Cookbook Review: Together: Our Community Cookbook (2018)

This is a recent addition to my collection, a happenstance find while browsing a favorite online vendor. It’s a handsome glamorously packaged affair, with nearly a hundred color photographs that bring to mind a Ruth Reichl-era Gourmet magazine or a cookbook from a celebrity chef.

But Together is none of these things. As the title suggests, it is a community cookbook, little different in spirit from the modest, spiral bound church cookbooks in my collection. As with these other ‘amateur’ cookbooks, this is a collection of recipes from home cooks, varied in sophistication and effort required, and compiled for the purpose of raising funds. What distinguishes Together from these other cookbooks is the community that spawned them: a multi-ethnic group of women who came together as a community in the aftermath of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire in London. There is no common tradition or faith that binds this group beyond a need for community and sisterhood in the wake of monumental tragedy.

For those unfamiliar, Grenfell Tower was a high-rise residential tower in west London that caught fire early in the morning in June 2017. The fire killed seventy-two residents and left hundreds of others displaced, predominantly immigrants and ethnic minorities. In the wake of the disaster a Al-Manaar, a local Muslim heritage center, opened their kitchen to allow displaced people to cook for their families. The women named their community the Hubb Community Kitchen, named for hubb – the Arabic word for love.

The Hubb Community Kitchen caught the attention of the royal family, particularly American-born Meghan Markle (aka the Duchess of Sussex). The cookbook was conceived as a fundraiser to enable operation of the Kitchen and perpetuation of the community that was built. As of this writing the Hubb Community Kitchen is still operating out of the Al-Manaar canteen.

The recipes span traditions from a wide swath of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Most adhere to the dietary requirements of the Muslim world, but the underlying culinary traditions vary widely. Many of the recipes fit into a category that Americans will understand vaguely as “Mediterranean”, such as hummus or baba ghanoush or shakshuka, but also Indian, Russian, and African dishes. The recipes are organized by course rather than cuisine, so each page might present an entirely new adventure. There are also recipes that I can only describe as immigrant cuisine, where traditional flavors from one’s homeland are fused with ingredients readily available in their new country.

Chicken and Mushroom Cream Soup is one of the more enjoyable recipes in Together: Our Community Cookbook.   The original recipe was submitted to the cookbook by one Amaal abd Elrasoul, who came to London to help her sister-in-law after the Grenfell Tower fire.  She credits the recipe to a neighbor in Cairo.  In her own words:

It is very special – shredded chicken in a creamy base scented with cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger…  I guarantee you haven’t had chicken soup like this before.

Special is an understatement.  At first glance this doesn’t look much different than a creamy starter soup you might find at a diner or a pub, with generous shreds of chicken and oodles of mushrooms.  Your other senses will tell you otherwise – the fragrant warming spices belie its North African influences.   In its original incarnation the chicken simmers in spices for several hours, which must be utterly maddening to anyone else in the kitchen.   This soup smells like a spice market.

In adapting the recipe I found that Chicken and Mushroom Cream Soup is perfectly adapted for the Instant Pot.  This is certainly not traditional, and the recipe would work just as well in a large stock pot or Dutch Oven provided you have some time on your hands.   It takes several hours to slow-simmer the chicken, and while there’s very little active time you need the foresight to plan accordingly.  The Instant Pot offers flexibility if you’re pressed for time – the pressure cook option produces moist, shreddable chicken in well under an hour.   I feel like the slow cooking option improves both the depth of flavor and the texture of the chicken, but the soup is remarkable either way.

Preparation is otherwise straightforward and requires little in the way of specialized techniques.  You’ll need to know how to make a good roux – the soup base is basically a white sauce or cream gravy – and a little bit of experience sautéing mushrooms will go a very long way.  It’s important to carry the sauté through multiple stages to its logical conclusion.   First the mushrooms will soften, then they’ll sweat their liquid, and finally the liquid will evaporate allowing them to start browning.   You don’t want them crispy, but you want all the liquid to be released and then reabsorbed into the crust.  There’s nothing quite like it.

I know there are plenty of people who think that “soup isn’t dinner”, but this one is hearty enough for a weeknight meal.  Serve it with storebought pita bread and a salad, or if you’ve got time on your hands consider Airy Light Casserole Bread, substituting cumin seeds for the dill seeds.  I also found that fresh dates, which I normally find way too sweet, were a pleasant palate cleanser.  For larger groups this would also be perfectly suitable as a starter soup for a larger ‘Mediterranean’ meal.

Together: Our Community Cookbook is still in print and, as of this writing, the Hubb Community Kitchen is still operating.  You may purchase a copy from Amazon here:  https://amzn.to/3hrvkVL

 

Chicken and Mushroom Soup (Egypt)

 

Chicken and Mushroom Cream Soup (Egypt, adapted from Together: Our Community Cookbook, 2018)

  • Preparation: 25 min
  • Cooking: 2 h 30 min
  • Ready in: 2 h 55 min
  • For: 8 hearty servings

Ingredients

Instructions

  1. Turn on the Instant Pot to Saute Mode. When the pan is hot, melt 1/2 cup of butter, then add onions all at once. Saute the onions for 5-10 minutes until softened and lightly browned. Add garlic and spices and saute for another minute or two until spices are fragrant, taking care not to burn the garlic.
  2. Press Keep Warm/Cancel on the Instant Pot. Add the chicken and water to the pot. If you've got the time, place the Instant Pot in Slow Cook mode, cover, and allow to cook for 2 hours (or up to 6 hours). If you're in a hurry, cook at low pressure for 25 minutes and let the pressure release naturally.
  3. When the chicken is cooked, remove from the broth and set aside until cool enough to handle. Remove the skin and bones and coarsely shred the chicken. Strain the broth and set aside.
  4. Wipe out the Instant Pot with a paper towel. Return to saute mode and melt 1/4 cup of butter. Add the sliced mushrooms and stir fry for 10-15 minutes until mushrooms are nicely browned and any expressed liquid has evaporated. Remove the mushrooms and set aside.
  5. Add the remaining 1/4 cup of butter to the Instant Pot and return to Saute mode. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring frequently, until the roux is uniform and lightly browned. Whisk in two cups of the stock, a couple of tablespoons at a time until slightly thickened. Add the remainder of the stock and cream.
  6. When the mixture starts to bubble return to Slow Cook mode. Stir in the shredded chicken and sauteed mushrooms, cover and cook for 10-15 minutes until heated through.
  7. Garnish with a fresh pomegranate seeds, about 2 tbsp per bowl.

 

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