Feeding—and comforting—the masses
SOUTHERNISM OF THE WEEK
(Looks Like) Something the Cat Dragged in: That person’s seen better days or better moments in the same day. Guaranteed to look bedraggled or savaged. (Think Cool Hand Luke after the hard-boiled egg wager or Bruce Willis at the end of one of his Die Hard movies, or Mark Sanford when facing his then-wife after declaring to the world he’d met his soul-mate—who was NOT at that time his wife.) Rooted in our English idioms, this is a particularly delightful expression for us Southerners. After all, why merely state the obvious when we can explore the English language by describing a person or situation?
CANNED SOUP AND CROWD FOOD
Feeding the masses involves more than handing out loaves and fishes, unless you happen to be the Chosen One. The process requires serious advance planning and identification of personal financial limits. For folks just starting out as adults, and for many senior citizens faced with feeding an extended family over a holiday, the food budget can be quite restricted. Shortcuts for reducing costs and for expanding quantities should become part of a cook’s go-to arsenal.
Here are some rules to follow when cooking for that church potluck dinner, family reunion, or weekend crèche of hungry little yellow-mouth birds (teens and collegians).
“Casserole” and “pie” dishes that contain chicken, ground beef, ground turkey, eggs, or beans will stretch the farthest.
Pair the casserole foods with rice, potatoes or noodles, and you’ll extend the food stretch even farther!
A little can of soup added to your casserole once in a while may not win a James Beard culinary award, but it won’t hurt anybody. Consider, though, concocting your own cream-of-soups from scratch as needed. Comparative cost effectiveness: Canned soup may be cheaper per serving, but it contains additives, and the soup manufacturers keep reducing the volume contained in the cans (yes, we HAVE noticed).
Here’s another thing about crowd food. It tastes great, but often looks like something the cat dragged in. The cook must make an effort to pretty it up. Remember, my darlings, presentation is EVERYTHING. Decorate the table with colorful plates, serving dishes, and tableware. Or create unusual centerpieces, such as a full-boll stalk of cotton stuck in a silver wine cooler and decorated with glittery stars and fairy lights. Even a paper bag can be made to look fancy if the kitchen twine is tied into a pretty bow, and the paper bag contains a baked pompano topped with crab legs and a sprig of dill. The only thing stopping you will be your own imagination.
POOR MAN’S BEEF STROGANOFF
This is one of those dishes that tend to look icky unless prettied-up in a nice serving dish with a sprig of parsley. But it’s a perennial favorite with the young folks, who will consume every bite and make it one of their own favorites to cook for roommates.
1-1/2 lb ground beef, or combination beef and turkey
1/4 c butter
2 white onions, sliced
16-oz can of mushrooms, drained, but mushroom liquid reserved
2 T all-purpose flour
2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp paprika
1 can cream of chicken soup
1/2 c sour cream or crème frâiche
Chopped fresh parsley for garnish
Preheat frying pan. Melt butter in pan and add ground meat. Sauté meat until lightly browned. Add onion slices; brown slightly. Cover and set pan aside. Puree the mushroom liquid, half the mushrooms, soup and sour cream in a blender or with immersion blender. Pour over the meat and onions in pan. Add remaining mushrooms, flour and spices. Simmer on medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring gently. Serve over rice or the traditional broad noodles.
EASY COMPANY CHICKEN PIE
There are numerous versions of this easy chicken pie. Some variations call for Bisquick, and some call for crescent-roll dough. I prefer the old-fashioned version with self-rising flour.
1 carrot, chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
1 tsp black pepper
1-1/2 tsp table salt
1 tsp ground thyme
1 T garlic powder
1 can (10-1/2 oz) of condensed cream of chicken soup
2 c chicken broth
1 stick (1/2 c) melted butter
1/2 tsp black ground pepper
1 tsp table salt
1 c self-rising flour
1 c buttermilk (I used whole Bulgarian)
Cover chicken breasts with water in stockpot and add the carrot, celery, first pepper, salt, thyme and garlic powder. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 40 minutes. Turn off heat, cover pot, and cool. Remove chicken and shred it on a cutting board. Strain the broth. Reserve 2 cups of broth and freeze the rest for future use.
Preheat oven to 400˚F. In a saucepan, combine canned soup and two cups of the cooled chicken broth. Bring to a boil and turn off heat. Microwave the butter in a safe cup for 30 seconds, or until just melted. Combine flour, second pepper and salt, and melted butter to make a batter.
Spread shredded chicken evenly across a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Pour soup mixture evenly over the chicken (it will be wet). Spread batter evenly over the soup and chicken, using a soft spatula. Bake for 35 minutes, until casserole is bubbly and liquid has condensed. Serve with steamed rice or mashed potatoes and a salad. YIELD: 6 to 8 servings. (Double the ingredients and bake in a 10-by-15-inch baking dish to serve 10-14 people.)
VARIATION: Cook up fresh, diced carrots and fresh or frozen green peas; toss with the shredded chicken before layering in the pan.
CREAM OF MUSHROOM OR CELERY SOUP
One national misperception about Southern crowd food being unhealthy emanates from two words: Canned Soup… or more specifically from “condensed, cream of (fill in the blank) soup.” Yet creamed soup is so easy to make QUICKLY that The Old Bride encourages all cooks to learn how to whip up their own.
1 large white or sweet onion
8-oz pkg fresh white mushrooms, chopped (or 2 c fine-chopped celery)
1 stick butter
4 T all-purpose flour
2-3 c chicken broth
1 c fiesta-blend shredded cheese
1 c heavy cream
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Salt to taste, if needed
Sauté onions and mushrooms or celery until onions are transparent, whisk in the flour to absorb the butter and almost start a roux or béchamel sauce; keep stirring for a few minutes until liquid has been absorbed and bits of flour begin sticking to the pan. Whisk in heated chicken broth, stirring as it thickens, and removing fond (flour bits) from bottom of the pan. Simmer, stirring, for about three minutes. Stir in cheese until it melts. Add cream; stir until thickened and hot but not boiling. Serve immediately. NOTE: If using canned broth, add dashes of thyme and garlic powder. If the finished soup lacks depth, add a splash of sherry or cognac. VARIATION: For cream-of-chicken soup, substitute chunks of chicken in place of the veggies.