In the past, I’ve kept notes for recipes on my computer — bookmarked links, mostly — while also using what might be called “grandma measures” when cooking day-to-day: grandma never needs to measure anything because she’s made each of those recipes so many times — she can eyeball it and knows when a dish ‘looks right’ or ‘feels right’.
That said, I did have to get a bit more scientific in the kitchen last year when I tried making my own sourdough starter. I have a text file on my hard drive where I tracked a dozen or so various iterations on whole wheat sourdough bread, but that stalled when my baking experiments shifted to biscuits and tortillas (both of which are yeast-free, so easier to make on the spur-of-the-moment) (also, the key to both: give your dough an hour to rest in the fridge so the flour has a chance to fully hydrate – makes a world of difference).
The sourdough starter prompted me to buy a digital kitchen scale, which came in handy later when I also found myself trying out some DIY Soylent (It’s not as gross as you think, especially when you mix your own and know what went into it — think oatmeal smoothie, not 70s Heston).
So quietly, behind-the-scenes, I’ve been doing quite a bit of ‘kitchen science’ while attempting to keep myself fed (and lose some weight) and while I might not get around to blogging any of it any time soon, I just wanted to say that keeping a kitchen journal is a great idea for even a casual chef. Whenever you’re forced to make a substitution (yogurt for buttermilk, say, or banana for eggs in a bread or brownie mix) or are just trying something new — write it down! Make notes not just on the results but also the process, and the motivations:
“Ran out of eggs so I’m going to try half a can of pumpkin pie filling as a substitute in a muffin recipe. Found the suggestion after Googling ‘egg substitutes for baking’”
“Pumpkin pie muffins were Aces! Repeating recipe but dropping a chunk of cream cheese in each”
“Cheese filling was OK but could be better: switching to a mix of mascarpone with a drop of vanilla and a little sugar”
“Mascarpone filling in the pumpkin muffins was fantastic – really, really good. Doing the same with blueberry this Sunday”
“Had a little bit of the mascarpone muffin filling left, didn’t want to throw it out. Made french toast and sandwiched the cheese filling inside — just enough for one! really good with syrup. might be good with pancakes too”
You don’t have to keep a kitchen journal like you would a log book for your college chemistry class — brief notes are all you need. Reminders, sign posts, warnings, just a little something to keep you on the right path. Think of it as a map — a treasure map, even, as you never know when you’re going to go from Googling for an egg substitute to instead find yourself, 11 recipes later, enjoying pecan-pumpkin pancakes and maple-candied bacon for brunch.
“The only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down.”
When my employment prospects improve and I move past a beans-and-rice survival diet, I think I’ll go back to posting ‘sunday supper’ recipes once a week. I came across the Adam Savage quote, though, and it prompted me to write about how important just ‘writing things down’ can be. Get a cheap spiral bound notebook (note: cheap, as it *is* going to get stuff spilled on it) and keep it on your counter (maybe next to or under the paper towels). Take notes. Drop some science on it.
You’ll likely be surprise how much it will augment, and improve, your skills in the kitchen.
I’ll apologize right at the start: I didn’t plan ahead, so there won’t be any pictures for this post. Instead, I’ll try to make up for it with multiple recipes.
Longtime readers will remember that whole damn chickens are a friend of mine. Not only are they one of the cheapest “cuts” of meat available, they’re decently sized for most family meals, and pretty flexible when it comes to applications.
Roasting is obvious (it says “roaster” right on the label for most 6-8lbs. birds) and one of my favourite applications is broiling (see the previous post, Angry Birds — I use a broiler because I live in an apartment, grilling would be even better) but there’s more than one way to cook these critters.
Many folks, when they hear about chicken cooked in a crock pot, assume that we’ll be boiling the ever-living snot out of it, to make soup. Boiled chicken is dry, and bad, however (despite the wet cooking method) (counter-intuitive, I know, but proteins can overcook no matter where the heat is coming from).
Here’s an alternate:
In the bottom of a large crock pot, layer 1-1½ pound of potatoes (I like reds or golds – small, waxy types, left whole or cut into rough chunks) along with carrots and celery. I like to use 8-12oz of baby cut carrots, and a stalk of celery, finely diced. To that I’ll add onions (a quarter onion, minced) and garlic (4 cloves, minced, but then: I love garlic). And then we add the bird:
The biggest bird that comfortably fits in my crock pot is 5 pounds — and I usually look for one that size. Remove the giblets (if there are any), rinse in cold water, and then dry with paper towels. Rub the chicken with salt, pepper, and dried herbs (if desired; I use a pre-packed ‘Italian’ herb mix) and then lay your chicken on top of the veg in the crock. And that’s pretty much it.
Don’t add any additional liquid. There’s enough in the taters, carrots, and chicken. You can doubt me, but you have to try this: basically, we’re using the slow cooker like a counter-top oven. It’s not going to get hot enough to brown the skin (if that matters to you, you likely have a broiler to address the problem) but it’s plenty to cook the chicken and then some. All the lovely fat and flavour of that chicken is going to drip down into your potatoes while it cooks (along with the salt and herbs).
[note here: I use a meat thermometer to determine when the bird is done: your target is 165° to 170°F]
This is actually enough to begin making a stock: if you cook a bird this way for at least four hours, and then transfer the crock to your fridge without eating anything (I’ve actually done this) then you’ll notice the juices/gravy produced will gel: we’ve already extracted enough collagen from the bird — on the counter top, in just 4 hours — to make a damn fine jus for our dinner.
Oh, we’re not done.
Our first meal includes those very fine, slow cooked potatoes and carrots, along with some of the broth and some choice cuts of chicken — maybe the breast fillets, or the thighs, pick your favourite.
After dinner — don’t throw away those bones! I usually pick the bird clean (clean-ish – those bits of meat make the eventual soup better) before the first dinner and immediately start cooking a stock: put the bones & carcass back into the slow cooker, add liquid (some boxed chicken stock or plain water, or a mix of both) and set that sucker to low-and-slow.
You can do this the next day — or overnight. Just know that the 2nd recipe will take time. 8+ hours to get a stock from bones.
Time is all it takes, though: at this point, you’ve added enough alliums and salt to make the dish — it practically makes itself. You’ve a stock you can add vegetables or noodles to, to make a very fine soup.
The third recipe (at least for the purposes of this post) is going to be a chicken salad.
Reserve one pound of chicken from the first dish: now, this is likely just the leftovers — your methods may vary, though. Even before the chicken hits the table, I like to set a bit aside.
Since the chicken wasn’t roasted (or boiled), our ‘leftovers’ are fairly moist. Roughly dice one pound of cooked chicken, add one 15oz can of diced tomatoes (well and thoroughly drained) with 10oz of chopped frozen spinach, defrosted and drained, with 1 tbsp or more of a spicy mustard and 2-3 tbsps of mayonnaise. (to taste: a drier mix actually works a little better – this isn’t tuna salad)
The additions of spinach and tomato add some vitamins and fiber; they’re also ‘larder’ supplies (canned and frozen) so readily to hand —
And, if I may be forgiven a bit of pride: also a damn fine combination of flavors
So, Meal one: slow cooker “roast” chicken with potatoes and carrots
Meal two: Chicken soup
Meal three: Chicken salad – for wraps, pitas, or sandwiches
plus an optional Meal four: a chicken pot pie or chicken stew (from the Chicken soup leftovers)
Considering whole chickens sell for as little as 79¢ a pound: it is worthwhile to experiment a bit.
oh, yeah: that subject line is total search bait – but look at these pics:
11 Days, two chickens, 10 quarts of chicken stock, six attempted recipes, numerous tweets & quite a few pictures, and of course the requisite ‘alien face hugger’ references –
Food blogging is *hard*.
A crockpot makes chicken stock so easy I wonder why more people don’t try it. Of course, “stock” is one of those fancy-schmancy foodie words like artisinal, locavore, and arugula so maybe some are put off by the very name of the thing, and don’t attempt it. Maybe the idea of having to process a whole chicken is scary for those whose only interactions are with the sandwich, or perhaps with the boneless-skinless-types of chicken. Maybe the long cook time seems daunting, and home cooks balk at the perceived commitment.
Chicken stock is the easiest thing in the world — especially with a ready slow cooker on stand-by. But to say anything is ‘easy’ (in any context) depends on quite a bit of prior knowledge, practice, and familiarity — what I do as a matter of course might, to others, seem like alchemy.
So, to make chicken stock: take one chickens-worth of chicken bones and simmer with water and aromatics for a day, or so. Chicken stock is easy. Here:
Take 4 ribs of celery. Cut them in half (just enough to fit them in your crockpot)
2 carrots, washed, but don’t bother peeling them. Into the pot.
4 cloves of garlic. You have to peel them, but that’s it. Add them to the pot.
Half an onion. No, don’t dice it. It can go in whole.
One bay leaf, if you have it.
And chicken bones.
I’ll make this even easier – go buy a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. No, really, until you’ve turned KFC into a home cooked meal you’re going to think I’m joking: go buy a bucket of KFC (any recipe) and enjoy (hopefully not by yourself, and not all in one meal) but save the bones. You were going to throw them out; instead put them in a ziplock bag and freeze them. Do that again; one bucket of KFC might not be enough bones.
For everyone who just went “ew” – yeah, well, fast food can cause that reaction. Oh, I get it, “But people were eating that, gnawing on them, slobbering all over…” – yes. And I hope they enjoyed it. But here:
Bake the bones on a baking sheet in a 400° oven for a half hour: not only will this assuage any fears you might have about cooking table scraps, it opens up the bones and makes the water more effective as a solvent. After we add the bones and enough water to fill our crockpot within a half inch of the rim: we’re going to boil this for like, days – at least 12 hours at a low boil. You can add herbs, if you have them, and this will need some salt [season to taste] but those are the basics of stock: water, celery, carrot, garlic, onion, bones, heat, and time.
There are other ways to source chicken bones, of course. You can actually buy chicken necks & backs from some butcher shops quite inexpensively – after all the other useful parts are sold, these are about all that’s left. My preferred method is to buy a whole chicken, eat it, and save the bones and other odd bits to make stock – you can even cook the whole chicken in the crockpot, if you like, but stewed chicken tends to come out too dry; the long cooking time is not kind to breast meat. That, and dealing with a boiling hot, wet, dripping bird is asking for trouble.
One quick application for whole chicken is to either grill or broil it — the grill is preferred but the oven works just as well — and as shown in the pictures above, a chicken can be quickly and easily butterflied to shorten the overall cooking time and literally even out the difference between breast and thigh, meaning both will be done at the same time and with minimal finagling of either bird or fire.
I typically don’t get that fancy—at most I’ll rub the bird down with oil & then sprinkle some salt—but the basics are all there in the vid: how to prep the bird, and how to cook it. Alton immediately proceeds to a sauce — and I’m sure it’s tasty — but I’m more interested in the parts: Chicken, bones, grease, roasted veg.
The main advantage of the quick, hot broil is to de-fat the chicken: it drips out from under the skin and stays in the roasting pan. When I make stock from a bird cooked under the broiler, I never have to de-fat the resulting stock. (Since a slightly cloudy stock doesn’t matter to me either, I also don’t have to strain it through cheesecloth or anything fancy. I just fish the exhausted bones and veg out of the resultant stock with a wire spider)
After a half-hour rest on a baking sheet, your roasted bird will have cooled and is ready for a vulture-like picking over:
Remove and reserve both breasts [deboned], both thighs [deboned], and the meat from both chicken legs – deboned – have you caught up on the theme here? We’re removing all the succulent cooked meat from our bird in the largest chunks possible, and producing a small stack of ribs, cartilage, skin, and long bones for our stock. The backbone we snipped out and the neck (…both of which can be roasted with the bird; plenty of room in that pan) both join the picked-over carcass as they go into a slow cooker and we cook bones, celery, carrots, onions, and garlic on the low setting for 12 to 18 or even 24 hours. I also add the giblets; some folks balk at giblets, so your methods may vary. The wings are also Prime Additions to our stock, but I’ll forgive you if you eat them right out of the oven [save the bones!]
So you’ve roasted the sacrificial bird. You’ve done as directed, and saved the carcass, and boiled it with herbs and saved the ceremonial broth:
Finished stock, once cooled, can be partitioned into plasticware and frozen. A 5qt. crockpot minus the solids will yield 3-4 quarts of stock; I like to freeze quart-sized containers for soups and other applications. What kinds of applications?
Well, if you get fancy and filter your stock so it’s clear, you can easily make eggdrop soup. You just need an egg or two, and some sliced green onion.
Gravies and sauces are also easy: stock or broth is often called for as an ingredient, and how nice would it be to have homemade on hand? No more cans or boxes — and you get to control the amount of salt that went into it.
Let me give you three soup “bases”, and some applications for each:
A quick gravy
1 cup finely chopped onion
1 cup finely chopped mushrooms
2 tbs butter
2 tbs flour
1 cup chicken stock
1 can cream of mushroom soup*
1 cup reserved chicken*
In a skillet or saute pan: cook your mushrooms and onions in the butter over medium high heat until the onions are translucent and just starting to brown around the edges. Dust the flour over the top of your onion/mushroom mixture to form a quick roux; continue to cook over medium high heat until the flour just starts to brown (or at least long enough to cook the paste flavor out of it). Add a cup of stock and stir until the roux dissolves into a tasty sauce, and then add the cream of mushroom soup.
Now, that first asterisk* — you could double the amounts of mushrooms, start cooking the mushrooms a good five minutes in a dry skillet, or until they begin to give up liquid, add the onions and butter and cook as above, add another two tablespoons of butter, 4 total tablespoons of flour, cook into a roux, and then make a basic white sauce: some milk, some stock, a little garlic, plenty of time.
Do a recipe search for ‘bechamel’ and you’ll see where I’m going with that: you are of course forgiven if (like me) you take the red-and-white-labelled canned shortcut.
When I whipped up this quick gravy after roasting a chicken, I used the two thighs, diced, and stirred in. After a quick reduction to get to the right consistency, I served it on egg noodles for dinner. The next day I had chicken gravy over biscuits for lunch.
You could thin this out with even more chicken stock, to make a soup – but then, we had a can of cream of mushroom soup already, right? You could just throw some chicken in it. However, if you were going the long way ‘round and made your own bechamel, it might be kind of nice to go the distance and make your own cream of mushroom soup too.
Cannellini & Orzo Soup
½ cup onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
optional ½ cup mushroom, diced – if you had some left over, say, from the gravy recipe above
optional tsp tomato paste – I have a tube of this in my fridge, so it’s easy to do small portions
optional strip of bacon, finely chopped
optional splash of soy sauce
1 can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
½ cup orzo pasta
2 quarts chicken stock
herbs if you have them: oregano, basil, parsley, a ½ tbs or so of each
Orzo is pasta cut to look like rice; you can of course use any pasta, but the shape and size of orzo goes well with the beans.
Let’s talk about all the options — First up: less is more. I tried to err on the side of hidden, subtle flavors. The idea is to go earthy and meaty, not full-on-smoky or salty or TOMATO. My most recent batches of chicken stock were made with roast chicken parts (especially the crispy, browned skin) and so came out a little bit browner, and tasting nice and roasty. I wanted to make a version of chicken noodle soup, while also accentuating that flavor of the stock.
In the bottom of the pan, I fried up one strip of bacon, very finely diced, with a little bit of chopped mushrooms until the bacon grease was rendered. To that I added the onion, cooked until translucent, and then mixed up a quick paste with just a bit of flour [a tsp. or less] and a tsp. of tomato paste. Once that came together, I added a splash of soy sauce and the beans, along with the garlic. I think I used four cloves of garlic in this one; your mileage may vary. I sort of tossed the beans around until they warmed up, then poured in the stock and brought it to a slow boil. After that, cook pasta as directed on the box, right in the soup.
It would be enough to make this with just onions, garlic, beans, and noodles — all my other additions could be skipped, or added singly, or in any combination. I just happened to have this on hand the night I was cooking.
It would also be possible to skip the pasta and add more beans, or to add spinach. Garnish with herbs, maybe also with a squeeze of fresh lemon.
Chicken and Leeks
1 lb. leeks – see wikipedia if you’ve never heard of them before. Fresh leeks are a bit of a pain to clean, but manageable. I recently found frozen leeks—precut, ready to go—at Trader Joe’s.
1 half onion, Lyonnaise cut [see here]
Lots of garlic. Mmmm… garlic.
Butter. Lots of butter. Like, a half stick of butter.
2 tbs. flour
2 cups reserved chicken (or more)
The easiest way to clean a leek is to cut it in half, lengthwise, and then run water down the middle to get the dirt out. In a way, it’s no worse than celery, but like celery the dirt really gets down in there so you have to take it apart to clean it properly.
Slice your leeks into ½in half-rings. Cook leeks, onions, garlic and butter in a skillet on medium heat until the leeks wilt and the onions are translucent. Dust the flour over the top and stir to combine, then loosen the mixture up with chicken stock, maybe just a cup to start.
Now, you have a choice: if this is going to be an entre, reduce slightly into a sauce, then serve over chicken torn into strips on a bed of egg noodles, pasta, or rice. Or even mashed potatoes: this would be awesome on mashed potatoes.
If we’re going to make Chicken & Leek Soup, we’ll want to use a little less chicken and a whole lot more stock — maybe even 3-4 quarts since we started with a pound of leeks. The great thing is you don’t have decide right away: The leek&onion mixture does fine in the fridge, so you could have a dinner one night and make soup (less soup) with the leftovers.
These ideas are just the beginning. You could take a handful of frozen peas & carrots, a tiny bit of leftover chicken, this lovely homemade stock and make ramen noodles with it. Yes, that same brick that costs 17¢ — just use an actual soup base instead of the nasty little packet. Add a splash of soy if you miss the ‘ramen’ flavor. Stock is also a base for things like chicken pot pie, some chowders, and of course, chicken and dumplings. You can use chicken stock instead of water or milk in mashed potatoes [mmmm… for my next chicken & leek dinner, that’s what I’m doing], use it to make pan sauces for quick sauted meals, or even put boring noodles in it.
Like everyone else, I have my favorite recipes & old standbys, and often can be found eating much the same thing week-to-week, until one gets sick of the treadmill and breaks out and suddenly buys a whole leg of lamb for $40 or something equally dire [from a ‘how do I cook this? standpoint]
Also, like everyone else, I do pizza and burgers and other casual dining much too often (bad for both my wallet and waistline) and while at work, I’m more likely to buy something than bring something for lunches/dinners/and-occasional-breakfasts.
So my actual cooking is limited; and since I learned to cook from Mom&Dad (cooking for a family of four) whenever I do cook, I cook too much (quantity-wise) and end up eating leftovers for a week. Actually, this isn’t so bad, so long as your go-to recipes freeze well – but it makes it a bit harder to experiment as—at best—you can try two new things a week. And you often have to eat your mistakes.
Nearly all of my recipes are in a state of flux; I’m always trying something new – substitutions, either by choice or necessity – different time constraints or techniques – shifting from soup to stew to roast-in-sauce to roasts-to-slice-for-sandwiches to hash-for-breakfast and back to soup again.
Anyway: One reason I’ve never contemplated a “Recipe Blog” in and of itself is: that’s not how I cook. I’m a seat-of-the-pants chef, always willing to try something new, always willing to ruin a dish if it seems like I’ll learn something from it.
“Ruin” is a relative term anyway: even a dish that comes out too salty [almost impossible to recover from] can usually be combined or served with plain white rice, potatoes [baked or mashed], served as pasta sauce, or diluted into a soup. One needs to be omnivorous to an extent as well, and embrace the inner scavenger. “So, I overcooked the roast. It’s dry, stringy, inedible – almost. I guess I’ll have to slice it across the grain as thin as I can, and then whip up a gravy. A lot of gravy. And egg noodles – that’ll be good.”
It takes some imagination and quite a bit of knowledge to make these pivots after you make a mistake. The payoff, though, is that some mistakes are serendipitous moments of discovery – when you mess up an out-of-the-box recipe and discover something new.
To date, I have just two go-to resources for cooking experimentation: First, Alton Brown. I own many of his cookbooks, but there are AMAZING resources available online as well. A google search will soon reveal recipes, transcripts, possibly illegal full-episode rips of Good Eats episodes available on YouTube, and other resources. Alton Rocks. Thank You Alton.
However, no matter how good the information presented, Alton only gets a half-hour to present a topic — and a little background knowledge will inform what you see on TV and also help when Alton glosses over issues that might have multiple interpretations, or when he’s plain wrong. [Yes. Good Eats rocks but it’s not a peer-reviewed journal, it’s popular entertainment]
It’s a textbook. The subject is food and cooking. [It says so on the tin.] You can just follow TV & magazine recipes – or you can read, learn, grow as a home chef, and know why a substitution will work, or why a tweak one way or the other helps the dish, or at least changes it.
So I managed to sneak in a book recommendation and mini-review: mission accomplished.
[The folks who produce America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated magazine are releasing a similar fine-looking food-science book – but I don’t have a copy yet so I can’t review it here; they have an excellent track record and reputation though, so this is on my shopping list.]
So after I posted the last recipe I got quite a bit a feedback (over twitter; no one in the know comments on blogs anymore, that’s so 2011) and one reader pointed out that slow cookers are *great* but nearly all slow cooker recipes are for 8 hours – with no allowance [for most of us who do in fact work full time jobs] for commute times or other delays.
The good news is: an extra hour or two will not affect the final dish. Some care must be taken with meats [which can quite easily be over-cooked] but many dishes either have enough liquid, or specify cuts of meat that are generally forgiving, such that a pot roast or stock not only won’t be ruined but might benefit from the extra time.
Also: the requisite cooking time can be extended by starting cold, or frozen: the defrosting time gets added to the cooking time and is a built-in buffer. If I’m cooking a pot roast, I might start from frozen and plan for a full 12 hours of cooking time in the crock pot.
Little did I know: this is an internet controversy, and my easy-going approach makes me an apostate.
Before we get too deep into the topic: the most important bit is the final temperature of the fully-cooked dish: if you start from 40°F [refridgerated] or stone-cold-frozen and the whole crock is 160°F or more for ‘sufficient’ time — it would seem that no one wants to commit to an exact time online, but I think if the whole mass is at 165°F, dude, we’re done — than no matter how long a dish might have rested in the ‘danger zone’ (40-140°F) – Hot Food is not going to make you sick.
The trick is to make sure the whole dish is fully cooked; “hot” food may not be Hot all the way through. A slow cooker is a nice insurance policy – given how it heats food and the length of time it takes it is going to be the very rare case where an odd cold or frozen bit survives the slow-but-steady-heat-onslaught.
The USDA has specific guidelines, but these folks also make restaurants put warnings about medium-rare burgers and sunny-side-up eggs on menus: Yes, their warnings are justified but I still eat my burgers rare. [eggs I prefer scrambled or ever-easy]
Please read for yourself; not just the links above but also:
Another important point to consider is the make-and-model of your slow cooker, and how it cooks. One thing I discovered in researching this article is that my own Crock Pot doesn’t have a heating element in the bottom: the actual heat is supplied from the sides. This means if I make a half-batch rather than filling the crock to the rim: heating will end up being uneven and cook times will take longer. [So I’m not really doing myself any favors by halving recipes: fill the sucker to the brim]
When the idea of ‘slightly longer’ cook times came up on twitter, I had to think: “just how far can we push it?” With my bean & bacon soup, the main ingredient was beans, and can we really overcook bacon fat? so when I made the second batch:
I cooked it in my slow cooker for three days.
Obviously I was using the low setting. Actually, I’d flip it from ‘low’ to ‘warm’ and back every 12 hours or so, but this was the long, long, Long slow-cooker recipe. Even stirring occasionally, there was some scorching on the sides, but the burnt, slightly smoky flavour was an excellent match for the bacon. The dish was never ruined.
So: bean soup. very hard to overcook.
This success led me to think: “Well, is there any dish I’d intentionally overcook?”
Oh yeah, there is one: French Onion Soup.
French Onion Soup is all about caramelized bits and a long slow cooking time, and toasted crouton and melty gruyère and ramekins and broilers — and actually, quite a bit of fuss.
If my slow cooker is going to burn the soup anyway, why not burn some French Onion Soup?
IF your slow cooker has a heating element on the bottom, you’ll be able to use it much like a dutch oven. You *can* brown onions in the crock and make a decent French Onion Soup. My Crock Pot [which heats from the sides, not the bottom] will not make French Onion Soup — at least, not without help.
And this is the reason I don’t have a recipe to post this week: I built on last week’s recipe. I tried a few things. I went well past what I knew and tried something I thought would work and committed and followed through
While this is obvious in science, it’s also a staple in cooking. Actually, most cooking is science: we just don’t think of it that way.
Like everyone else, I have my favorite recipes & old standbys, and often can be found eating much the same thing week-to-week, until I get sick of the same-old-same-old and Try Something New.
Yes, this is a bit off-topic, at least for topics that have been previously established, but then again: this is a personal blog so I can post whatever I like. And those of you who follow me on twitter know how much I love to cook already.
One of my favorite appliances is my trusty slow cooker, and one of my fav applications for the slow cooker is soup. Now that it’s finally Fall [It’s still 80° out, but the first day of Fall was yesterday, 22 September] I say: it’s a perfect time to make some homemade soup.
This one is a two-parter, in that you need to plan a bit ahead. Actually you need to start the day before, but this step is easy: soak your beans overnight. For this batch I went with 1lb. of black-eyed peas and 1lb. of black beans – that sounds like a lot but don’t worry, we’re not cooking all of this today
I soaked the two beans in separate containers, as black beans will dye everything purple — which defeats the purpose of using two different types of visually-contrasting beans. I also heartily advocate that you use dried beans for soup, as canned beans taste canned and this is such a simple dish the bean flavor is the soup, really. Well, that and bacon.
What converts simple beans to fantastic soup? The secret is to not just soak beans overnight, but to soak them in brine (as opposed to plain water). For one pound of beans, I use 2 quarts water and a half cup of salt. (see note: a quarter cup for two quarts.)
Sunday Soup #1: Bean & Bacon
makes 3 batches
[one to cook, two to freeze]
prep time: 20 minutes, plus some pre-planning. cook time: 4 hours. 8 hours.
[edit 7 October: feedback from other cooks is that cook time is highly variable, depending on your slow cooker. Please allow 8 hours; it might be done before then, but it’s always easier to reheat, than to have underdone soup.]
Crockpot or other slow cooker, or a big enough soup pot.
Bowls or large storage containers [I have 13cup plastic storage containers] to soak the beans.
Quart-sized ziploc [or other brand] plastic bags.
2lbs. beans: after soaking that’s 12 cups
[edit 4 October: originally this recipe called for a cup of salt to a gallon of water for the brine. This is my standard brine for meats, but it failed me in this application: either bean cells like the salt more that meat muscle fibre, or the extended soak was too much, or — most likely — the fact that bacon & canned tomatoes carry their own sizable sodium payloads made the final product much saltier than expected. I didn’t notice as much in the first batch, but a later substitution of tomato juice for the water — recommended — made batches 2 & 3 too salty requiring some creative serving applications. ]
[ tl;dr as updated below, use 1/2 cup of salt, not a cup ]
brine: 1 gallon of water and a 1/2 cup of salt [table salt; if you only have kosher, adjust to 1 cup]
3 cups of chopped onion (one large onion chopped)
3 cloves garlic, or more, minced
6oz. of Bacon. mmmm, bacon.
6 stalks of celery
bay leaf [x3]
3 cans [14oz ea.] of diced tomatoes
water. Or tomato juice (as noted above, an excellent substitution)
Notes on ingredients:
As stated above, my personal preference is black beans & black eyed peas, as I like the visual contrast. Any beans will work, but when combining different types try to match them for size so they’ll cook evenly in the same amount of time.
Trader Joe’s sells bacon “ends” which are delicious, uneven, extra thick chunks of bacon — even thicker than thick cut — it’s kind of like a solid hockey puck made of bacon. This is highly recommended for this recipe, if you can find it. (It’s also a dollar cheaper than a regular pack of bacon)
The diced tomatoes I used today are packed with onions & garlic; other types have green chiles or basil, or nothing but tomatoes. Pick according to your tastes.
Soak the beans overnight in the brine. If you can’t plan that far ahead, wake up super-early and at least soak your beans for 8 hours.
Chop onions & garlic; you can dice the celery, too, but I include it primarily for flavor, so I leave the stalks mostly whole to make it easier to remove them.
Divide the recipe into thirds.
Each batch will be: 4 cups of beans, 1 cup of onions, 1 clove garlic, 2 celery stalks, a bay leaf, 2oz. of bacon — all of which will fit in a single quart-sized ziploc, handily enough:
Here you can see the next two batches of soup, everything prepped and ready to go, and about to go into the freezer.
The third batch goes into a slow cooker today. To your beans et. al add the whole can of diced tomatoes, juice included, and enough water to cover. You need a quart of water or so, and handily, you can use that empty can to measure it: two cans of water will be about a quart and will also make sure you get all the goodness out of the can.
Cook on low until the beans are done, the bacon is cooked, the celery is limp, and your whole house smells awesome.
To thicken the soup, you can add some roux, if you’re feeling fancy, or just take a potato masher & break up some of the beans to release more starch into the broth. [mash ‘em and cook uncovered for a half hour or so.]
Also, if you’re feeling fancy, you can add fresh chopped parsley or thin-sliced green onion to the dish. I like to serve mine with a dollop of sour cream; I’ve also made this a more substantial meal by serving it over rice.
Those freezer packs are even better (if that can be imagined) as you can go straight from frozen to soup: add the contents, frozen, to your crockpot with the diced tomatoes and a quart of water before you go to work, set to low and cook for 8 hours. When you come home, the soup will be done.
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