I haven’t posted in a while (almost two months!) since I committed to my MEng. So here is a low-ish effort post to get me back into the swing of things. I moved back into Cambridge last week after a few months in Philadelphia. Shout out to the United States Postal Service for their role in shipping most of my stuff all the way here.
My spring room is still mostly empty. I have most of my furniture sans mattress standing by. I’m just waiting for friends to help me do some heavy lifting to prep the room for living. I have a housemate who graciously let me live in her room while she’s away for an internship, so I’ve set up shop there for January.
I’ve mostly settled in. We live near a bunch of restaurants, but I thought it would be prudent to start cooking for myself again, especially in January when I have more time. I made a big pot of bean stew and chicken a few days ago.
Bean Stew Background
I very loosely “followed” (and skipped half the steps of) the cassoulet recipe from Serious Eats. It’s a fancy name for a rustic beans and chicken dish. They include a lot of little optimizations, but I stuck to the low-hanging fruit.
The biggest step I skipped was braising the poultry. I started with searing the chicken like they recommend, but I think my heat was so low that the chicken ended up cooked by the end of searing. I decided to just dice the seared chicken and set it aside as a stew topping.
My bean of choice was the pinto bean. You can probably use other beans instead. I’m just more accustomed to pinto from my days of eating Chipotle. When I feel more adventurous, I’ll probably try other beans. I know they’re out there.
Altogether, this made about 3750g of bean stew. I used 1250g to split between 5 servings (so 250g each) and stored 2500g in the freezer for later. I topped each serving with 100g of diced chicken and some bacon (didn’t bother to measure). This is what I call a meal kit, good for one meal.
I forgot to note the raw chicken weight, but I ended up with 800g of cooked chicken. I’ll need to cook more meat to accompany the stew later on, and I’m still investigating easy but tasty ways to do that. I’ve been searing by hand, which does the job and is tasty, but it takes a lot of time and causes a lot of oil splatter. I wonder if I can get similar results from the oven. Or maybe I just continue what I’m doing and just crank up the heat.
I think the stew’s alright. It’s a little celery-forward, which I wasn’t expecting since I only used like three stalks. It’s otherwise a pretty boring neutral stew. It would probably benefit from some change, but I don’t have enough food experience yet to know what change it needs. Maybe it doesn’t have enough umami (whatever that is) or acid (e.g., lemon juice or vinegar). I’m a little hesitant to use acid early on when cooking beans because it stops them from softening, but there’s no harm in adding it when they’re done cooking. Or maybe it needs more salt or more fat. Who knows. This wasn’t meant to be for experimentation.
One of my goals for the new year is to figure out how to use acid and other food science principles in cooking. It’ll take some reading (what are some good resources?) and some dedicated experimentation. I’ll probably need to compare recipes with more or less acid added to taste what the difference is.
- Two pounds dry pinto beans, soaked the night before in salted water.
- One pound bacon
- Three large onions
- Some celery
- Some carrots
- Better than Bouillon (or similar) and gelatin
- Bunch of chicken thighs.
- Miscellaneous herbs and spices (I added black pepper and thyme) and optionally cooking oil.
There’s more than one way to do it. I first seared the chicken in some cooking oil. It was only meant to be a sear, but I ended up cooking it through, so I figured I could just leave it at that and skip the braise. It’s not the same, but we’re going for minimal effort.
While I waited for the chicken to sear, I chopped up my vegetables and sliced my bacon. You could skip the step of adding cooking oil if you cook the bacon before the chicken, since the bacon releases fat. I did the bacon second because I wanted to cut my vegetables while the chicken seared, and I didn’t want bacon residue on my cutting board touching my vegetables. But it’s really no big deal since it all gets cooked in the end.
After searing the chicken (no pictures), I cooked down the bacon and fished it out. The bacon releases a lot of fat. I probably could’ve left all the fat in the pot, but recipes suggested removing some so as not to overdo the fat. I like cooking with leftover fat, so I use the bacon fat elsewhere like making quesadillas or later searing something else.
I lazily chopped my vegetables. You could do something nicer, but these vegetables will shrivel up after a few hours of cooking anyway. Serious Eats likes recommending that you do much coarser chops and fish them out once they’ve given their essence to the stew. I didn’t bother. Since I was leaving the vegetables in, I think I should’ve given it a finer dice just so it looks nicer with the beans.
After giving the vegetables some time in the pot to meet each other, I added in half the cooked bacon and my raw beans. The beans will take a while to soften up and cook. I don’t know if adding the bacon back in does anything, but it’s kind of like pork and beans.
I didn’t use pre-made chicken stock. Instead, I used a couple spoons of Better than Bouillon and a packet of gelatin. That’s a step I didn’t skip, since it’s meant to give the stew some body. Does it work? I don’t know. But it’s no big deal to put a packet of gelatin powder in warm water. Also, it’s easier to carry a jar of bouillon than it is to carry cartons of stock. Once I added the liquid, I put the pot into the oven at 180 degrees to slowly cook. I didn’t put on the lid, but it doesn’t really matter.
After an hour in the oven, I let it have another hour and a half before putting on a lid and turning off the heat. I kept the whole pot in the oven for a few more hours with the heat off. It’s not a critical part of the process. I just knew that the beans needed more time and I had dinner planned with friends. If I’d used the oven before, I probably would’ve kept the oven on while I was away (don’t tell the fire marshal), but I wanted to be extra careful.
What’s it mean for food safety? Well, the lid had some time to warm up in the oven, and the whole thing was at 180 degrees for at least a little while. I like to think it was food-safe. The beans certainly got soft enough, and there was no overcooking of meat.
A small crust developed on top of the beans, which is sort of the point of the gelatin in the stock, but I went against the spirit of cassoulet by using a deep pot rather than a shallow dish. It’s not very much crust relative to the rest of the beans. I finish my meal kits off in the air fryer, so maybe more crust will develop later.
After some assembly, we’re done. Once I get through the initial wave of meal kits, I’ll prepare more meat and thaw some of the frozen stew. I don’t want to prep too many and have them go bad in the fridge.
Hopefully I’ll have fancier dishes to share once the semester starts rolling again. It’s hard to say how busy the next few months will be for me. But since cooking gets easier with practice, maybe I’ll be able to make fancier things with less effort. Something like a real braise.