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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Do you cook with canned soups?

Two or three  years ago, I wrote a memoir/cookbook, Cooking My Way Through Life with Kids and Books —why I wrote it is too long a story to tell here, but it was fun to do and I was pleased with the results. A local university press that publishes cookbooks reviewed the manuscript and, after many months, sent a detailed six-page critique from a reader. The critique was like a roadmap for a revision, and I was grateful, but at one point it called my recipes “nice faux gourmet recipes.” Referring to my recipe for that standard, King Ranch Chicken, the anonymous critic claimed she never used canned soups but always made her own white sauce. The comment made me think of all the things you can do with canned soups without feeling guilty.

Canned soup recipes have probably been around as long as canned soups, and probably controversial just as long. The critic’s comment sounded like snobbery to me, but a lot of people simply prefer not to use canned ingredients. One person on a web forum about canned soups said she objected to tomato soup recipes, because they left an aftertaste. I don’t particularly like beef-based soups, like vegetable beef, and I hate the smell when someone is heating one in the office microwave. What did I really mean by canned soups? Creamed soups, such as chicken, mushroom, and celery. But then there’s that good bacon/spinach dip recipe that calls for cheddar cheese soup (not always easy to find).

Some people object that canned soups are high in sodium and fat. Yes, but you can buy low sodium and low fat. Others simply prefer not to use canned soups and make white sauce, as the lofty critic did, or use one of the recipes for substitutes on the web.

Canned Soup Substitute

2 c. nonfat powdered milk
¾ c. cornstarch
¼ c. or less inst. vegetable bouillon
2 Tbsp dried onion flakes
1 tsp. basil
1 tsp. thyme
½ tsp. pepper

Trouble with that is, you’ve used four prepared ingredients, gone to a lot of trouble, and probably (I don’t know this for sure) produced a pretty tasteless or artificial-tasting product. There is of course a difference between canned and prepared soups, like instant vegetable bouillon or dried onion soup mix, from which almost everyone makes that sour cream dip that disappears as soon as you put it out..
Once I gave a “retro” dinner party, and we all brought dishes from the ‘50s. One guest brought that dip, and one of the men looked at his wife and said, “Can you get this recipe?” She smiled and said, “I think I can figure it out.”

Neither Jacques Pepin nor Julia Child ever cooked with prepared or canned soups, but Rachel Ray does. I’m for canned soup in moderation but not to the extent I need to buy 101 Things to Do with Canned Soup or The Biggest Book of Canned Soup Recipes.

Almost everyone knows how to make King Ranch Chicken with soup, but here are a couple of less common recipes that I’m fond of.

 Colin’s Queso

1 lb. hamburger
1 lb. sausage (your choice if it’s mild, medium or hot)
1 16 oz. jar Pace picante sauce (again, mild, medium or hot—you choose)
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 lb. Velveeta Original (I use Light if Colin isn’t looking)

Brown meat in skillet, breaking up the chunks. Put meat in a crock pot, add remaining ingredients, and heat until cheese melts and ingredients are blended. Serve hot with corn chips. I used to put chips in the bottom of soup bowls, top them with this queso, and serve it to my kids as a one-dish meal.

 Spinach-bacon spread

8 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
2 10-oz. pkgs. chopped spinach, thawed and well drained—squeeze it by hand for best results
32 oz. Monterey Jack cheese with jalapeños, shredded
1 11-oz. can cheddar cheese soup, undiluted
1 8-oz. pkg. cream cheese
1 tsp. Greek seasoning
½ tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. Tabasco, or less if you prefer; this is pretty spicy

Combine everything but bacon and paprika. Heat until cheese melts. Stir in crumbled bacon, sprinkle with paorprika. Serve hot with crackers.

 Don’t know how to make King Ranch chicken? Write me at It’s a Texas classic.

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