Thursday, October 28, 2010

Moment of Truth With Condensed Cream-of-Mushroom Soup

So I underwent a drastic rearranging of the old existential furniture, recently. As a result I've been very busy for a couple of weeks, moving the boys and me into a new, mostly empty, house, trying to settle us in and outfit us and keep everyone feeling cherished and safe. It's the discombobulation of a sudden new life in an unfamiliar space coupled with the keenly felt lack of small yet essential items like a pencil sharpener for Jack's homework, pot holders, dental floss, waste baskets...(when we first moved in, every time I needed to throw something away I had to journey from all over the house to the kitchen where the one and only trash can resided).

Many hands are carrying us right now -- close friends, family, even relative strangers. These people have cared for us, taken us in, given us emotional and financial support, cheered us on. We're slowly getting our feet under us here in this new life, starting to stand shakily on our own, but it's a huge and ongoing adjustment for everybody. Cole suddenly can't bear to go to the bathroom alone, asks for potty accompaniment; Jack resists bedtime like its lights out forever, not just until tomorrow morning. Me, I have developed stone cold insomnia, falling asleep easily enough but coming intractably awake at 3 am to ponder all the myriad mistakes I have made in my frivolous and wasted life.

One way I'm trying to take care of us, ease us all into the shallow end of this brand new pool, is by cooking. A lot. Part therapy, for me -- there have been remedial wee-hours blueberry scone baking incidents, for example -- and part just striving for normalcy. If in our old life we ate a lot of pancakes and paht thai, then eating those same meals in our new home, smelling the same smells emanating from a new kitchen, tasting the same flavors even though served on unaccustomed plates, will help make render the unfamiliar, familiar. Or anyway that is my passionate hope.

Given the huge amount of organization, setting up and shopping (oh god, the shopping -- I think the employees of our nearest Target store think I'm stalking them, given the frequency of my visits) required to get us settled, we've been either eating out more than usual or making use of convenience foods. Either of these are in some ways more stressful than just sucking it up and figuring out some way to stay home and make dinner for two boys who hate eggs and cheese, respectively, when eggs and cheese happen to be the only ingredients we actually have on hand. We live pretty far out in the country so driving to a restaurant, eating, and driving home is a solid 2 hour proposition. Tragically, our lovely rural setting also means pizza delivery is just so not happening at our house.

So, it's time - we live here now, and we've got to start eating here the right way, with SOLE-food integrity even if sometimes we do need to take turns with who gets to use the fork. My mom and I dropped the guys at school yesterday and headed to Wegman's to do a big time stock-up shopping trip. One of the recipes I was shopping for was chicken pot pie, a favorite of Cole's and a way to use up the remnants of the Sunnyside Farm chicken I'd roasted for our dinner the night before. It was a massive undertaking, this Wegman's trip, requiring multiple hours and carts. Although we even took a snack break at one point by the end we were both totally exhausted, overwhelmed and just plain used up. We were in the very last aisle and steaming hard for the checkout lanes when my mom reminded me that I need to grab ingredients for the chicken pot pie.

Now this pot pie recipe is a family treasure in its way, and my mom is unaware that for the past few years I've monkeyed around with its highly ritualized ingredients. When I am at the top of my game the vegetables in my pot pie, for example, come from either my garden or the CSA we belong to and not from a plastic bag of mixed frozen corn/carrots/peas as is called for in the ingredients list. Since I am currently locked out of my previous home, where all the food I've worked hard to grow, gather and preserve is stored, I recognize I'm not going to be able to hit this particular pot pie out of the park. I take comfort knowing that at least the chicken is righteous, as are the lovely Yukon gold potatoes picked up from the CSA last week, and so I don't feel too bad throwing a bag of frozen veggies into the cart. Scrolling the various ingredients for the biscuit crust through my memory, I see they'll too be anonymous but acceptable, some Bob's Red Mill organic flour that I can leaven with raw Amish butter. Okay. I can do this thing.

Until one last requirement stops me in my tracks: the Gienow classic version of this recipe calls for a can of cream-of-pretty-much-anything soup to bind the filling. It's not an optional thing, unfortunately. It's also getting late in the afternoon, I'm completely drained, and under pressure to get through the checkout line and over to school to pick up the boys in the next holy shit 34 minutes, school being a solid 25 minutes away. I'm standing there looking at the racks of Campbell's soup cans -- it would be so easy to just grab one and go, dinner deliverance right at hand. At this moment the idea of going home after all this shopping, rowdy hungry boys in tow, and whipping up a little bechamel sauce to put in the pot pie seems as within my abilities as turning loaves into fishes. But: Water, Mushrooms, Soybean Oil, Modified Food Starch, Wheat Flour, Contains Less than 2% of: Salt, Cream (Milk), Dried Whey (Milk), Monosodium Glutamate, Soy Protein Concentrate, Yeast Extract, Spice Extract, Dehydrated Garlic.

I. Just. Can't.

How can you have cream of anything that does not contain actual cream? (C'mon, less than 2% cream content is essentially a cream-free product). I guess it's the same way you can have coffee "creamer" that contains no actual dairy products -- some kind of industrial magic is worked on the soybean oil to create a convincingly cream-like product. I could just lighten the hell up: although cream of mushroom soup is like some sort of culinary punch line there's nothing in there that's actively harmful. Our food culture embraces convenience as though it were holy writ, despite the cost to our souls, waistlines and arteries. Plus, if anyone has earned a temporary pass to take a few culinary short cuts it is certainly me, now, in the middle of my own personal midlife maelstrom. The temptation to just ease on down the path of least resistance is powerful -- at this moment I am just so incredibly tired and, believe me, I really really really want to. But. I just hate food that lies to me. I place the can gently back on the shelf. I hear my mother sigh.

So we did get to Montessori pickup on time, just barely, and the boys were of course starving, all but gnawing their own arms while clamoring for dinner. And, yes, dinner's timely arrival on the table was delayed somewhat by the need for me to stand at the stove making a roux of equal parts flour and butter, browning that til the raw flour smell faded, and then whisking in chicken stock until the sauce was nice and loose before slowly stirring in cream off the top of a gallon of raw milk to get everything to the proper velvety consistency. I toted up the cost of scratch-made sauce ingredients in my head; it adds up to around the same 79 cents that can of soup would have cost. And really the pot pie still would have tasted pretty darn good, had I just gone that path of condensed soup least resistance -- no one would have known the difference.

No one, that is, except me. And the integrity of doing the right thing, even when it is the hard thing, is why I am here, cooking my heart out in this unfamiliar kitchen.


Oven to 375.

1 chicken's worth meat, chopped
1 can condensed cream of chicken soup
1 can chicken stock
1 bag frozen mixed vegetables
1 pint potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled, cubed

Boil potatoes in salted water, 8 min. Add frozen veggies, return to boil, boil 2 more minutes. Drain. Mix vegetables and chicken in 9x13 pan. Pour condensed soup into veg cooking pot; whisk stock into soup by the 1/4 cup until the soup is a thick but pourable consistency, then pour over vegetables and chicken.

1.5 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1.5 cups milk
6 tablespoons melted butter

Mix dry ingredients, then quickly stir in wet ingredients. Pour over filling. Bake 30-40 minutes until topping is set and dark golden brown, and filling is bubbling around edges.


Oven to 375.

White Sauce:
3 tablespoons white flour
3 tablespoons butter
~ 1 cup good chicken or vegetable stock
~ 1/2 cup cream, half and half or whole milk

Melt butter in skillet over medium, then sprinkle flour over and stir together with wooden spoon. Keep stirring until the roux thickens and starts to turn deep gold. Slowly pour in stock, in 1/4 cup increments, and whisking between each addition, until roux loosens but still stands up. Whisk cream/milk in by the tablespoon until the sauce has thinned somewhat but still thickly coats the whisk or spoon.


2 cups cooked chicken meat, chopped or pulled into small pieces (from a pasture-raised chicken!)
4 cups total vegetables of your choice, prepped to be approximately the same size (for even cooking): i like diced carrots, green beans cut to about 1 inch lengths, lima beans, and peas. Baby pearl onions are really, really nice if you have them.
2 cups potatoes, scrubbed but skin on, cubed
2 cloves garlic
fresh rosemary

Boil potatoes in stock or salted water 8 minutes. Toss in veggies according to required cooking time -- limas take the longest time, peas the least -- returning to boil between additions, and cooking til just barely tender. Drain.

Place vegetables in 9x13 pan with chicken. Sprinkle with about 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary and a couple cloves of garlic pushed through a press; go over with several good grinds of black pepper too. Stir in sauce until all is well incorporated. Taste for seasoning, add salt if necessary.

Pot Pie Crust:

1.5 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1.5 cups whole milk
3 tablespoons melted butter
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Mix dry ingredients, then quickly stir in wet ingredients. Pour over filling. Bake 30-40 minutes until topping is set and dark golden brown, and filling is bubbling around edges.

1 comment:

benjamin said...

Couldn't you just of bought the heavy whipping cream, rather than boiling the milk?