What’s for dinner: Wild Rice and Mushroom Soup

CooksIllustratedWildRiceandMushroomSoupScreenshot of Wild Rice and Mushroom Soup, from the Cook’s Illustrated video,
which you can watch free on their website for the next three months or so.

I just had the sort of meal that makes me think that I should go into business where people pay me to make them dinner.

It’s been soup weather lately. Chilly (for our part of the country, anyway), overcast, even some rain. So I spent the first afternoon of 2013 making soups, one inspired by an offhand remark made at dinner Christmas Eve — more on that in a later post — and the other from the latest issue of Cooks Illustrated.

WildRiceandMushroomSoup Prepping most of the ingredients for Wild Rice and Mushroom Soup. Clockwise from upper left: cooked wild rice; onions; garlic; cremini mushrooms; chicken broth; butter; tomato paste; ground dried shiitake mushrooms; soy sauce.

A few things I love about Cooks Illustrated:

  • The cooks try endless variations of each dish to ensure they have the best one. (The cover of the Jan/Feb 2013 issue includes the coverline “Truly Foolproof Soft-Cooked Eggs: We Made More than 1,000.”)
  • The writers include cool scientific facts. The recipe for Wild Rice and Mushroom Soup includes a section about the Maillard reaction, which is when heat changes a food’s proteins and sugars, adding rich flavors. It’s why caramelized onions have sweetness that raw ones don’t (as the Food Science video below explains). In the case of this recipe, a little baking soda added to the rice’s cooking water not only helps the rice cook faster (it breaks down the pectin coating that hardens when rice is dried) but also lowers the temperature at which the Maillard reaction is able to occur — meaning extra, earthy flavor (as well as quicker cooking time).
  • The magazine also tests out kitchen gadgets and devices, Consumer Reports-style, and reports on what works and what’s not worth the cash. I might end up springing for a pressure cooker, based on their tests. (Their “Best Buy” goes for $170 less than the top pick, but is still categorized as “highly recommended.”)

The Jan/Feb issue also includes a recipe for Wild Rice and Mushroom Soup that involves a few ingredients or steps that were total surprises to me. Cremini mushrooms, sure — but also dried shiitake mushrooms, finely ground? The aforementioned baking soda? A 375-degree oven, in addition to the stovetop?

MushroomsOnionsHowever, as this New York Times profile of editor Christopher Kimball says, “Every 32-page issue of the magazine presents a handful of recipes that have been made ‘bulletproof’ … worried into technical infallibility after weeks of testing so exacting as to bring an average home cook to the brink of neurasthenia.” So I followed the instructions with only two substitutions (no bay leaf, and regular red wine instead of sherry), although it meant opening a can of tomato paste and adding only 1 teaspoon of it to the pot. (I froze the rest.) So I boiled and baked, sauteed and simmered, and even stirred in ¼ teaspoon of lemon zest at the very end.

WildRiceandMushroomSoupWithCreamandChivesAnd when I really could taste the brightness and difference that the lemon zest made in the final product (photo at right) — which was delicious — I sighed a little in contentment about how well things had turned out. There’s something utterly satisfying about seeing (or tasting) something come through to fruition, which is likely why Cooks Illustrated has such a following.

I don’t like that print subscribers must pay extra to access the recipes online. (For the next three months or so a video version of this recipe is free to watch, but it doesn’t include the quantities of most ingredients.) I’d love to be able to pull up the recipes on my iPad rather than refer to a hard-copy issue. I haven’t decided that it’s worth an extra $20 a year to do so, though — and then another $25 a year for full access to the Cooks Illustrated general archive, too. So for now, my print editions will have to do.

Cost of ingredients: $20.50. I had some things on hand — heavy cream (only ½ cup is needed), cornstarch, butter — after the holidays, but pretty much everything else needed to be purchased. The mushrooms, shiitake and cremini, comprised $9 of the bill, plus I got fresh everything else, just in case — onion and garlic, thyme and chives, the wild rice, chicken broth and tomato paste, even the lemon. Someone with a better-stocked pantry and refrigerator than mine could probably make the same dish for around $12.

WHAT SAM WORE: 01-01-13
shirt010113 pants010113 shoes010113
The shirt: Cotton pullover, from the J. Crew outlet store in Anthem.
The pants: Slim-cut cotton workout pants, from Uniqlo in New York.
The shoes: Faas 300 sneakers by Puma, a 2011 holiday present.
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