Everyone has their favorite go-to recipe, right? It's the one that's easy, tasty and, most importantly, surefire. You can make it in your sleep and it never varies.
My favorite "no worry" recipe is one that I tore out of a food magazine somewhere near the time "Walk Like an Egyptian" was on the airwaves. I've long since lost the scrap of paper it was on and I can't even tell you what band came out with the song (the Bangles, maybe?) but I still make Spicy Bean Soup two or three times a year.
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It's as easy as chopping up a few carrots, onions and garlic and opening a few cans of beans and tomatoes. The result is a meatless chili that's hearty and gets its heat from Mexican-flavored stewed tomatoes and canned green chilis. It's a bit sweet, as well, because of the addition of frozen shoepeg corn and a little sugar.
(As a side note, shoepeg corn has small, narrow kernels and is known for its sweetness. It is more widely used in the South so is not always that easy to find. You can easily substitute regular sweet corn.)
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, the batch I made to photograph for this story turned out … well, weird. I thought it was too hot in a harsh sort of way and my editor did not like the texture of the beans. My old standby failed me completely.
Well, a favorite expression of mine in the kitchen is "mileage will vary." In other words, nothing is foolproof … not even an old standby, I guess. While inconsistencies in the kitchen very often are a result of fresh produce and my mood (both of which can vary greatly), even canned goods can differ from product to product.
One of my favorite cooking resources, Cook's Illustrated often compares different brands using taste testers trying the ingredient on its own, as well as in a recipe.
They rated black beans, for instance, and found a huge variety between the top six brands in terms of texture and taste. They recommended Bush's, Goya and Progresso. Unfortunately, I used Westbrae, which they termed "total mush" and "watery." Ah, that explains part of the problem.
They also did a taste test for diced tomatoes, also an ingredient in this recipe. They gave a thumbs-up to Hunt's, Del Monte and Muir Glenn. Unfortunately, I struck out again by my use of Contadina, which they deemed artificial and watery.
While they didn't test the Mexican-inspired stewed tomatoes or diced chilis, I have a notion I might have selected the wrong brand in those categories, as well, which would explain the odd harshness I tasted in the soup.
So what's the lesson here? Even an old standby recipe can go wrong by the use of inferior ingredients. Find the brands you know work for you and stick with them. That way, you can make your "no worry" favorite without any worries.
• M. Eileen Brown is the Daily Herald's director of strategic marketing and innovation, and an incurable soup-a-holic. She specializes in vegetarian soups and blogs at soupalooza.com.