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What we learned in a cooking lesson: Soup every way

Making_cabbage_soup
A nice mama took me up on my offer from the post about Jamie Oliver, and came over Thursday for a cooking lesson. While I'd quizzed her on likes and dislikes before she came (no mushrooms, she said, and her husband wasn't an onion fan), we hadn't really talked about what she wanted to learn. "I feel overwhelmed," she said, with a 14-month-old in the kitchen and a tight budget. "How do people just always have what they need on hand?"

We quickly realized that she didn't need help figuring out how to dice and peel and saute: she needed to be released from the stress of a recipe. She's one of those people (on the other end of the spectrum of home cooks than I) who must absolutely put two teaspoons of thyme into a recipe if it calls for two teaspoons of thyme, and if she can't find thyme or if it's very expensive or if she gets home and realizes she has, after all, no balsamic vinegar (just cider), or whatever: she panics.

What she needed, I said, was to cook without a recipe at all. Just a process. That would save her from the planning, list-making, recipe-checking, budget-busting stress. She could just buy whatever she saw that was in season and inexpensive (or whatever was growing in her garden, arrived in her CSA box, or her mom had given her), and use the process to make it fit.

We made one thing: a cabbage black bean chili, in which I used the beans from the recipe I included in the first post, and I stressed throughout our time that weren't going to talk about quantities or requirements, just procedures, categories and maximums, and ways she could fit this process into her own family's life. One piece of advice I gave her was, I thought, universally useful, and that is to figure out what are your favorite and most versatile spices, and become comfortable enough with them so you'll always know how much to use. Mine are cumin, smoked paprika, dried chiles, cloves, nutmeg and allspice; other good standbys could include ginger, dry mustard, star anise, thyme, dill, cinnamon and cayenne or chipotle pepper. You could only have two or three (cumin and thyme and some sort of pepper, for instance) and still manage to make good food no matter what, I think. Buy the spices in bulk (Limbo has a fantastic fresh spice and herb aisle; many other neighborhoods sport their own super spice sources) and you'll save money and ensure freshness.

Below is the process for bean soup I used. This is an endlessly great way to make soups, and could be vegetarian, vegan, or thoroughly meaty-creamy, depending on which options you picked. The one we made was delicious! And though I'll probably never make it exactly like that again, I'm sure we'll make many more great soups in our day that will best even that.

Soup process for any season

  1. Heat fat in a large, deep, preferably stainless steel or cast iron, pot. Ours: turkey fat and olive oil, about 2 tbsp.
    - olive oil
    - bacon fat / lard
    - butter
    - coconut oil
    - reserved fat from roasted turkey or chicken
  2. Add spices once fat is just spitting hot. Ours: a generous teaspoon or two of cumin, plus a nice pinch of salt and a sprinkle of chipotle pepper.
    - no more than two teaspoons of any one spice
    - no more than four teaspoons total
    - for very spicy peppers, or highly potent spices like star anise and tarragon, keep it to 1/4-1/2 tsp
  3. Heat and stir a minute or so. Use medium or medium-high heat, depending on your stove, and if it smells burnt yank it off the heat right away, returning carefully after you add the next ingredient.
  4. If you want to add raw meat (like ground beef for a chili, or bacon), add it next, and cook until browned. Remove the browned meat if it is delicate and best eaten lightly cooked (this will probably apply to the tiniest minority of soups).
  5. Add chopped aromatics. You'll want them in relatively small pieces, probably; my soups have 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch cubes. Ours: about a cupful of yellow onion and one whole "darling" cabbage (it was small and adorable) from the People's Co-op farmer's market. We added kale from my garden, too, after about 10 minutes.
    - onions, red, yellow or shallot
    - cabbage
    - celery
    - celery root (celeriac), peeled
    - carrots, peeled
    - green or red peppers, seeded
    - beets, peeled
    - leeks
    - garlic
    - kale, chard, Asian greens, mustard, collard greens can be added five or 10 minutes after the onions/celery/carrots
  6. Cook until "done." I like my onions well-cooked, past the "translucent" stage you'll see in many recipes and all the way to almost-caramelized. The greens just need to be tender; the garlic should barely be cooked at all. Experiment, taste while it's cooking, adjust the temperature carefully and often.
  7. Add beans or other cooked proteins, or potatoes. Ours: a cup or so of cooked black beans, with a little liquid.
    - any color of cooked dry beans, or a combination
    - cooked garbanzo beans
    - uncooked, peeled fava beans or fresh shelling beans
    - uncooked, rinsed lentils or split peas (or, they could be cooked but not mushy)
    - chopped cooked meat or cured meat (leftover roast chicken or turkey, kielbasa, ham, chunks of roast beef or lamb)
    - uncooked, peeled, cubed potatoes
  8. Add tomato sauce (for chili or Indian, Italian or Mexican-style flavors) or other liquid. Ours: a pint of my canned tomato sauce with garlic.
    - coconut milk
    - beef, chicken or vegetable stock
    - water
    - milk
    - cream or yogurt or kefir
  9. Cook for a bit, until any toothy ingredients are tender and the flavors meld. Ours only needed five or so minutes; a potato or lentil soup might need a half-hour.
  10. Taste, adjust seasoning (here is where you check salt and pepper), add finishing touches if you're into that. Ours: lots of hot sauce for me
    - a bit of butter or yogurt or sour cream or creme fraiche
    - a little glug of vinegar or soy sauce or fish sauce (especially if it tastes a little flat to you)
    - a nice spoonful of sauerkraut or kimchi
    - hot sauce for those who can handle such things
    - a sprinkling of chopped chives, green onions, or fresh herbs
    - grated cheddar or hard cheese, cubed feta, or crumbled chevre or blue cheese
  11. Yum.

I keep my leftovers in a quart-sized canning jar; if I made way too much I'll freeze a quart. Just make sure you have a little room at the top (at least an inch), and the jar can go right into the freezer. Depending on the soup and how quickly you stick it into the fridge, it should last a week. Use the smell test: you'll know.

This was enough fun that the offer's still open (and I've promised to teach Raychel a cheese sauce another day): leave a comment or email me, mama at cafemama.com, and we'll make a date.

Comments

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I love this! Good for you guys... Another thing that I love to do is roast a chicken or two one night an then make soup with the leftovers another night. It's easy to do, very cost effective, and ensures dinner for at least 2 nights a week. Our favorite is roasted chicken with fingerling potatoes and carrots and clean up is easy for this meal because it all goes onto one cookie sheet in the oven. Then I take all the leftover chicken (bones and all) and toss it into a large stockpot, cover with water and put into the fridge. Then, when I'm ready to make the soup, I just take that stockpot and put it onto the stove to start the broth. If you've never made chicken soup, it's so easy and versatile, but even just a basic brothy soup with carrots, celery and noodles is delish. We like orzo, but I've done wild rice too, and I almost always end up with an extra quart that goes into the freezer for a weekend lunch later in the week, or we deliver to our single neighbor.

Oh, now this is the kind of thing I desperately need help learning how to do. I'm a good cook, and an organized meal-planner, but if I don't have my lists and recipes all lined up, I have no clue what to do. I would love to be able to improv better, based on what's on sale or what I have on hand. Sign me up!

Leah - I do the same thing, now! 1 chicken = at least 2 good meals. Plus extra broth in the freezer. Sarah, I , too, used to freeze w/ fear when I didn't have the exact right ingredients. Now I cook very "extemporaneously", if you will. Much less stress!

I totally agree--for me, cooking by method rather than recipe is great (not so much for baking, however!) and so flexible!

One tip that works for me: I add spices straight to the fat if they're in seed form (they 'pop' more easily and release flavors well) but I have a horrible time keeping ground spices from burning if I add them that way. So I add the ground spices to my aromatics (really at any point, at the beginning or end of cooking the aromatics) and as long as I give them a minute or two to cook before adding lots of liquid, they meld with the fats and don't burn.

Now I'm in the mood for cabbage soup! And lucky me--cabbage in the fridge! The sauerkraut may just have to wait. Thanks for the idea!

I've got a big bag of uncooked red lentils and I'm not sure what to do with them. Anyone got a good recipe?

P.S. we're vegetarians.

This is a key lesson. I still enjoy recipes (especially for reminders about spices that go together in ways I might not have thought of) but once I felt free to cook using this kind of a general process dinners got a lot easier.

Reminds me of that drawing from the Tassajara Cookbook about soup. It's a soup flowchart.

My friend is teaching a series of courses about how to cook with what you have. Might be useful for some of you. She's a fabulous person and has great credentials (has worked years with Slow Food USA).

http://www.cookwithwhatyouhave.com/Home_Page.html

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