Beef soup for Level 0 Kitchen Klerics

This is a follow-up to my Marrow and Fatness post from a few weeks ago. As part of my celebration of the Feast of Feasts, Pascha, during this fastless Bright Week, I made myself a batch of no effort instant soup, with a slight detour into tacos.

Last night we had tacos. I did a kind of fajita style filling using strips of fresh jalapeno peppers and seitan with cumin seeds. Liz had this in crunchy taco shells with shredded cheese, and some raw produce from my garden plot (romaine, radish and a “blushing beauty” bell pepper which is a pale green and strikes a nice balance between a true green pepper’s bitterness and a yellow peppers over-sweetness). I had also bought some grass fed, local (Step 4 on Whole Foods new meat ethics scale of 0-6) beef brisket for my own tacos. I thought it would substitute for flank steak nicely — it didn’t. I put it in a skillet with some olive oil, salt and pepper, chili del sol powder and liquid smoke and cooked it as slow as I could stand. I sliced it as thin as I could manage, across the grain. The result was still impossibly chewy. Take note, brisket makes fantastic properly slow smoked barbecue or corned beef or pastrami — but it is not flank steak. It needs to be cooked very slowly to be edible.

Thankfully I made enough of the rest to get myself filled at dinner time without the brisket, so I put the rest aside. I knew I had a slab of Step 4 bone-in shank in the fridge as well, so I had the luxury of patience with a plan (which I always find easier than patience in the abstract). Today I put that shank into my Dutch oven, covered it in water,  lidded up, and put this onto the stove to get it to a slow boil while the oven heated to 250 degrees. Once heated, I moved the whole set up into the oven for the rest of the day. I cooked this for about six hours, all told. About three hours in, I took that brisket from the night before and tossed it in as well.

When the six hours were up, all the marrow and gelatin had melted out of the bone, all the connective material had melted out of the meat as gelatin, and much of the fat had melted as well. All that was left was a bone, which will go to the dogs once it has cooled, some of the tougher bits of fat and gristle, which will also go to the dogs, and some absolutely crumblingly tender meat, which will go to me. I strained all this off, and put the deep amber broth into several glass containers to cool while I set about separating the solids and shredding the meat while it was still hot.

Yes, it took six hours to cook. But the actual amount of work I put into this was cumulatively about 15 minutes over course of an entire day. I now have 3-6 servings of beef soup, with meat, which can be augmented with vegetables, noodles, barley, rice, or eaten exactly as is — or used as a gravy or sauce base for any number of other, more decadent dishes. I could even make gravy and use the shredded beef to make meat pies.

And I made my saving throw versus wasting failures.

There is literally no seasoning, no measuring, no technique skills of any kind required here. Put one or two slabs of shank into a cold pan, cover in water, and insert into a barely above boiling temperature oven for a whole day. You can’t over cook it, you can’t over or under season it (seasoning will be done when the results are put to use, not now), the only thing that can go wrong, really, is you could spill it.

It seriously doesn’t get any easier than this. Even Step 4 beef shank is only $6/lb so it isn’t even expensive to go ethical on this one and you’re helping use up cuts that can’t be rendered to ground meat or sausage and can’t be sold as presentation cuts.

Advertisements

“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.

I Thought I Was Making Lentils not Soup

There is an unplanned lentil theme to start here.  That has a certain ironic humor about it since a theme of this blog is cooking adventures — and real adventures are rarely planned.

Lentils are easy to cook.  Or they are supposed to be, right?  They are apparently so easy that the bags I get do not have preparation suggestions other than “you are making soup”.  Not yet I wasn’t.  My quest was for plain lentils to go as a side with my meals this week.

As any inquisitive cook can do these days, I consulted a web search engine which gave me thousands of results.  Of course, there’s nothing fewer these days than thousands of results unless I’ve spelled my search criteria wrong or provided too much for it to know what I’m asking for.  It also seems that almost everyone on the Internet also wants to make lentil soup; but when someone is making plain lentils, we intuitively know if they are using red, white, yellow, green, or mauve.  Though hopefully not mauve because I think I may be confusing those with a bag of beads I’ve seen recently.

But from the thousands of mostly soup-related results, I did find a few suggestions on how to cook plain lentils.  Now equipped with a vague idea on how to do something simple, I figured I had it covered.  Lentils, one-and-a-half times that in water, cook until “tender”.

While cooking, I sometimes end up on the phone to catch up with relatives.  It is convenient since I have lots of time that doesn’t require intense thinking and I can talk and cook.  But what I should have been doing was not cooking my lentils as if they were rice.  And that right there was lesson #1.  Lesson #2 is that lentils continue to cook when removed from heat.  So the “tender and moist” look when removed from heat can quickly turn into “mushy and dry” if one is not careful.

As is my habit when I prepare something, I try it as intended and then determine if something else needs to be done with it.  I have rarely changed a recipe part way through to make a different-than-planned dish*, so I thought I could safely get away with serving the lentils as is. (* That’s more about stubbornness than proficiency.)

It took a couple of forkfuls at dinner to realize the lentils needed a Plan B that didn’t include weighing down the weekly trash with them.

The next morning I brought my old friends “onion” and “garlic” to the rescue accompanied by “carrots” and “vegetable broth” as support.  They were the clerics healing my savaged Lentil Warrior after battling the Cauldron of Death.  The end result of my lentil side-dish was a simple and tasty soup.  It could easily take rice to bulk it up, and I may even pull out a Bag of Spinach +1 to continue rounding it out.  Because, as has been said in another article, why serve leftovers the same way twice?

Lentil Polymorph Soup

2-1/2 c lentils

3-3/4 c water

  • Cook lentils until tender (requires monitoring, which I didn’t do, and that resulted in dry lentils … which resulted in soup!)

1 Large Sweet Onion, chopped small

1T garlic, minced

2 carrots, chopped small (would work with more, but this is what I had on hand)

4c vegetable broth

olive oil

salt & pepper to taste

  • Over low heat in a large skillet (I used a #10 cast iron Wagner, a Griswold clone), sauté onions and garlic in about 1T of olive oil — enough oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pan.  Sauté until onions are soft and begin to change color.
  • Over low heat in a large pot (I used a 6 qt. stainless, the kind with the aluminum composite bottom), heat carrots in about 1T of olive oil until soft — I did these separately to conserve on time.  These could be done in the same pot, starting with the carrots, and adding the onions and garlic after about 5 minutes.
  • Remove pot from heat.  Add those nice, dry, barely edible lentils.  Add vegetable broth.
  • Return to medium heat and bring to a simmer, and then remove from heat.  Everything is already cooked.  If this boils, or simmers for too long, you may end up with paste.  I happen to like a “chunky” lentil soup, so no blending happens here.
  • Salt and Pepper can be added either to the entire pot, or per bowl.  I prefer per bowl to let everyone judge for themselves.
  • A drizzle of olive oil to each serving also helps make it a little more filling and add flavor — fat is flavor, and olive oil is good fat.

And there you have my adventure with lentils that polymorphed into soup.  After some advice on how to cook lentils, I now believe I know the right way… but I’ll wait to see how that works out before sharing.

Cheers!

-jw-

It Is Only Ruined if There Is Nothing Left But Carbon

I don’t know how to cook from recipes. My mother uses recipes for anything she’s only done once or twice, but never again after that. My grandmother, who really set out to teach me to cook, not only doesn’t use recipes, she doesn’t measure anything. This means that I’ve spent most of the past 20 years or so (ouch) “cooking without a net”. While no one has ever been hurt or killed [1]  (that I know of) during these high wire antics, I am definitely glad that many of my earliest accidents are forgotten in time. I didn’t really hit my true stride until the occurrence of two things:

  • The Food Network began re-broadcasting the Japanese show “Iron Chef”. Unlike (either of) the American version(s), the original Japanese program spends a lot of time showing you not only what the chefs are doing, but why, and the on-floor commentator asks a lot of questions which get very educational answers. You can learn a lot watching this show.
  • The Food Network began airing Alton Brown’s “Good Eats”. If you watch the earliest seasons of this show, you notice that each episode focuses on some very staple food item, and that rather than giving you recipes, per se, AB focuses on techniques and cooking science. He uses recipes as a kind of condescension to the conversation, but the emphasis is always that these are templates, not narrowly understood. This appealed to a geeky guy like me (and millions of others) and again, I learned a lot.

This new found knowledge allowed me to go into the kitchen with a lot more purpose even when I wasn’t sure what I was about to cook. From this point forward, if I made a mess of things in the kitchen, it was a genuine accident, not merely blundering ignorance. The Japanese “Iron Chef” does not seem to be easily available on DVD, but the early seasons of “Good Eats” are. If you want to “up your game” in the kitchen, even if you are not a geeky guy, I would recommend making the time to watch this stuff.

So in that vein, this first entry is going to be much more about a mode of thinking than about any specific incident in my life of cooking and what happened. The number one golden rule I have learned about food preparation is the title of this entry: it is only ruined if there is nothing left but carbon. One of the most important techniques for cooking without a net is to always be willing to abandon the dish you were trying to make and to serve something else entirely in the event that, dare I say it, things go pear shaped. Examples:

  • You are trying to make a meatloaf and the whole thing seizes up and crumbles — turn it into hash instead.
  • Your vegetable casserole comes out wet and soggy — blend it into a soup. You may or may not need to boil up some small noodles to dress it up.
  • That same casserole, the next time, comes out dry and brown — chop it up, dress it with fine oil, use it as a sauce.
  • Half your dinner guests were a no show and you have a huge left over roast — chili, stew and more hash.
  • Extra lentils can either be soaked in broth for soup or dried in the oven for flat bread.

There may be some exceptions to this rule involving seafood unless you have some truly advanced techniques, but you get the idea.

A good way to build up your skills at this kind of “clutch play” is to create low stakes practice for yourself. Resolve to never, ever waste left overs. Also resolve to never eat them the same way twice. But the real practice in this is learning to let go of whatever goal you had for a dish and to adapt as needed. Be nimble, be flexible, and don’t get too attached. If I was a different kind of person, I’d say cultivate your zen. But I’m not that guy.

By way of condescension in the “Good Eats” tradition, I’ll include two “recipes” (as close to them as I can write) to try to illustrate the basic idea for which I am advocating here. Here is a moong bean curry recipe followed by a flat bread recipe which uses the left over curry.

For this dish, I opted to grind my own curry spices. I ground whole fennel, black and yellow mustard seeds, methi (fenugreek seeds), and kalonji (nigella seeds) to which I added powdered turmeric, garlic powder and cayenne powder. I use my spare coffee bean grinder for spices. I also used fresh tarragon leaves, a storage onion which had been sauted down until brown, some salt (if you want to be super cool, find Indian black salt) and a can of coconut milk. All this gets pureed into a kind of sauce. Near as I can tell, all Desi cuisine cooks any kind of dal (legumes) in a pressure cooker. I don’t have one so I either use the crock pot on days when I have all day, or simmer on the stove on days when I don’t. I start out with a two to one ratio of liquid to lentils, but with moong beans you’ll want to start three to one. Cook until fork tender but be sure not to go all the way to mushy. If you want something more like a soup, add some vegetable broth when you add the flavorful sauce, if you want a curry dish to serve over rice, just add the sauce.

Now that you have lots of extra dal curry that you don’t know how to use up, you can make what I very geekily refer to as Lambas Bread. Remember, that’s Tolkien’s idea of travel rations for the Elven people, a single bite of which is supposed to sustain a grown man for a whole day. Pre-heat the oven to 250 degrees. Take your left over dal curry and combine it in a 3 to 2 ratio with buckwheat flour either in your food processor or stand mixer. Let it run a good, long time. Do not, no matter what you do, add water or broth. No matter how over-dry or over tight you think it is, that’s fine, just leave it. Spread this out as thin and even as you can on a non-stick baking surface (silicon sheet, Teflon pan or parchment on a hotel pan) and slide it into the oven. The idea here is to drive out as much moisture as possible. But of course, you don’t want to burn it. This is the reason for the low heat. The first time I did this I started at 350 and had to radically reduce the heat to avoid burning the edges. As it stands, you may have to cut off the edges as too far gone in order to get the center truly dry. Once done, use either a pizza slicer or a big cleaver to cut into large cookie sized squares.  Be warned when eating. This stuff is dense and will fill you quickly. I would recommend having it with a few chutneys and maybe just one vegetable or meat dish and nothing else. Otherwise, you’ve got even more left overs.

I hope this gives you a flavor (sorry) for what it is I’m describing here. Flat bread, travel bread, really couldn’t be any less like a soup or a curry. I hate the phrase “think outside the box”. What you really need to do is not get over-focused. Think in potentialities and properties rather than in goals and actualities. Curry is wet and mushy. But it is high in protein and can easily give up its water with heat. High quality cuts of meat have great grain and marbling, but these are the very things which eventually render down so wonderfully into either chili or stew which have neither grain nor marbling.

This is in danger of becoming a ramble in search of a dead horse.  Just remember, if you never announce your menu ahead of time, your guests won’t know that the soup, stew, chili, pasta and sauce you’re serving is an “accident”. They’ll just know it is tasty.

Happy cooking!

~ Jim

[1] OK, OK, I had to go to the emergency room. Once. But that was a knife accident and had nothing whatsoever to do with the food.