Eating paste has a special allure, when you’re a kid. First off, there’s the smell, which is chemical and funky. Then there’s the texture, the main pleasure behind eating paste, a texture like white peanut butter, but thicker, barely spreadable with the little wooden stick you dab into the jar. I’m not sure that I ate a lot of paste as a kid (though I was definitely a kid of whom people probably said, “He eats a lot of paste”) but I do believe I’ve found the adult corollary: canned cream of mushroom soup.
Like paste, cream of mushroom soup is a thick, beguiling concoction that people enjoy because of the texture it brings to casseroles and other hearty, all-American dishes. That texture, when cold, is rather unappealing; but when warm, it adds a component that Craig enthusiastically calls “goo.” Goo can be anything from the inside of a chicken burrito (see here) to the good stuff that accumulates at the bottom of the casserole pan after you’ve dug into it for a while. Cream of mushroom soup gives good goo.
Only, the stuff from a can is closer to paste than anything that really tastes of mushrooms. When it’s there in a dish, I think of it mainly as a thickener (or goo-provider) rather than a flavor enhancer. Which is why I was so taken with a dish out of Donald Link’s Real Cajun cookbook, a recipe for a Broccoli Cheddar Casserole with Homemade Cream of Mushroom Soup.
When you make cream of mushroom soup yourself, you quickly understand the “why?” and “how?” of its existence. Essentially, you make an incredibly potent mushroom stock by cooking mushrooms (I used shiitakes) in butter until they’re brown, then you add onions and thyme, salt and pepper, and when those are cooked you add chicken stock which you reduce until you have a super flavorful mushroom broth. You strain that, add butter, whisk that in, add flour and freshly grated nutmeg (one of my favorite ingredients ever), cook that for a bit, and finally you add cream. What you wind up with is a fresher, more immediately relatable cream of mushroom soup. Creating this, it was an “aha” moment of “oh, that’s why this makes everything taste so good.”
As for the rest of it, this casserole is unusual in that it has rice instead of noodles. Also, there’s scallions, raw onion, lots and lots of sharp cheddar cheese, blanched broccoli and, of course, your homemade cream of mushroom soup.
Into a casserole dish it goes and on top you sprinkle freshly grated Parmesan cheese….
…and Panko breadcrumbs tossed in butter. Into a hot oven and 25 minutes later it’s brown and toasty on the top and all of the ingredients inside have married together. I’ll confess, I’m not much of a casserole guy, but it was hard to refute the majesty of broccoli, onions, cheddar and rice all married together, harmoniously, with a homemade version of America’s favorite canned soup. Now, instead of being the creepy kid licking a paste-covered stick in a corner, I’m a grown-up food writer offering up a paste that everyone can love.
Recipe: Homemade Cream of Mushroom Soup
Summary: From Donald Link’s Real Cajun.
- 1/2 pound shiitake or cremini mushrooms, stemmed
- 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme, or 1/4 teaspoon dried
- 2 1/2 cups chicken broth
- 1/2 cup all purpose flour
- 1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
- 2 1/2 cups heavy cream
- Thinly slice the mushrooms and then finely chop the slices.
- Heat a medium saute pan over high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of the butter; when it starts to foam, add the mushrooms. Cook for 5 to 8 minutes, until the mushrooms begin taking on a golden brown color and all of the moisture has cooked off. Note: you want a good sear on those mushrooms; if they start to stick, that’s ok, as long as they don’t turn black.
- Add the onion, salt, pepper, and thyme and cook 5 minutes more, until the onion is soft. Add the chicken broth, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium, and reduce liquid by at least 2/3rds over medium heat–there should only be about 3/4 cup of liquid left in the pan.
- Strain that into a pot or saucepan. Add the remaining 4 tablespoons butter and gently stir (or whisk) over medium heat until melted. Whisk in the flour and the nutmeg. Stir for 2 minutes and add the cream. Cook over low heat for 7 minutes, taste for salt, pepper and nutmeg, then let cool.
Preparation time: 20 minute(s)
Cooking time: 20 minute(s)
Number of servings (yield): 4
Recipe: Broccoli, Rice, and Cheddar Casserole
Summary: Also from Donald Link’s Real Cajun.
- 2 heads broccoli
- 4 cups Homemade Cream of Mushroom Soup
- 12 ounces sharp Cheddar cheese, grated (white Colby Cheddar works well, too)
- 1/2 medium onion, very thinly sliced
- 2 cups cooked rice
- 1 bunch of scallions (white and green parts), finely chopped
- Pinch of salt and pepper
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 tablespoon butter, melted
- 1/2 cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
- Cut the broccoli into small florets and blanch them in boiling water for 1 minute, then immediately drain and shock in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. This will help keep the broccoli green.
- Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter an 8 X 10-inch baking dish.
- Gently warm the mushroom soup in a saucepan over low heat.
- Using a wooden spoon or spatula, combine the broccoli, Cheddar cheese, sliced onion, rice, scallions, salt and pepper, soup, and half the Parmesan in a large mixing bowl.
- In a small bowl, combine the melted butter and the bread crumbs. Transfer the broccoli-rice mix to the baking dish and spread evenly. Sprinkle the remaining Parmesan over the top and then sprinkle the bread crumbs over the cheese. Bake the casserole, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Raise the heat to 425 and cook 5 minutes more, to brown the top if it has not browned already. The sides of the casserole should be bubbling gently.
- Let the casserole stand for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.
Preparation time: 20 minute(s)
Cooking time: 25 minute(s)
Number of servings (yield): 6