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Archive for March, 2009

Mashed Potatoes

Here is how to make mashed potatoes the improvisational way:

Peel (or don’t, especially if you are using red potatoes) and hack to bits some potatoes. Put them in a pot and cover them with cold, heavily salted water. Boil them (and give them a stir occasionally so they don’t stick and burn). You can skim off some of the potato starch, as it’s released and floats on the surface, with a large spoon; this reduces the odds that the water will climb up out of the pot and require your intervention.

When the potatoes are very soft (to check, grab a piece that’s above average in size with your spoon, run it under the faucet for a few seconds to cool it off, and eat it: it should barely require the possession of teeth), dump them out into a colander in the sink to drain off the water. Dump them back in the pot and start mashing them up – you can use a potato masher if you have one, but a big fork will do in a pinch. Thin the mixture to your preferred texture by stirring in splashes of milk or cream. Add salt to taste.

Variants:

You can add Better Than Bouillon to the water in which you boil the potatoes, especially if you aren’t planning to add anything interesting to them later.

You can boil the potatoes with coarsely chopped garlic (it has to be big enough that you won’t lose it in the colander), onions, or other vegetables that will become mushy enough to mash. I don’t recommend adding herbs or spices at this stage because they’ll just go down the drain, but something like a bayleaf would work. (Remove the bayleaf before you start mashing the potatoes.)

In addition to the milk or cream you need to get the mashed potatoes soft and moist and goopy, you can add butter, oil, sour cream, soft cheese (I like Boursin, especially the Garlic and Herb kind), or, again, Better than Bouillon. Sour cream has a soft enough texture (compared to most cheeses), and tastes good enough even in large quantities (as opposed to butter or oil) that if you plan to use a lot of it, you may be able to dispense with the milk or cream. I recommend adding these items before the milk or cream in any case, because they do affect the texture.

In addition to the salt all mashed potatoes demand, you can add other herbs and spices. White pepper, tarragon, chives, garlic powder, onion powder, dill, ground celery seed, ground mustard seed, and sage are nice in mashed potatoes, although perhaps not all at the same time.

Whatever you add to your potatoes, taste them between each addition to make sure you’re on the right track.

The people who make Boursin are not paying me either. In fact, nobody involved with any kind of food is paying me, so I’m going to stop issuing disclaimers now.

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A number of weeks ago, I found a cookie dough cupcake recipe online that I wanted to try because cookie dough is the best thing in the universe, so I bought a muffin tin and made the cupcakes. (Not according the recipe, heaven forfend. I adjusted ratios slightly, and I made my own cookie dough to put in the middles and used a different frosting.) They were underwhelming, but… I still had the tin. It did not seem right to just leave my muffin tin there, to be used for only one less-than-spectacular batch of cupcakes.

So I e-mailed my mother and got a lot of recipes for muffins, and for quickbreads, which are basically the same batter as muffins but shaped differently and baked longer (so you can make the same batter and just bake it in a muffin tin instead of a loaf pan). I got a great big stack of recipes in the mail, found some more on the Internet, and set about merrily making muffins. But because I am an improvisational cook and recipes grate on me, I was also taking careful note of the distillable qualities of the muffins I made. For example, the recipes which called for butter as the sole fat content had a consistent ratio of one stick of butter to one dozen muffins. I made a chart like so (click for full image):

Muffin chart

Obviously, there’s a fair amount of variation here, but see the recipe on the far right of the full image – apple oat? I made them up. To be fair, I was timid about it: I used the banana bran muffin recipe as a template. But since I swapped out both the banana and the bran from a recipe called “Banana Bran Muffins”, I think I retain my improvisational cred. (Note: “batch of applesauce” means I dumped in the applesauce I had in the fridge from when I made some the other day. It was 3 lbs. apples worth minus what I had for a snack right after it came off the stove. I didn’t measure it, I just eyeballed it as about the right amount. My batter wound up pretty thick, so I splashed in a little milk, which is not noted on the chart.)

And the variation between the different recipes – even the ones that I took at face value – is a great example of my claim that even baking isn’t infinitely delicate. All of these recipes produce muffins. Some of them have baking powder and no baking soda; some of them have baking soda and no baking powder; some of them have both. They have different numbers of eggs per dozen muffins. Different amounts of flour. Additionally, they all come with optional extra ingredients like chopped nuts, dried fruit, or chocolate chips; these don’t affect them substantially either.

I still need to make more muffins, from recipes or closely adapted from recipes, before I will be able to make any kind of muffin I want without looking at a piece of paper. But this is a good example of how you can graduate from strict recipe-based cooking to modular cooking by learning what recipes have to teach you, and then gradually departing from them.

If you want to try making some of these muffins, just preheat your oven to 375-400 degrees, mix up all of the ingredients (butter at room temperature unless otherwise specified) in this order: fat, sugar, eggs, wet ingredients, all dry ingredients. Unless you have a Teflon-coated muffin tin like I do, you should smear the muffin cups with butter and then sprinkle them with flour so the muffins don’t stick. Fill muffin cups most of the way full of batter. Bake. After fifteen minutes or so, or when they start to smell so good that you really really wanna open the oven, poke them with a toothpick (or, if you don’t have toothpicks, an unused twist tie from the grocery store – you can swipe those things by the dozens) and see if it’s goopy in the middle. If it is, give it another couple minutes and poke one again; repeat until they are not goopy, then remove the muffins from the oven. Let them cool until you can touch the pan without burning yourself, because it’s hard to get muffins out of a tin with oven mitts on. Ease them out of the pan carefully. Nom them. Put extras in bread bags or Rubbermaid-type containers; freeze for long-term storage or just leave them on the counter to sneak at a whim.

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1. Recipes are not holy writ.

Not even baked goods – which can be fairly sensitive – have to be calibrated so precisely that you cannot change them a little. For every recipe for chowder, chili, or chimichangas that one cook swears is the only one on the planet worth using, there are a hundred more that someone else considers better. Those recipes all came into existence because someone did an experiment and considered it an improvement. There is no reason you cannot be the next person to do the same thing and get a result that is exactly what you want.

2. Food is made of ingredients.

I mean two things by this statement. One is that scratch is superior. “Cake mix” is not a true ingredient. True ingredients are things like “bran” or “olive oil” or “lentils”. In theory, prepackaged foods and mixes were originally made from ingredients, but many of the things that are listed as ingredients I would classify as “components” – minerals and additives that you don’t really want to eat. (You’re fooling yourself if you think you really want to eat carmine or any of its comrades in arms. You may be willing to eat these things, in small quantities, for the sake of convenience, but if the food in question was just as easy, tasty, and quick, and lacked these ingredients, that would be obviously preferable.)

The second thing meant by “food is made of ingredients” is that food does not become more complicated when it encounters other food. Broccoli is not complicated. Olive oil is not complicated. Salt is not complicated. Spices are not complicated. For some reason, when I combine these items, put them in the oven for twenty minutes, and serve the result to houseguests, I am treated as though I have done something complicated. But nothing happens to any of my ingredients to make them more intimidating. They’re the same things, just mixed up and heated. Part of my goal in creating this blog was to help people be less freaked out by cooking – to help people realize that food is made of ingredients, and ingredients are not scary.

3.Testing is better than timing.

Responsibly written cookbooks will usually remind you about the fact that ovens differ, altitude and humidity can affect cooking, and the art of making food is so variable anyway that the times suggested are no more than vague gestures at half-formed suspicions of patterns. Not only that, but if you want your pasta soft and mushy (like I do) then of course cooking it to the “al dente perfection” described on the package won’t leave you with an optimally pleasing dinner. If you are boiling potatoes and want to know if they’re soft enough to eat yet, fish out a chunk with a spoon, run it under cold water, and eat it. If you are cooking apples and want to know if they have been in long enough to mash easily, get a spoon, take the lid off your pot, and poke them. If you are making muffins and want to know if they are cooked through, open the oven, reach in with a toothpick, and stab one.

4. Proportion is subordinate to combination.

My mother’s recipe for pumpkin bread calls for a teaspoon of cinnamon, half a teaspoon of nutmeg, and half a teaspoon of cloves. Why? I don’t know. These amounts are small enough, in relation to the scale of the recipe, that it can’t affect how the bread comes together. It’s not a matter of baked goods being delicate. (Though it might be a matter of the batter containing eggs, so they can’t say “to taste” for fear someone will take it literally.) If I want twice as much ground cloves because they just sound really appetizing at the moment, or I’m all out of nutmeg but only find out when I’ve already made the batter, it won’t hurt anything! What matters is that those spices taste nice, with each other and with pumpkin. Tarragon is nice with potatoes; cheese is nice with basil; celery is nice with tuna salad; chocolate is nice with peanut butter. How much of each? That’s up to you! This is why spices come with shaker tops!

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I have a poorly kept secret: I am addicted to Better Than Bouillon.

organic veggie better than bouillon

Behold the drug that lurks in my refrigerator. But this variety is not alone. It has many friends. Choose your weapon. Insanely, some grocery stores don’t stock the full range of these miraculous jars of condensed flavorful goodness. If you can’t find a store that has the one you want, you can buy it online from their website.

The one thing all soups have in common is broth. There are a few ways to handle broth:

  1. Just simmer all your ingredients for a while and cross your fingers, hoping for them to extend enough flavor to their liquid. This can work if you have a lot of very flavorful ingredients, like onions, a ton of garlic, and punch-packing veggies like broccoli and carrots, and you’re generous with salt and spices… or if you just like bland soup. In general, though, it’s not ideal.
  2. Make your own stock, which is worth trying at least once (more on that later) but very inefficient for regular use. It takes at least an hour to cook, plus whatever chopping and peeling time beforehand and however long it takes to start boiling at all, and generates dishwashing tasks. It’s also a little disheartening to have to dump all the tuckered-out ingredients down the garbage disposal at the end (it’s no good to eat them; their flavor is all sucked out). And if you cook regularly at all, it’s gone long before you’ll be in the mood to make more.
  3. Buy prepared stock. This tends to taste really awful. If you find some that you like, more power to you; I’ve stopped running experiments with it after consistently making really lousy soup with this stuff.
  4. Buy some form of reduced stock, like bouillon cubes or Better than Bouillon, to reconstitute. Bouillon cubes don’t taste very good either, and it’s hard to use them if you don’t want to dissolve an entire one all at once – say if you’re just cooking one serving of soup, or want to add some flavor to a sauce. Better Than Bouillon, however, is delicious, and its paste consistency and jar packaging mean you can use a pea-sized amount or a great big heaping spoonful depending on what you’re making.

There are instructions on the jar for the recommended ratio of Better Than Bouillon to water. In true improvisational style, I advise you to mix up some according to the instructions. Once. Take note of the color, and let that be your guide in the future: for items that have a lot going for them in the flavor department already, aim for a lighter, clearer color and for dishes that will rely heavily on their broth, be a little more generous.

The Better than Bouillon website has some cooking ideas, but the short version is: Better Than Bouillon is great in everything. Apart from my heavy reliance on it in the soup department, I also put it in sauces, use it to make broth in which I cook couscous and TVP and other things that need to be boiled, and add a dab to random things like scrambled eggs that I want to jazz up. It’s great stuff.

Superior Touch is not paying me. I don’t think they know I exist. They just make a super product.

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Hi! This, as is probably obvious, is my food blog Improvisational Soup. Why “Improvisational Soup”? Well, apart from it being fun to say “Improvisational Soup”, I plan to share with you my “modular cooking” style. That’s a fancy way of saying that I don’t like to measure ingredients or put things I don’t like to eat in my meals just because a recipe says I should. I’m also not a huge fan of setting timers or keeping my food ethnically segregated. When I started learning to depart from recipes, I started with soup. Soup is still the easiest thing to cook improvisationally, and it is also my favorite category of food (if we take care to first exclude desserts from the candidates).

I don’t yet have a good idea of how frequently I will update here. It will probably vary widely. However, my first post that is actually about food should be online in a day or two.

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