Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Stock Tales and a Cheesy Ending

Peta, of the blog Peta Eats, was our lovely hostess for the Daring Cook's September 2011 challenge, "Stock to Soup to Consomme'." We were taught the meaning among the three dishes, how make a crystal clear consomme' if we so chose to do so, and encouraged to share our own delicious soup recipes!

I was challenged - by time, by decisions about what to make, by not understanding what was required by the challenge (despite repeated readings), and by ending up missing a requirement. Other than that, everything went really well.

Making chicken stock is something I do regularly, although not often enough. I love the rich chicken flavor from homemade stock, something that simply is not available from commercial products. I do use boxed chicken stock sometimes because I don't always have homemade - I make a lot of soup! I find the brands which limit the ingredients to real food rather than a myriad of chemicals taste okay. Not as good as homemade, but still usable, especially if the soup has lots of other flavors.

I have used a variety of techniques in making stock: buying wings, backs, necks and using those; using the bones from roasted chicken if I have enough; using a whole chicken, removing the meat when it is done and returning the bones to the pot. They take varying amounts of time, but they all work. It can be a long process if you really want to reduce the stock to intensify the flavor. The stock I used for this challenge was one made from a whole bird.

Chicken stock made from whole chicken. 

The soup I chose was a cheese soup. Many cheese soups are very thick and I sometimes feel as if I'm eating fondue with a spoon - not that there is anything wrong with that! Normally, however, I want a soup that has texture but is not so thick it is almost hard to get out of the bowl. This soup is perfect in that respect. It is rich, but has a thinner soup texture.
The basic ingredients
All the veggies diced. The potatoes were cut in larger pieces.

The ingredients are pretty straightforward: mirepoix, russet potato, cheese, chicken stock, milk, Tabasco, and Worcestershire. The carrots, onion and celery are sauteed in unsalted butter. Flour is added and cooked for a couple minutes before adding the stock one cup at a time. The potato is added - I keep the pieces a bit big so the potato doesn't dissolve in the soup - and then the soup is simmered until the potato has softened. At this stage, you can puree the soup for a smooth texture; however, I never do because I prefer having the veggies identifiable and a little crunchy. At the end, when the potatoes are done, the milk, grated white cheddar, and seasonings are added and stirred until the cheese is melted - it doesn't take long. If I had been organized, I would have supplemented the soup with some kind of crusty bread or rolls, but life sometimes gets in the way.

The finished product!
And then there was this little distraction, as if my wandering mind wasn't enough.

The sunset while I was preparing the soup.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Time for a Rant

No pictures, no challenge - just me berating myself for making a mistake I should know not to make.

There are blogs galore with original recipes or at least, recipes that have been tweaked in some way so the blogger can claim they are original. Some of these are tremendous and I have had a lot of success with many. Usually, if the author is someone with some credibility - a lot of experience, some time in the public eye, maybe restaurant experience or a cookbook under her/his belt - you can assume that the recipes have been checked, double-checked and tested thoroughly. Sites like Food52 are an excellent example of this.

HOWEVER, there are also some sites where people contribute their "original" recipes and fail to read what they have written or modified to see if it makes sense. I once reviewed a cookbook written by a small restaurant owner which was really a lesson in how not to write a cookbook. Instructions which made no sense, ingredients listed in apparently random order, rather than in the order in which they are used, references to optional steps which don't show up until well past the "optional" time... . It goes on and on.

Tonight I made a version of General Tso's chicken. Now, I have lots of Asian cookbooks, so why I relied on an amateur recipe, I don't know. The picture looked good and the ingredients looked appropriate. It was only as I really started preparing it that I realized all the things that were missing.

For example: "Prep your chicken" - That's it. Prep it how? Cut it in a specific way or to a specific size? Not mentioned. So I assumed (which you should never have to do) that it meant cutting the boneless, skinless pieces into even bite-sized portions.

"Stir together until a thick slurry forms. It will look gummy but smooth." I do not think trying to make a thick slurry with over 1/4 cup corn starch and 1 tablespoon soy and 1 tsp sesame oil and an egg white would ever work. I ended up with something more like a ball of clay than a slurry (maybe our definition of slurry isn't the same?). I added about another tablespoon of liquid and then I had a slurry with which I could coat my chicken.

"Heat oil until it shimmers." I hate this! What is the optimal temp? Why not use a thermometer to monitor when the correct heat is reached? Oh, and don't use canola oil for high temp cooking - it tastes funky. Peanut oil is excellent and corn oil works.

"Cook chicken for 4 minutes." Well, if we knew what size the chicken pieces were supposed to be and what temp the oil was supposed to be, perhaps this would be helpful.

"Transfer chicken to paper towel lined plate." One plate? So we are putting just cooked chicken on top of earlier batches once the plate is full? Really?

"Stir into sauce." I forgot to mention the sauce. This is General Tso's chicken, right? Hot and spicy? So why would you add only 1 teaspoon of chili-garlic sauce, the only source of heat, to a mixture of over a cup of liquid? That will not register with anyone's taste buds. I know not everyone wants tons of heat (I do), but why not write a range - 1 tsp for mildly spicy and upwards for more? I added probably at least a tablespoon.

Now - having said all this, Bob still liked the chicken but he pretty much likes anything with lots of heat. And the chicken was fine, although it was totally flavorless until the sauce was added. I think it should have been salted and peppered before "slurried" to be sure there was some flavor.

Will I make this again? Maybe some variation of it. It made a mess, of course, with the frying (even using a spatter guard) and the cornstarch (which always ends up all over the place. Lots of bowls and utensils which could have probably been streamlined.

So once again, I promise myself to do the recipe analysis BEFORE I start cooking and figure out if correcting the errors is worth the effort.

Stay tuned for this month's Daring Cook, to be posted on September 14, assuming I get it done!