The Washington Post

Chat Leftovers: Kicking the can

Here’s one chat leftover I’m hoping we don’t have today: the computer problems that have plagued Free Range for the past two Wednesdays. We’re told by the tech gurus that things look good this week, so come on by at noon for the usual hour of All Things Food — and for the usual book giveaways, to chatters who ask great questions or help with great answers.

Before that, of course, you must read this week’s crop of great stories. Walk the woods with forager Hank Shaw as he searches for edible dinner ingredients in Takoma Park. Learn about the heart and soul of Bangladeshi food in Tim Carman’s new column, the Immigrant’s Table. (If you’ve got ideas for cuisines you’d like to read about next, Tim would be glad to hear them.) Also today, Bonnie Benwick reviews the latest cookbook from the wonderful Jacques Pepin, who incidentally will be in town this weekend for the Metropolitan Cooking & Entertaining Show. All of those will make fine chat fodder, or bring a culinary conundrum you’d like us to address.

Tech snafus aside, it’s always an entertaining hour. At the end, the chat elves collect the leftover questions, tie them up in a bundle and leave them under a chicken of the woods mushroom, where I retrieve them for this weekly blogpost. Here’s one from a recent bundle:

I’d really like to eliminate using cream of mushroom soup from recipes. But I’ve got quite a few recipes that use it, or one of the other “cream of” varieties. Have you ever thought to come up with a recipe folks can use to replace the dreaded can from their recipes? I’m sure it will be quite popular with those of us who are trying to cook better (fewer mysterious ingredients) but still have those red-and-white cans in the cupboard because we don’t know how to create a reasonable substitution.

By the time you cooked up a replication of, say, condensed cream of mushroom soup, you could have an entire dinner on the table.

So here’s my blunt assessment, possibly what you don’t want to hear. Folks who are “trying to cook better” don’t need ersatz condensed soup. They need new recipes.

How many times have you seen a recipe in this newspaper that called for a canned “cream of” soup? How many among the thousands and thousands of Bon Appetit and Gourmet recipes on the Epicurious Web site call for it? This is not a food-snob thing. This is about using fresher, better-tasting, less-processed, lower-sodium ingredients.

Set a goal of limiting yourself to one condensed, cream-of-whatever recipe per month. Then start hunting for alternatives, which won’t be hard to find. For every chicken-and-broccoli casserole that uses cream of broccoli soup, you can find ones that don’t. Ditto for all the cream-of-mushroom creations. In my post-college days, I used to make a summer-squash casserole that involved a can of cream of celery soup and lots of cheese. Now I make it with with chicken broth and sour cream, and it tastes sooo much better.

So I say: Arise! Free yourself from the tyranny of the can! Find new recipes that call for better ingredients, and toss the old ones in the trash.

I’m exempting green bean casserole for now. After all, Thanksgiving is coming.

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