Monday, January 7, 2008

Cooking When You Don't Have Time to Cook

FEATURED IN THIS POST: Chickpea and White Bean Soup, French Bread

I am fortunate to have a job that allows me ample time at home in the afternoon to cook. Before my daughter was born, dinnertime at my house was between 6 and 7, usually at the living room table in front of the television (usually watching a cooking show). Now my daughter is 1 year old, and dinnertime is at 5 at the kitchen table. I actually enjoy it very much, but it cuts an hour out of my dinner prep time. Whereas before I could come home and unwind for about an hour, now I go pretty much straight into food prep. Since I do all the meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking at my house, I like to have things as prepped as possible going into the week. I find that it's infinitely easier to come home and cook when you know days in advance what it is you'll be cooking, what you'll need to do, how long it will take, and so forth. Nothing is worse than wanting stir fry on the table at 5, and it being 4:30 and I haven't started the brown rice yet (well, maybe it's worse if it's 4:30 and I don't know what I'm making). I also find that Mondays and Tuesdays tend to wear me out bit and I like to ease back into the work week, so it is nice to have something planned that's either easy to make, or already made.

I've been making my meal plan for the coming week on Friday or Saturday night, then doing my shopping as early as possible on Saturday or Sunday morning. Then I pretty much devote the rest of the morning to doing the food prep or cooking that I can do to make things easier during the week. Mostly I'm making stocks or soups, but occasionally I'll cut up vegetables (like carrots) I know I'm going to need later.

To me, the perfect make ahead meal is soup because if you have an hour on the weekend, you can make a delicious soup. Aside from usually being easy to make, soups taste better when reheated (gently, NOT brought to a boil over high heat). Soups are also great for people on different schedules, once they are made, they can be easily reheated at will. Whip up a quick salad, or warm some bread, and you've got a great meal. This past weekend I made a pot of lentil soup (featured in the previous post) and a pot of chickpea and red bean soup, along with a batch of french bread. Going into the week, dinner was already made for Monday and Tuesday, with enough left over to freeze for yet another dinner (another soup plus, you can freeze it).

Without further ado, the bread and the soup...

My second shot at bread...I was going to make another batch of ciabatta (see post from Jan 1st), but decided to wait for some new yeast I ordered from the King Arthur website. Since I was having soup a few times this week, I settled on a recipe for that would make 3 French bread baguettes.

The pate fermentee, a pre-fermented dough allowed to sit over night in the fridge so that enzymes have time to break down starches into sugars, is mixed with flour, yeast, and salt.

Water is added and the dough is mixed to bring the ingredients together. The dough hook is then used to knead the dough until it comes up to between 77 and 81 degrees, and the dough passes the "windowpane test." After about 8 minutes in the mixer, the gluten still was a bit underdeveloped, so I kneaded a few minutes by hand until the dough was where I wanted it.

The dough is placed in a oiled bowl and allowed to rise for 2 hours until it is roughly doubled in size.

The dough is then cut into 3 pieces, shaped, and placed in its couche (mine is a tablecloth) for its final proof before baking.

The bread is then baked for about 20 minutes, until nicely browned and an internal temperature of 205 degrees is reached.

The bread looked so good when it came out of the oven that I had a hard time waiting to cut it. Apparently, until the bread cools below 160 degrees, the bread is technically still cooking and flavor is developing. It was a little dark on the bottom, not burned, but I was hoping it would lend a pleasant amount of slight char flavor (which I love) to the bread. When I did cut it, I was very happy indeed.


The soup was supposed to be chickpea and white bean soup, but I couldn't find dried white beans or cannellini beans at Stop & Shop, so I used dried red kidney beans. Here's how I made chickpea and red bean soup, with a big thanks to my hero Lidia, whose recipe I pretty much followed exactly with a few of my own touches.

This recipe uses dried beans which need to be softened and re-hydrated somewhat before cooking by soaking them in water overnight. The other option is to place them in a pot covered with water, bring them to a boil, boil for a minute, remove them from the heat and allow them to sit for an hour.

Mise en place: 2 cups dried chickpeas abd 1 cup dried cannellini (white kidney) beans soaked, 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1 cup chopped onion, 2 minced or pressed garlic cloves, 1 peeled and diced Idaho potato, 2 grated carrots, 1 cup of canned tomatoes crushed with their juice, 1 or 2 parmigiano reggiano cheese rinds (my addition - optional), 5 quarts of hot water, 2 sprigs fresh rosemary, 2 bay leaves, 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper, salt, 1 bag organic frozen whole leaf spinach (or really any green that you like, fresh or frozen)

Warm the water and heat the oil in a large pot (my pot was 6 quarts and just barely big enough).

Add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until golden, about 10 minutes. If I were to make this soup again, I would add a few tablespoons of tomato paste here to thicken the soup just a bit and add another layer of flavor (I ended up adding some near the end of cooking anyway, but it would work better here).

Add the potatoes and cook about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally, then add the carrots and cook for 2 more minutes.

Pour in the crushed tomato and juice and bring to a boil (this should only take a minute or two). At this point add the hot water, rosemary, bay leaves, crushed red pepper, cheese rinds if you have them, and salt to taste (I added about 4 teaspoons). Drain the chickpeas and beans and add them.

Bring the soup to a boil and then reduce the heat so the soup boils gently (this might mean switching to a new burner if you're using an electric). Partially cover the soup and gently boil for 2 hours. The recipe says to make sure the water doesn't get too low, but I maybe lost 1/2 inch of water over the entire cooking time. The soup was tasting a little thin to me after about an hour and a half, so I added some tomato paste at this point. I also cooked for the last 1/2 hour uncovered completely to try to evaporate some of the water and concentrate the flavors a bit. Right near the end of cooking, I dropped in the frozen spinach.

When the soup was done, I still felt it was a little lacking in flavor, but I wasn't planning on eating it until the next day, so I wasn't too worried. When I reheated it the next day, the soup was much more flavorful. The red pepper adds quite a bit of nice heat that gently builds as you get towards the bottom of your bowl. The spinach was a perfect addition. Some pre-boiled ditalini pasta would make a great addition as well if you were looking for something even more hearty. Just remember not to add the past until before you are heating the soup before serving so it doesn't suck up too much of the broth.

This recipe makes a HUGE pot of soup, easily enough for 6 to 8 big bowls full. I'm planning on freezing the rest after I eat it for the second time on Tuesday night. Since I'm headed to mom's on Wednesday for dinner (always a good option), I won't dirty the kitchen until Thursday!


OB said...

Darron this site is perfectly timed. Noelle and I have been looking for new recipes lately and are also getting more and more into soup. Kudos to the teacher learning to cook!!!

Darron said...

Nice to hear...thanks!