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Repost #4: Cracker Barrel Part 1: Leftover Style – Cracker Barrel Soup

Filed under: Cooking - Folkcat in the Kitchen — folkcat at 10:53 pm on Friday, August 5, 2005

This is the fourth of several posts that I am copying from my blog “The Life & Times of a Winged Cat“. These reposts will continue until all the cooking posts there have been moved here.

Originally published July 5, 2005:

As I mentioned over in my Pirate Treasure, Dirty Secrets and Electric Cucumbers entry at our geocaching blog, Gryphon and I had occasion to eat at the Cracker Barrel restaurant in Derry, NH on Sunday, July 3rd.

This was our first experience with a Cracker Barrel, though we’ve heard about them frequently. Their hallmark is nostalgic goodies in the retail shop (everything from Abba Zabba Taffy to old-fashioned porch rocking chairs), and good old home-style country cooking in the restaurant.

The first plus is that the entire place is non-smoking. We were seated promptly by a friendly hostess, and left to peruse the long list of goodies on the menu.

Fried, battered, dipped, and smothered described many of the dishes. It was one of those cases where everything looked good. Finally, Gryphon settled for the Sunday special of boneless fried chicken breasts with two vegetable sides, and I chose the Chicken & Dumplings platter (3 sides AND biscuits).

To start with, just like every southern cook does, their menu raved about their biscuits. Now, I expect biscuits to be light, with a delicate, even flaky, moist crumb. And they should be puffed up sky high to boot.

Cracker Barrel’s biscuits had a slightly rubbery texture to them, and an unpleasant mushiness to the tooth. I was amazed. Frankly, Kentucky Fried Chicken makes better biscuits – but then, based on what I tasted at Cracker Barrel, it wouldn’t be difficult.

The Chicken & Dumplings were described as chicken and rolled dumplings boiled in chicken stock. Well, that’s true enough. But it turns out, aside from a little gravy drizzled on top, that’s all it was. Plain, naked white-meat chicken chunks. The dumplings, rather than being big balls of dumpling, were like little doughy slabs. Thick, malformed noodles, call them. Not the light, puffy, biscuit-like billows I am used to.

I was a little dumbfounded. All my life, chicken and dumplings has meant a rich, hearty chicken stew, with carrots and peas and other vegetables fighting for space in a tasty gravy, and big round dumplings perched on top. Granted, the menu hadn’t specified anything beyond the “chicken and rolled dumplings boiled in stock”. But I wouldn’t have believed until I saw it that chicken and dumplings could ever mean anything less than the whole package.

Mind you, it was obvious that the chicken, the gravy, and even the dumplings were made of good, high-quality ingredients prepared with skill. But it was such a waste, making such good materials into something so, plain, humdrum, and boring.

For my side dishes, I chose cottage cheese, corn (2 safe favorites), and turnip greens. The greens were an experiment in expanding my culinary horizons. I have heard that it’s kind of standard in southern cooking that greens of any kind are boiled to death, and that seemed to be the case here. There was a vinegary tang to them, and some saltiness from the ham hock that I presume was the source of the little bits of ham here and there. A worthy experiment – I don’t regret getting them, but I probably won’t go out of my way for turnip greens again.

So, here I was with this huge plate of food that I was less than thrilled with, and of course, the waitress comes over to ask “How is everything?” I couldn’t fake it – I had to express my disappointment. Get this – she seemed a little surprised that I didn’t care for the biscuits, but she absolutely agreed with me that she, too, would expect more from chicken and dumplings.

She offered to get me a different dinner, but Gryphon and I were between geocaches, and I really didn’t want to take the extra time. The two of us had already started swapping pieces between our dinners – his fried chicken, by the way, was super – and there was such a huge pile of food that we weren’t in danger of starving. I ate all my cottage cheese, too.

A short while later, she brought over a take-home package with five of the cornbread muffins in it, as a make-good for our disappointment. And a few minutes after that, the manager came over to hear about the issue, offer his apologies, and express his hope that we’d come again (we will, when we’re in the neighborhood!). And when we got our check, we found that they had comped my dinner.

Meanwhile, there was still a huge pile of food in front of me. We decided to take it home – after all, there was a pretty good pile of chicken and corn there, and I could figure out something to do with the turnip greens…a soup maybe, I thought?

And I thought…by the time we got home, I had realized that every single thing that we brought home from my dinner (well, not the freebie corn muffins, but everything else) could go intoa a soup! So, the next day, I dumped the chicken, gravy, dumplings, corn, and even the turnip greens into the 4-qt. crockpot, added about 7 cups of stock made from Minor’s chicken soup base, and a handful of broccoli florets from the freezer.

I checked the soup a while later, and decided it needed something else to fill it out. Browsing through the cupboard, I found an old box of Pasta-roni Angel Hair Pasta (what I used was with a herb sauce, but it’s similar to the Primavera flavor shown here). I added the pasta into the pot, and held onto the seasoning packet in case it would be handy for spicing up the soup later.

An hour later, the noodles were plenty done, and I tasted the soup. A little on the salty side from the turnip greens, but otherwise, I decided it was complete in flavor and didn’t need any more help.

I had a bowl of this for dinner today, and it was tasty! It’s got me thinking a whole new way about eating out, I can tell you – anytime I’m less than satisfied with the recipe I’m served, it could very well become soup at home!

Cracker Barrel Chicken Noodle Soup in the Crock

Here’s a stab at an approximate recipe for what we’re calling

Cracker Barrel Chicken Noodle Soup

Ingredients:

  • Approx. 1 1/2 to 2 cups leftover Cracker Barrel chicken and dumplings (chicken, gravy and dumplings all together)
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cups leftover Cracker Barrel turnip greens
  • 3/4 to 1 cup leftover Cracker Barrel cooked corn kernels
  • 1 cup frozen broccoli florets
  • 6 – 7 cups chicken stock
  • Pasta from one box of Pasta Roni Angel Hair Pasta (or equivalent of your choice of pasta)

Place all above ingredients except pasta in a 4-qt crockpot. Turn on HIGH for 1-2 hours. Add pasta; cook on HIGH for an additional hour.

Even if you don’t try this sort of exact recipe out, I hope it encourages you to take a second look at your leftovers, and the odds and ends in your cupboards. Get creative about putting things together; use the kitchen tools you’ve got to meld together things you might not have imagined would work.

Folkcat’s Tip: When trying to create a new recipe based on ingredients in your cupboard and/or leftover from other meals, test whether things are likely to work together by holding them together under your nose and taking a good whiff. Our senses of smell and taste are closely linked; what smells good together should taste good together. Use the same idea when trying to find new ways to spice a sauce or soup; open a jar of spice and smell it with the food you want to flavor. You’ll know what works and what doesn’t.

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