06 August 2008

The Return of My Infamous Food Posts Part I: Soups

Jeri asked:
Do you cook? What do you like to make when you're cooking for others?

I do cook. By far I'm best at making soups. They're easy because it's much harder to burn something while boiling it than by doing anything else to it. It doesn't generally matter how much of any given ingredient is in it or whether I leave it out entirely. Textures aren't very important. They keep well and freeze well (try freezing them in individual portions for high convenience). Pre-boiling prep for the kinds I make tend to be limited to washing and chopping, as opposed to making dumplings or other heavily hands-on things (that is, I'm too lazy to make kreplach, even without chicken livers involved).

For every soup recipe I've developed, the important part is what order to add the ingredients. Things cook at different rates, so they go into the pot at different times. Dried beans take a long time and therefore go in first, while green peas are best if they're barely cooked at all, so they go in just before you turn off the heat. Meat takes a long time to get tender. Corn starts out tender, then becomes stiff, and then if you continue boiling it long enough it becomes tender again. Potatoes are a firm 20 minutes, even if the pieces are really small.

Additionally, almost all soups taste better if you leave it sitting around slowly cooling for several hours so the flavors can meld together. I generally leave it covered on the stove overnight, then move the whole pot to the fridge when I get up. Leaving it out doesn't seem to hurt the soup any, while moving a hot pot into the fridge right away does hurt other food already in it.

My main repertoire these days are Beef Barley Soup, Chicken Noodle Soup, Spinach Tofu Soup, Lentil Chili, and Adapted Canned Tomato Soup. I make these a gallon at a time, and they seem to still be good after two weeks, though your mileage may vary (I have an iron stomach). I used to make a pasta sauce that I adapted from canned clam chowder as well, but then Jim Wright posted an excellent recipe for making clam chowder from near-scratch, so I adapted a version of that into my regular rotation instead. (And speaking of Jim Wright's soups, he just posted a recipe for Sour Cream Potato Soup. I'm looking forward to trying it.) Last summer I often made this bizarre rendition of a gazpacho, but I'm not sure I like it enough to keep making it regularly.

As for what I make when cooking for others: well, unfortunately, I've yet to figure that out. I had a great tandoori chicken with green beans and basmati rice, but then I ran out of the tandoori powder that made it work - and haven't managed to find that brand again (Kissan Tandoori Masala, if anyone has heard of it; my empty bottle claims to have come from Canada). I can put together a decent basic lasagna, but that's not high on the presentation score. Then there's Pasta with pseudo-Alfredo, but I've yet to make it for anyone other than myself. It's colorful and tastes good, I just don't have houseguests anymore, like, ever.

These days, cooking for others mostly means work potlucks, and cooking for something to put on a buffet line is different from cooking a meal to be served at a table in one's home. I don't have a crockpot, which takes out anything that should be hot, such as soups. I'm not practiced in salads because I don't generally eat salads unless I'm at a potluck or buffet. My baking skills aren't worth mentioning (plus we always seem to have 50% dessert dishes). Mostly I just bring a big jug of fruit punch instead.

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