccoons living under the house had been displaced into our giant Siberian elm tree when the contractors screened off the crawl space.
The short story is that we opted for a slightly run down post-WWII cottage instead of a less slightly run down ranch, our only affordable options in this wonderfully friendly neighborhood. Neither of us had any experience renovating houses, since like so many young adults in California, we had never really thought we could afford to buy a house. Then, after exactly a year living in Eugene, we had to move quickly because of an inconsiderate landlord (may termites colonize her conscience), so we found ourselves suddenly on — and then almost as quickly off — the market.
The next year, I always say, I earned a Master’s degree in post-war cottage renovation. But that’s a story for another time. And my PTSD is almost gone now, three years later, thank you very much.
Raccoons and deferred maintenance aside, we really love the house. The lot is unique, large, and relatively private. I can sit for hours in silence, looking out on my garden in the back, as I work in my study. For the past week or so, I’ve been watching a pair of red-shafted Northern Flickers peck all the grubs out of my lawn (I can dream, anyway). The house itself is solid, cute, cozy, and now that I’ve earned my Master’s degree, quite livable.
I was organizing my mass of photos and came across this picture of the kitchen, one I took on our first visit to Raccoon Tree Acres. For a cheap kitchen remodel, it’s not too bad, I remember thinking. We’ve had worse appliances in some of our rentals, and we can live with this stove for a while until we run a gas line into the kitchen…
What I couldn’t see was the rivers — RIVERS — of soy sauce streaming down the sides of the range, the Land of Forgotten Toys and Cat Food under it, and, most importantly, that the wires connecting the burners to the electrical system were burnt to a crisp because the entire kitchen was wired on one circuit and the previous owners, the Dances-With-Raccoons family, didn’t care much when the damn thing caught on fire.
But before we knew all that, I made this simple, warming, delicious root vegetable and beef barley soup as our first meal in our new house. I had no idea how much I’d need it for fortitude, and need it I did. It is really easy enough for anyone to make, and about a gazillion times better than Campbells’ version. I have a more complicated version, which I’ll post on a later date, but this one is still mighty good on a cold day. Perhaps you might enjoy it in the middle of your own unplanned winter renovation project.
Welcome Beef Barley Soup
~the first meal I prepared at Raccoon Tree Acres~
Makes a big pot of soup.
- 8-10 cups of homemade beef stock
- one medium yellow onion, diced
- one carrot, diced
- 2-3 celery stalks, diced (or 1/3 medium-sized celeriac)
- 1 medium rutabaga, diced (holds together better than potato, is better for you, and adds pleasant sweetness)
- 1 lb. stew beef (or a piece of chuck)
- 1 cup pearled barley
- handful of dried sliced shiitakes (buy big bags at Asian markets)
- big handful of parsley, chopped (set aside a couple of tablespoons for garnish, if desired)
- 1 bunch red chard, chopped
- Salt, pepper and soy sauce to taste
Make the beef stock the day before or several hours before you plan to serve the soup. In a large stock pot, add 3-4 beef marrow or soup bones, an onion cut in large pieces, two carrots, two celery stalks, 2-3 fresh bay leaves and a handful of fresh parsley. Do not bring to a boil (for a clear stock). Cook uncovered on medium low (bubbles just breaking the surface) for about two hours. Skim scum off surface as needed. Let cool, then strain out solids and return to washed stock pot.
As the stock is simmering, prepare the beef and vegetable dices. Stew beef is usually cut in 2×1-inch pieces. Quarter each piece, or, if you’re using a piece of chuck instead, dice beef into approximately half-inch (bite-sized) cubes. Dice onion, carrot, celery, and rutabaga in half-inch pieces, as well.
Reconsitute dried shiitakes by pouring hot water over the mushrooms in a small bowl. Let sit for at least 30 minutes. Chop into bite-sized pieces.
Remove stalks from chard and chop into small pieces. Chop parsley finely.
In a large skillet, brown stew beef in a bit of vegetable oil over medium high heat. With such small pieces, it will brown quickly. Add onions, carrot, celery and rutabaga pieces and cook until well-browned in spots. Add beef and vegetable pieces to beef stock.
Add reconsituted mushrooms, barley, parsley, and chard. Season with salt and pepper and a tablespoon or so of good-quality Japanaese soy sauce, which adds the magic “umami” meatiness and depth to the stock.
Cook soup for 1-2 hours at a simmer, skimming foam off top if it occurs. Taste the beef chunks — when they are tender, soup is done.
Garnish with reserved parsley.