Casting (Soupy) Spells with Other’s Ingredients

We went out for pho the other day.  As typical, there was about two gallons of soup on the table and when we were done there was about a quart of broth remaining.  (*burp*)  My wife suggested we take the broth and use it as a soup base.

She leveled up with that suggestion.

And the results were…  I heated the remainder of the soup and added 3 carrots and 2 stalks of celery roughly chopped [1].  I then added about 1/4c – 1/3c of barley (which was eye-balled, so impossible to be exact).  After letting that cook for 10 minutes I added 2 boneless chicken breasts which I had quartered lengthwise.  I then let that cook for 15 minutes.

Once the chicken was cooked, I removed it from the pot and shredded it.  I found that using two forks (one to hold, one to pull) is a great way to do this, especially with steaming hot ingredients…

The chicken was returned to the pot, 1 cup of peas were added, and probably a cup of water was added to get a better balance of broth-to-chunks.

The result was fantastic.  Happiness was conjured, resurrected from leftovers.  And with our different spicing preferences, the soup averaged out to a nice flavor neither hot nor weak.

[1] 1/4″ – 1/2″ slices.  I typically cut the carrots in half (i.e. half the length, not lengthwise).  I then cut the smaller part in half lengthwise and chop it.  I then quarter the thicker part lengthwise and then chop it.  That, more or less, gets even chunks.

Inspiration from Resurrecting a Chicken Dish

Inspiration! I need a quest to raise my inspiration level. I think I have been hit by a vampire and suffered a level drain lately. I have been following Kitchen Incantations from others … TO THE LETTER, nonetheless. I have also been afflicted by a Curse of Habit by which I am repeating these routines. These incantations, now bordering on alchemic mumbles.

Variety is crucial, beyond essential, to the Kreative Kitchen Kleric. In following my recent vegan experiment, I learned the real meaning of “variety is the spice of life” as I failed to employ variety. As a result, I managed to make myself tired of things that I normally like.

But for some of this I have been following recipes that are supposed to be quick-and-easy — something that has become important to me as I balance evening meals with a commute home. (So, what’s my excuse on the weekends… another story, perhaps.) Last night I ended up at least putting some experience to use to correct something I could see was going to go horribly wrong. The idea was that a whole chicken gets cut up into “serving sizes” and then satueed. Once prepared (simply salted & a bit of pepper) and in the pans, I could tell the breasts were going to give me the usual trouble: bone-in-breast means raw meat on the bone. I have tried cooking these several ways with the same result. The only way I have found to cook bone-in-breast chicken is in the oven or on the grill with lower heat. My theory is that my stove-top area isn’t really a good place to get the heat to permeate the meat well enough to cook all the way through, even with a cover.

So what happened…

After cutting up the whole chicken, I salted and peppered it. I used two skillets (per the recipe so that none of the parts were touching) and cooked them on high heat, skin-side first, for a short bit to crisp them. I salted/peppered the up-side while the skin side was cooking. I then flipped them and crisped the other side. This is when I noticed the breast-meat swelling and, as is my experience, threatening not to cook. Therefore I summoned an Oven of 350F.

I added a little minced garlic and some paprika, covered the skillets with oven-proof covers*, and tossed them into the oven for 15 minutes. All came out well — juicy and tender. It wasn’t according to the recipe, but it worked. It works for steaks, and it works for chicken.

*This is quite simple in my case as I use cast-iron. One of the pans has a cover that goes with it, the other I know of a kettle cover I can use that is oven-proof.

“Instant Soup”, Marrow and Fatness — Homemade Stock and Broth

[Editor’s note: I do not actually advocate that you make this recipe. After reading The Compassionate Carnivore by Catherine Friend, I basically stopped eating chicken entirely — unless I know that it came directly from a small, local farmer. Chickens are a bit different from other livestock raised for butchering in that in the industrialized, factory style they are routinely “de-beaked” to prevent them from pecking one another; something which isn’t an issue so much with pigs, cows or sheep. Apparently terms such as “free range” or “cage free” have not been regulated sufficiently to require that either eggs or meat sold under these labels come from animals which were not de-beaked. Which means it is basically impossible to get ethically sourced chicken unless you buy it directly from a farmer.

With the hope that someday ethical farming is one day normative as it was just 100 years ago, I include not only this recipe, but instructions on what exactly to buy as if one were shopping in the grocery, not simply buying whole birds from a farmer.

Again, please don’t actually make this unless you are certain you know how that chicken was raised. Alternately, you can adapt this recipe using ox tail and similar bits to make beef stock and broth — just remember the resulting separated fat is not schmaltz and not kosher, if you care.]

1 O God, You are my God;
Early will I seek You;
My soul thirsts for You;
My flesh longs for You
In a dry and thirsty land
Where there is no water.
2 So I have looked for You in the sanctuary,
To see Your power and Your glory.

3 Because Your lovingkindness is better than life,
My lips shall praise You.
4 Thus I will bless You while I live;
I will lift up my hands in Your name.
5 My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness,
And my mouth shall praise You with joyful lips. (Psalm 62 (LXX))

Growing up, I used to hear the word “schmaltz” or “schmaltzy” a lot. Usually in relation to bad acting or an over the top broadway show. But I never knew where the word came from or what it really meant. Back before my wife became a strict vegetarian, I started making my own stock and broth in huge batches and freezing it, and that’s when I found out what schmaltz really is — and why you wouldn’t want your art  to ever be compared to it.

Making sauces, soups, glazes and gravy can be a huge hassle and a huge time sink. At least, this is true if you prefer not to open a can or carton full of shockingly thin, yellow liquid every time you need a shot of umami and thickening power in a dish. [1] Rendering the water out of things can take quite a long time. But every good culinary spell caster should have this trick up their billowing robe sleeves. “Instant soup” — no not that powdered nonsense, and not bouillon, either. Salt licks are for cows. There is one variety of faux beef bouillon I use for making pho at home, but that’s another show post. So why did I bring up schmaltz? Well, the great thing about making your own stock and your own broth is that you get a third fantastic cooking substance which comes along for the ride for free. Schmaltz. You’ve heard about all these trendy places that have started serving potato frites which have been fried in duck fat, I’m sure. Well? There’s a reason for this trend. Cooking with the rendered fat of poultry adds amazing savory to dishes. And should you ever need to serve a kosher meal, this will be essential since you can’t use butter or lard (not just pork lard, the fat of all hoofed animals was forbidden to be eaten).

So let’s make our own stock and broth (and schmaltz). What do we need to do? Well, first you need a caldron. No, your pasta boiler is not big enough. In fact, unless you routinely cook for more than 10 people at a time, you don’t own anything big enough for this task. If you already own a turkey frier, that will work. When I was making this a few times a year, I just went to a restaurant supply wholesaler and bought myself a huge, cheap, aluminium pot. Mine is roughly fourteen inches high, and of about the same diameter. It has a flat bottom, flat sides and a flat lid. It has two stout handles. That’s about it, feature wise. If you are going to commit to making your own stocks and broths routinely, it is worth the investment — and it isn’t all that much. Why do you need such a big vessel? Well, it only is really instant soup if you do this every great once in a while and then pull the results out as needed “in an instant”. If you’re spending every fourth Saturday making small batches, that kind of takes the wind out of the whole thing.

OK, you have your pot. Now you need chicken. In an ideal world, you’re buying whole chickens (with all the internals intact and all the weird bits included) directly from a farmer. If this is the case, then all you need to do is quarter anywhere from two to four birds (depending on size of batch and your pot) and put them into the pot. Then add just enough cold water to cover them. The water has to be cold. If you drop bones into boiling water, the gelatin won’t actually come out into your stock, it will instantly congeal inside the bones and the whole operation will be a huge waste. If your farmer was kind enough to include the “giblets”, don’t save them for gravy, just include them here.

In a less than ideal world, you do this. Go to a reputable butcher, or at least the meat counter in a reputable grocer. Because the world we live in has been distorted by so much black magic, people are utterly obsessed with the white meat of chicken. Why is this the known result of black magic? Because white meat has less flavor and less nutrition than dark meat. The only reason people prefer it, is because skinless, boneless chicken breasts look pretty for the sorts of people who buy into all the “eat first with your eyes” presentation nonsense. I will grant that you can’t just throw food onto a plate with no consideration for appearances. But if you use “plate” as a verb, I will hurl magic missiles at you, and if it takes you longer to arrange the food than it did to cook it, I will laugh at you. Why does this business about white meat matter? Well, aside from being the cause of the truly heinous industrialized chicken factory, it also means that, believe it or not, whole chickens are more expensive than packs of dark meat parts. Well, some dark meat parts. Legs are still pricy because people like to fry them. Wings, for reasons I will never understand, are pricy because people like them, for reasons I will never understand, slathered in hot sauce (if ever there was a mode of cuisine that ought to be vegetarian, since you can’t taste the meat at all, it is the Buffalo wing). But chicken thighs are almost completely ignored by the American diner and you can get enormous “family packs” of them for extremely reasonable prices. If your world isn’t quite so black, you can also ask the butcher if they still have the chicken backs, which nobody ever seems to want [2], and mention that you’d also be willing to buy keels, necks and giblets if they are at odds for what to do with them. If you can become known to your butcher as the sort who is not only willing to buy the odd bits, but is interested in the odd bits, you may find yourself in a budding friendship which has fantastic consequences for your wallet and your kitchen. Because Americans insist on eating only pretty, lean meat (that comma is important), butchers find themselves with a lot of stuff they don’t have much use for — even products like scapple have been fading from the marketplace, making these things even harder to get rid of. Stock and broth makers can step in and reap the benefits and help prevent waste. Again, once acquired, put your bits into your big pot and cover with cold water.

Apply heat and bring the whole thing up to a gently rolling boil. This may take a while. You’ve got a lot of cold mass, here. Be patient. Once you have your simmer, begin checking fairly often for when the meat will easily come off the bones and tendons. If you want to make stock and broth separately, at this point you need to take the meaty pieces out, remove the meat, and then return the bone and tendon to the pot. If you’re just making a flavorful stock, you can skip this step. [3] For the stock, you want to continue this gentle boil until you find that the bones break far more easily than the size of the bone would suggest and the tendons no longer actually hold anything together. This means you have rendered all the gelatin from these parts and there is nothing left to do. You will need to remove all the bits, somehow. If you have a second large vessel, and a big screen strainer, this is easily done. If not, this is going to be tedious — good luck. Actually, I would have a plan for this before you get started.

Lastly, you now need to get this to cool down as quickly as you can. This is mostly for safety reasons. You just created a low acid, nutrient rich liquid environment that is nice and warm — just the kind of thing that bacteria love. If you can get your vessel of liquid into a big cooler surrounded by ice packs or ice, that might be ideal. Once the liquid is cooled, you should notice two things immediately. The first is a thick layer of schmaltz floating on the top. This can be scraped off and saved. The second is that the liquid shouldn’t be a liquid anymore. In a cool state, this stock should have so much gelatin in it that it starts to actually set up like a dessert. If this is not so, and you don’t have any noticeable thickening at all, something went wrong and you should go get more chicken bones and try again (with the same liquid). If you have some thickening, but not much, you can just very gently drive out some of the water by re-heating for a long time and then re-cooling. Once the schmaltz is skimmed off, transfer the stock into as many small containers as you can spare. Small is better because you’re going to need to freeze most of this, and it can’t be instant soup if you have to defrost a huge block just to get a cup or two you can use. In fact, if you have room for lots and lots of ice cube trays, that’s a really sweet hack to employ at this stage.

So what do you do with stock? Remember that stock is not broth, and broth is not soup. If you separated the meat and other bits as described above, your stock will have very little flavor of its own. It exists to thicken. It can not only be used to make soup, by being combined with a flavorful broth, but it can also be used to speed up gravy making, or to improve the mouth feel and texture of sauces and glazes. But, if you have small, frozen blocks of stock and small frozen blocks of broth in your freezer, you can make “instant soup” the likes of which no one has ever tasted before by simply heating the two together in a pan.

[1] Yes I often post recipes calling for cartons of vegetable broth or tomato soup. For whatever reason, commercially available chicken broth is absolutely awful, while other kinds of basic soups are very good. So this derision is for chicken broth specifically.

[2] Sign of how rapidly industrialized meat took over. When I was a kid, just 25 years ago or so, packages of chicken backs were right out in the case next to everything else. We used to buy them to use as bait when we went crabbing in the tidal flats of coastal New Jersey.

[3] For the broth, in a smaller pot sweat coarsely chopped carrots, celery, white onion and any other savories you enjoy. Once soft, add your chicken meat and enough water to cover — hot water is fine in this case. Bring to a simmer and let it sit more or less until you’re too bored to tolerate it anymore. Add salt and any seasonings. Chicken broth is so popular because it is such a blank canvas. You can keep your base very simple with just salt and pepper or pre-prepare a deeply complex flavor profile. At some point, start putting the stick blender to the whole thing and when the result is smooth, take it off the heat, cool it and store it.

Quest for the Wholly Chicken (Roasted)

I have this problem roasting chicken:  I have been following recipes that seem to be written by people who don’t like chicken.  I also don’t pay attention as much as I should, but even when I have paid attention the roasted chicken I have made hasn’t been all that great.  I believe I fixed that last night.

I received Anthony Bourdain’s cookbook as a gift — which is just as fun to read as it is to cook with.  As usual for this sort of thing, the recipes have ingredients that I don’t tend to keep around.  This recipe is going to change one item though:  white wine.  As for the other things, I made substitutions that were sufficient enough for the result to be wonderful.  The chicken was flavorful, juicy, and delicious; it represented exactly what I have been trying to do.  It required a little tending, but for the result I got, it was worth it.

  • 4lb whole chicken
  • Salt & Pepper
  • 1T rosemary
  • 1T thyme
  • 2t lemon juice
  • 1 “medium” sweet onion — halved, in “the easiest way, in your opinion”
  • 1T bacon fat (the recipe called for the giblets, but this was what I decided to use in their absence)
  • 1/2c white wine — This is wine I didn’t mind drinking.  I finally learned that if I wouldn’t otherwise drink “it” (wine, whisky, vermouth, etc.), then there was no point cooking with it.
  • 1/4c olive oil

Rinse the chicken and pat dry with a paper towel.  Rub all over with salt and pepper.  This is very important.  I was not shy and rubbed it all over.

Splash lemon juice into body cavity.  View this like an adhesive for the thyme and rosemary.  Ideally, the spices should be somewhat spread around, not settled into a heap.  Add half the onion and then truss the legs together.

Rub the bacon fat on the bottom of a roasting pan (the inside, dude… the inside…). I used a cast iron dutch oven for this because it is better for me than any roasting pan I’ve used (it also makes a fair helmet in an emergency…).  Slice the remaining half of onion into 4 pieces and lay flat in bottom of pan.  I’m a “tuck the wings behind the bird” cook, so I did that before I put it in the pan — on top of the onion slices.[[3]]  Pour in the wine, being careful not to rinse off the salt and pepper rub.  Drizzle olive oil over bird. [[1]]

Cook for 30 minutes at 375F, basting every 10 minutes.  Now it’s okay to have some of that rub rinse off, you won’t be able to baste otherwise.  I cooked it in 10 minute increments to ensure the bird spent all 30 minutes in the oven.  Crank the oven to 450F and cook for 25 minutes, covered and left alone.  Remove from oven, leave covered for 15 minutes to rest.  This 40 minutes of being unobserved is the moment of Quantum Cooking.  Maybe the chicken comes out alright, maybe it’s a mess — but that lid can’t be opened until the full 40 minutes is up.

Remove bird from pan, remove onion — and giblets if you happened to have and use those.  Put pan on low heat and scrape around in there (wooden spoon!!!) to loosen up all the flavorful bits.  The original recipe called for another 1/2c of wine, but I used 3/4c of water with about 2T of cornstarch to thicken.  I’m not very good at gravy, so cornstarch is my escape plan.  A roux could be used, but I’m not that good with that either.

And that was it.  I had a nice juicy bird with some outstanding gravy (duh… it had bacon fat in it!!).

Keeping bacon fat is a leftover (har har) from my childhood.  My parents and grandparents always had a container of drippings.  It was what was used before “cooking sprays”.  Sometimes butter was used, but bacon fat is heavier and won’t cook off as quickly as butter will.  Also, depending on the bacon you use, there is phenomenal flavor in bacon fat that is a shame to feed to your Omnivorous Trashcan or worse, The Gurgling Drain of Death.  [[2]]

[[1]] Do yourself a big favor and get an olive oil cruet to your adventuring gear.  Avoid kitchy, decorative crap.  Get one that you can easily tell (a) you will be able to fill without gymnastics, application of quantum physics, or anti-gravity, and (b) that you can actually hold on to if it gets slippery.  It contains oil — it’s going to get slippery at some point.

[[2]] … never put heavy oily sludge down your drain!!! It will seriously mess up septic tanks, and fouls up waste processing in municipal water.  “Other people do it”, but Heroic Cooking Adventurers are better than “other” people.  Besides, every adventurer knows you never throw something away — the DM has provided it for a reason not yet obvious to you (or overlooked that they just handed you an unplanned solution to an Epic Problem).

[[3]] 2011-12-28 — I’ve learned after a few adventures that putting the onion in the pan such that the bird can rest on it is a good thing.  This requires the onion to be cut into 4 slices, roughly the same thickness.  My observation is that the meat absorbs more good flavor from the onion this way and the onion breaks down more and contributes to the juices for gravy.

Pot Pie of Fire (aka, Don’t Broil a Pot Pie)

Yeah, that’s pretty obvious now isn’t it?  This brilliant idea is brought to you by the Hippos of Hunger, Insanity of Late Evening, and a completely failed intelligence check.  Common Sense was on vacation I suppose.

From time to time we have a chicken pot pie.  We have a local farm that prepares them with Happy Meat [1] and sometimes Good Vegetables [2].  They are packaged in a convenient aluminum container with a cardboard cover that has the directions on it.  The directions include “Remove this Before Cooking”.

This is the point where I note that this is a reason why I started this blog.  This is one of those simple plans that went crazy because of a simple step overlooked.  It’s a silly story, it’s a simple story, it made a few people laugh when I told it in person.  So why not laugh here too?

And so, after it’s directed 50 minutes of being in the oven, the result was a very hot pot pie with a completely uncooked top crust.  The crust could have been removed and the contents used otherwise, but a good idea at the time seemed to be to broil it for a short bit to quickly cook the crust.

This is where Hunger + Late Evening + FAIL comes into play.

So setting the broiler on Hi (FAIL!) I set a timer for 10 minutes and walk away (Lo and “stayed to watch it intently” would have been smarter…).  Right around the time I thought I smelled something cooking I headed out into the kitchen to find flames ever so gently licking at the oven window.

Of course, I opened the oven instead of turning it off.  Why?  Because I’m a man and it is fire!  I must play with the fire first!  And, like any good adventurer, something on fire doesn’t say “Danger!!!” it says “please inspect me more closely, you know you want to.”

And so I still ended up with a pot pie, with very hot contents, and a completely unusable crust.

The end result was simple.  I believe forms of this were called “SOS” in the military, how appropriate.  Basically, put it on toast.  Uncomplicated, and easy to do in the late evening.  Besides, I’ve never lit toast on fire… yet.

Cheers!

-jw-

[1] Happy Meat is what we like to call the locally raised meat which is at least Free Range, though not always Organic despite the farms commitment to feeding them “good food”.  From everything we know about this farm, they do try.  They just can’t guarantee absolutely organic intake by their animals.

[2] Good Vegetables is my name for those that I believe are local or came from a well-intended co-op.  Again, absolutely conclusive evidence here is lacking, but the local farm doesn’t give me that Used Car Salesman vibe in any form.