Soup is good
Although she makes her own sauces, her cupboard stores a soup can or two.
"Here," said Linda, handing me a well-worn recipe card. "This one never fails to please a crowd." Linda, my friend/mentor/boss, knew I was struggling to find the perfect menu for an upcoming family event. Linda is a cooking compatriot and likes to commiserate about all things "cookery." As I scan the ingredient list for "Chicken Mushroom Bake," I see the usual suspects for a good chicken dish: sherry, mushrooms, butter, wild rice ... what's this? Mushroom soup? Can't be. Not Linda.Skip to next paragraph
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"You use canned mushroom soup?" I said disbelievingly. And with an uncharacteristically sheepish grin, Linda just said, "Hey! What can I say? It's good. People like it."
She, like the long list of other cooking mentors in my life, eschews using canned soup in recipes. That lesson was burned into me a long, long time ago. "It's just not real cooking," they'd all declare. "Too processed. Not authentic."
When I was first learning to cook, I, too, would cavalierly refuse to open a can of soup, thinking that if I was going to be a "good cook," I shouldn't stoop to such bourgeois methods. I would create my own delicate sauces from scratch, making the roux, slowly adding fresh chicken broth, cream, a splash of wine, and just the right mix of fresh herbs from my own little kitchen garden.
Twenty-five years later, I can make a crack sauce. Real butter, flour, sea salt, freshly ground black pepper. They're all readily available in my well-stocked kitchen. I can whip up a velouté, Béarnaise, béchamel, you-name-it sauce.
From my very first cookbook, Glamour's "Gourmet on the Run" (a very indulgent purchase on a private school teacher's salary), to my last, "Giada's Family Dinners," (an autographed copy, I might add), through the hundred or so in between, including such venerable bibles as the "Joy of Cooking" and Julia Child's "The Way to Cook," I have faithfully studied the art of good cooking. I watch the Food Network just for company. Cookbooks are my favorite bedside reading. I've subscribed, and unsubscribed, to all kinds of cooking magazines. And I've learned a lot.
And now, 25 years after that first cookbook, I have come to store several cans of cream soups in my pantry. A humble tuna casserole is still in my go-to repertoire, along with hamburger stroganoff. The ubiquitous green bean casserole at Thanksgiving? Absolutely! Pouring a can of soup over a nice hunk of a less than tender beef in the slow cooker for several hours always yields great comfort food.
You see, one of the most important lessons I've learned from my cooking self-study course, along with pairing nutmeg with spinach or tarragon with chicken, is that really good cooks do so for the pure pleasure of creating something tasty for friends and family, not to impress anyone. That doesn't mean it has to be bland, ordinary, or repetitious. It does mean knowing your audience. And it does mean shortcuts are not the disgrace I once thought they were.
Chicken Mushroom Bake
2 (3- to 4-pound) whole chickens
1 cup water
1 cup chicken broth plus 1 tablespoon vinegar
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon curry powder
1 medium onion, sliced
1/2 cup sliced celery
1 pound fresh mushrooms
1/4 cup butter
2 (6-ounce) packages Uncle Ben’s Long Grain & Wild Rice (with seasoning packets)
1 cup sour cream
1 (10-1/2-ounce) can condensed cream of mushroom soup
Place chickens in deep kettle. Add water, chicken broth and vinegar, salt, curry powder, onion, and celery. Bring to boil; cover tightly. Reduce heat and simmer 1 hour.
Remove chicken and strain broth. Refrigerate chicken and broth separately. When cool, remove chicken from bones, discarding any skin and bones, and cut chicken into bite-size pieces.
Clean mushrooms with a damp paper towel; sauté in butter until golden brown. (Reserve enough mushrooms to circle top of casserole.)
Prepare rice following package directions for firm rice. Use reserved chicken broth as part of liquid for cooking rice.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Blend sour cream and mushroom soup. Combine mixture with chicken, rice, and mushrooms in a 3-1/2-quart casserole dish. Arrange reserved mushrooms in a circle on top of casserole. Cover. Bake for 1 hour. Makes 8 to 10 servings.