Cook’s Illustrated Soups and Stews, Winter 2009
In the northern hemisphere autumn of 1999, I was invited to speak at an intranet conference in San José. There were a lot of firsts about this trip. This was the first time I had been to this part of the US, and I loved it. It is the home of the California bungalow, which is the style of my home in Wellington. It was the first time I had ever spoken in public, and I was very anxious. You might question why they asked me, and I assume it is because Americans are very confident and competent speakers and they assumed that if I was an expert in something, I would be expert at talking about it. It actually all went rather well. But the highlight of the trip for me was my first cobb salad. Wikipedia describes a cobb salad as a main-dish American garden salad typically made with chopped salad greens, tomato, crisp bacon, fried chicken breast, hard-boiled eggs, avocado, chives, blue cheese, and red-wine vinaigrette. The ingredients are usually laid out on a plate in neat rows; however, this was a smart hotel restaurant and they had piled it into a mound on the plate. I don’t know about you, but I find American restaurant meals way too generous. I have never finished a meal in America. I ordered this salad on more than one occasion and although I ate until I could eat no more, I failed to make any impact on this delicious mound of salad. The wait staff would clear my table and make a polite comment about how I hadn’t eaten anything, and I would scuttle shamefully back to my room feeling I had been less than polite. When I got home, I thought about this salad quite a lot and when, a few years later, I spied a cooking magazine titled American Classics, I flicked through it and sure enough there was a cobb salad recipe, along with other American favourites such as New York-style cheesecake and Texas beef ribs. It also has cooking techniques such as how to boil an egg or steam a lobster.
I loved this Cook’s Illustrated magazine, and I bought a few more of the special issues including this issue from 2009. I haven’t cooked very much from it and I started thinking that perhaps I would move it on after trying out a few dishes.
I started with the chicken cacciatore, p6. I wasn’t feeling inspired because I have loads of recipes for chicken cacciatore and I wondered what would make this one stand out. It’s important with this magazine to read the entire article and to pay attention to why they are doing things a particular way. In this recipe the standout is the treatment of the skin on the chicken thighs. As I may have mentioned before I have a horror of flabby cooked chicken skin. I don’t understand why you would brown the skin to a beautiful crispness only to cook it in a sauce where it immediately becomes flabby and unappealing. This recipe suggests browning the chicken thighs, with skin on, until the skin is crisp, then transferring the chicken to a plate and after draining most of the fat, cooking chopped onions and mushrooms in the same pan. While they are cooking you remove and discard the chicken skin. I ate it, don’t tell anyone.
Having consumed the crispy skin and cooked the onion and mushrooms, you add garlic, sauté for 30 seconds, add a tbsp flour, cook for a minute then add a cup of wine and mix in all the browned bits at the bottom of the pan. Stir in ½ cup chicken stock, a tin of tomatoes, thyme leaves and a Parmesan rind. Return the skinned chicken pieces, bring to the boil, and reduce heat to low and cook until chicken is falling off the bone which will be about 45 minutes. Turn the chicken halfway through to ensure it cooks evenly on both sides. Discard Parmesan rind and stir through chopped sage or rosemary leaves to serve. And you have chicken which tastes as if it was cooked with skin on, but no flabby skin. One successful dish ticked off.
I moved on to red beans and rice, p10. This dish was a lesson in paying attention and not cutting corners. The recipe is for dried beans cooked for two hours in the sauce. I thought I would save time and soak the beans overnight then cook them before adding to the sauce for the last 30 minutes. It was nice. I decided that I had not known best and humbly returned to the recipe the following week. I followed it to the letter.
Cook two slices of chopped bacon in a Dutch oven until lightly brown and the fat has rendered. Add half a finely chopped onion, green capsicum, and celery stick, and cook until softened. Stir in garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Add salt and pepper, oregano, thyme, cayenne, bay leaves, three cups of chicken stock, three cups of water and one cup of kidney beans which have not been soaked overnight. Bring to the boil, reduce to a vigorous simmer and cook uncovered for 2-2 ½ hours until the beans are soft, and the sauce thickened. I was sceptical but these recipe testers have done their jobs. Stir in a chopped andouille sausage and cook a further thirty minutes at which point the sauce will be thick and creamy. Serve the beans over perfectly cooked rice and top with hot pepper sauce. This dish was amazing. Another tick.
For soup Monday I made hearty lentil soup p59, and by now I knew to follow the recipe. Cook 2 slices of bacon in a Dutch oven until fat is rendered. Add chopped onion and carrots and cook until vegetables are soft. Add garlic and cook thirty seconds. Add a tin of tomatoes, thyme and a bay leaf and cook another minute. Add a cup of lentils and season. I use Puy lentils because they taste delicious and hold their shape. The recipe suggested Puy or brown. Cover, reduce heat, and cook until vegetables and softened and the lentils darkened in colour, about 10 minutes. Uncover, increase heat to high and add ½ a cup white wine, four cups chicken stock and a cup of water. Bring to boil, cover partially, reduce heat to low. Simmer until lentils are tender, about 1/2 an hour. Puree ½ the soup until smooth and return to the pot with 1 tsp balsamic vinegar and some chopped parsley. Reheat until piping hot before serving. Another winner.
I have always been interested in the idea of Pittsburgh wedding soup p29, which it turns out is actually Italian wedding soup and the wedding refers not to matrimony but to the perfect marriage of meat and greens in a soup. Apparently very popular in Italy and Pittsburgh.
I did deviate from the meatball recipe which called for 250 g “meatloaf mix”, which is apparently a ready-made mix of beef, pork and veal. I used pork mince, which I already had in the freezer. It was mixed with slices of white bread which had been mashed with milk. Again, I deviated and used some sourdough breadcrumbs I had in the freezer. Add about 1/4 cup grated Parmesan, parsley, garlic and oregano along with salt and pepper and some beaten egg yolk. Make into tiny meatballs, about thirty, cover and refrigerate at least half an hour while you make the soup.
In a Dutch oven, sauté garlic and red chilli flakes about thirty seconds then add six cups chicken stock and bring to the boil. Stir in a small bunch of kale or chard, chopped, the meat balls and ½ cup orzo. Reduce heat to medium and simmer 10 -15 minutes until the greens are wilted, and the meatballs and chard are cooked through. Remember your meatballs are tiny. Stir through parsley and season to taste. This was nice but I probably won’t make it again. Perhaps I should have made a meatball mix and soaked sliced bread in milk. I think I just prefer a classic minestra.
I saved the best for last. French pork stew, p38 was a real crowd pleaser. For 6 you’ll need about 1.2 kg of what is described as boneless pork butt roast. My butcher knew what this was, but if you don’t have a local butcher, this is pork shoulder. It is apparently called butt because it was historically packed into barrels known as butts. Cut the pork into largish chunks and brown in batches in a Dutch oven. Set the browned meat aside. In the pot, sauté a sliced leek until lightly browned, then stir in garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in 3 tbsp of flour and cook briefly then whisk in a cup of brandy and three cups of chicken stock. Stir in the browned pork, 2 bay leaves and bring up to a simmer. Cover and cook in a low oven, 160C, for an hour. Add a sliced fennel and four sliced carrots and cook another 50 minutes until the meat and vegetables are just tender. Remove the bay leaves, season, and add 1 cup cream and 1/2 cup of pitted prunes, halved. Cover and let stand for five minutes. Stir in tarragon, parsley, and a tbsp lemon juice to serve.
I made this for the two of us and then I made again for guests who asked for the recipe. I might have cut corners but following the recipe paid off. I have made stews with prunes and sometimes find them too strong. Adding them at the end really works and they were delicious.
This magazine is back on the shelves. What I have learned is that these magazines are wonderful for technique. The authors have done the hard work and the magazines are full of useful advice accompanied by helpful illustrations. I now know to sauté my alliums then add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. I got to crisp my chicken skin and eat it too, no more flabby chicken skin for me. I know the best way to chop various vegetables and I have the best method for cooking polenta. I must revisit those American classics.