Cream of Mushroom Soup

First things first: my apologies if you’ve tried to visit sometime in the past few days, and had to swallow an error message. My server was a bit under-the-weather, but after a call to the doc, is now feeling much better. Thanks for your patience. What follows is the post I was working on when it all crashed down.

Way back when, I thought all soup came from a can with a red logo and a little gold seal in the middle. You know, the one immortalized by Andy Warhol. Back in those days, about the only variety I would eat was Cream of Mushroom.

Earlier this week, I opened my refrigerator to fix lunch for the kids, and saw half a container of sliced mushrooms, looking like their glory days had passed. None of my dinner plans this week would benefit from the addition of over-oxidized mushrooms, so my head began churning for a plan while I made sandwiches.

I remembered landing briefly on a random food blog post last week, and reading about using old mushrooms to make soup. So while I cut up carrots and apples for the young ones, I flipped through The Joy of Cooking, in search of direction. I only had about 4 ounces of mushrooms, so I couldn’t make the blogged version, inspired by one of Anthony Bourdain’s creations. My childhood can-o’-dinner-love came back in a flash; I scanned the recipe for Cream of Mushroom soup, and realized that if I halved it, I could pull it off in about 20 minutes.

I did, and it was the soup I never had. Cream of Mushroom, before Campbell’s hijacked it. I ate it for two consecutive lunches, and planned to get a picture of it, but just couldn’t put the spoon down long enough to go get the camera.

This is an ideal time to thaw out one of the bags of chicken stock you made this week (insert emoticon wink) — I can’t imagine it would be nearly as good without it (but even with storebought broth, it would be much better than canned). I’ll write the recipe as I made it, amended from the same-titled recipe from The Joy of Cooking. It should double fine (in case you want to serve more than yourself for dinner), but if you have a copy of the cookbook, it wouldn’t hurt to go there.

Cream of Mushroom Soup

  • 1 Tbsp olive oil, plus 1 Tbsp butter
  • 4 ounces mushrooms (about half a regular container), sliced
  • 1/4 onion, chopped (about 1/4 cup)
  • 1-2 Tbsp dry sherry (optional, but really adds flavor; I buy cheap dry sherry, and keep it way too long, but it’s nice to have on hand for times such as these)
  • 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 – 2 tsp chopped fresh thyme (if using dried, reduce to a 1/2 tsp)
  • 2 cups chicken stock (or Swanson low-sodium canned chicken broth)
  • 1/4 cup half-n-half
  • salt and pepper to taste

In a small saucepan, heat the oil and butter over medium heat until the foaming subsides (feel free to use all olive oil, or all butter). Sauté the mushrooms and onion until the mushrooms are wilted, about 5 minutes. Add the sherry, flour, and thyme. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan. Stir in your chicken stock gradually, add 1/4 tsp salt (omit if you’re using canned broth, or if your stock is already salted, and season to taste at the end). Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and simmer about 15 minutes. Stir in the half-n-half, taste for seasonings, and serve.

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Why you really should make your own chicken stock

Oftentimes, after a social gathering, or simply a conversation with an acquaintance, I think to myself, why didn’t I just shut up already?

See, I have a tendency to become a bit belligerent when it comes to certain matters, most especially matters having to do with food. And it’s not for any reason other than the fact that I get really, really excited about food, and expect others to share my enthusiasm. It has a lot to do with the fact that, when I began cooking in my mid-20s, I was shocked by how relatively simple it was to make food from scratch. The results far outweigh the effort (most times). But my excitement can sometimes come across as somewhat militant, or even as proselytizing. I’m sometimes aware that it happens; my victim listener’s eyes start to wander, or their part of the conversation becomes limited to the word, “right,” implying agreement, but really being a plea for help from the nearest possible distraction. On rare occasion, I actually take notice that it’s happening, and I either attempt a bumbling apology, or plow forward recklessly, depending on the subject matter and whether or not I’ve had access to wine.

So let me start out with a disclaimer: making your own stock is not a moral issue. Your life will not necessarily improve with its making, but your soup most certainly will. I will not think less of you as a person (assuming I know you) if you continue to purchase canned broth. I still purchase it myself for emergencies, or for freezing in 1 Tbsp portions to quickly thaw when a recipe demands that miniscule amount. The first time you make it, it might seem not worth the effort. But make it a few times, and use it in your soup recipes, and I think you’ll start to see the light (strong words, but I am drinking a Terrapin India Brown Ale as I type this).

Here’s what you need:

  • 3 to 4 pounds chicken parts (bone-in, skin-on). I always use leg quarters (the leg with the thigh still attached), because they are the cheapest part, and I love dark meat (we will be using the cooked meat). That ends up being 4-6 leg quarters, depending on their size
  • 1 yellow onion, quartered pole to pole (you can leave the root attached)
  • 1 stalk celery, with leaves (see this post to find out how to store celery so it lasts longer), cut into (approx.) 2-inch chunks
  • 1 carrot, cut into (approx.) 2-inch chunks*
  • 1 dried bay leaf
  • a bunch of fresh parsley, if you have it
  • a fine-mesh strainer, preferably large and conical (this shape just makes things easier)

*If you happen to buy organic vegetables (and these varieties often cost about what conventional counterparts do, in my neck of the woods), you don’t even have to peel the carrots or onions. Just give the carrots and celery a good scrubbing

Here’s what you do. Put the chicken pieces in the bottom of a large dutch oven or stockpot (needs to hold at least 5-6 quarts). Fill with enough water to cover the chicken, plus about an inch. Put the pot on high heat, and cut up the vegetables while the pot comes to a boil. Add the rest of the ingredients, and add a little more water if necessary (just to cover — too much water will make a weak stock). Bring the water to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, and cook for about 45 minutes. I sometimes partially cover mine, to keep too much of the liquid from evaporating. Sometimes a piece of chicken will float to the surface, and if that happens just push it back down, or let it trade places with a piece on the bottom. As long as the liquid doesn’t come to a rapid boil (in which case, turn down the heat), you don’t have to do a thing.

After the 45 minutes, remove from heat, and using tongs remove the chicken to a large plate. You can let the stock and chicken cool a bit while you do other things. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, pull the meat off the bones (the meat comes off quite easily — but I will say that this task might be the one that I despise most in the kitchen; sometimes I can convince Tim to do it for me, and when he does, I know he loves me), place in an airtight container, and stick in the refrigerator. Once cool, you can transfer the meat to a ziplock bag and stick in the freezer. It’s ready to thaw for your next chicken casserole, enchiladas, chicken salad, etc. I just love killing two (or would it be 3?) birds with one stone.

The stock needs to be cooled quickly, and this might be where I lose a couple of you. I cool mine in an ice bath, which is just a nice way of saying “bucket of ice.” Take the biggest bowl you have, and put a lot of ice and a little water in it. Then set another, slightly smaller bowl in the ice. Put your fine-mesh strainer over the empty bowl, and ladle in your stock. The strainer catches all the veggies and any foam that accumulated. Discard the strainer contents. Now stir the stock every few minutes until it’s just lukewarm (rather than scalding hot). Cover tightly and stick in the refrigerator.

The next day, you’ll see a layer of fat that has solidified on the top. Skim that out with a spoon (discard, or freeze in small portions and use for cooking), and you have your stock. I ladle mine into a measuring cup, then pour it into a ziplock bag, in 1 or 2-cup portions (be sure you label and date the bag). The easiest way to freeze them is by stacking them flat on a cookie sheet, and putting the sheet in the freezer. Once frozen, you can retrieve your baking sheet, and your stock is frozen in nice, thin bags. When you need stock, just stick the bag(s) in the microwave for a couple of minutes. Once the ice is loose enough to remove from the bag, transfer to a glass bowl and finish defrosting (if you defrost comletely in the microwave, the bag tends to melt — and melted plastic in your food is creepy).

If you’ve made stock before, you might notice that I don’t add salt. This is just a personal preference of mine; this way, I always know that I’m starting from sodium-ground-zero in soups. I add salt to taste as I make the soup.

I can’t express enough how much homemade stock improves all cooking (I’ll borrow from my friend Cassia, and show you this sketch to illustrate how excited I can get about stock-making). It’s also delicious on its own (salt added) when you’re feeling under-the-weather, and I’m convinced has medicinal qualities in those cases.

Chicken stock is the easiest, most versatile stock to make (of the omnivorous varieties). I’ve never even attempted beef or fish stock — but I have a ziplock bag full of frozen beef bones ready to go on a maiden voyage. It’s considerably more time-consuming (most recipes say to simmer for 8 hours!), so I can’t see it becoming a regular in my kitchen.

But CHICKEN STOCK!!!! Really.

Lie to me, and tell me you’re gonna make it.

No, really.

I love my crock pot.

Before you get all “oh, and next your gonna tell me your favorite recipe uses a can of cream-of-mushroom soup” on me, let me qualify that statement:

  • If someone held a gun to my head and told me to choose either the crock pot or my Le Creuset dutch oven, I’d throw the crock pot by the cord into the nearest body of deep water, without blinking.
  • I’ve never made a dessert in it.
  • I don’t use it as a dumping ground for a variety of canned goods and then, eight hours later, call it dinner.

I first requested this appliance after hearing an interview on NPR with the author of a “gourmet” crock pot cookbook (my memory is fuzzy on where I heard that interview, so don’t go looking for it in the NPR archives). She described some quite useful ways of utilizing its convenience, including the fact that, in summer, you could cook a whole chicken without heating your entire house and by consuming the same amount of energy required to light a 60-watt bulb. These things appealed to me.

For example, I am making a dish tomorrow night that requires cooked, shredded chicken. About a half-hour ago, I pulled 3 pounds of bone-in chicken leg quarters out of their packages, rinsed and dried them, seasoned them with salt and pepper, and dropped them in the crock pot. Turned it on low, and that’s it. They’ll be done around 8 or 9 this evening, when I’ll take them out, let them cool on a plate for a short while, and stick them in the fridge. Tomorrow all I have to do is pull the meat off the bone. So easy, and so perspiration-free, I was inspired to write a post describing my devotion to a small kitchen appliance.

Before you continue to write it off, thinking in your Amish way, “yeah, but I don’t need cooked chicken that often, and if I do, I’ll just poach it on the stovetop, the old-fashioned way,” consider two more favorite uses (mainly utilized in winter, when it’s not the warmth of the kitchen that pains me, but the gas bill):

  • Stews. The crock pot is really wonderful for beef, chicken, and lamb stews. I prefer the boneless meats over bone-in chicken, because the extended cooking time can make chicken bones fall apart, which I find unappealing.
  • STOCK! STOCK! STOCK! This is the reason I can almost always use homemade chicken and vegetable stock in soups and sauces. There are a variety of ways to do it, explained quite nicely in a book called Not Your Mother’s Slowcooker Cookbook (I’m not a fan of every recipe in the book, but overall it’s a good resource). No, you don’t end up with pristine, clear stock like you would if you watched it boil over the stove for 6 hours, skimming impurities until you were blind from the effort, but the end result makes canned broth seem like salt water. It makes all our winter soups taste, well, homemade.

Oh, and if aesthetics are an issue, they do make lovely stainless ones these days. I’m not quite cool enough for that yet, so mine has little flowers on it. You might argue that this is one foot inside the door of the “I Heart Country” club, but if it means a cooler kitchen, I just might be willing to pay the dues.