Wednesday, March 19, 2008

French: the Onion Soup

By the time I got to my apartment in Paris, sans checked luggage (which was in Austria if you were curious), jetlagged and suddenly very homesick for my friends, I immediately wandered out into my new neighborhood in search of something comforting. I already knew what I wanted, and it was not difficult to find.

French onion soup made correctly is dark brown and rich with the slow-cooked sugars that onions release when cooked for a long period of time. Onions have been around, cheap and easy to grow, and a staple of most world cuisines for a long period of time, so fairly early on someone decided to make soup out of them. What's also been around for a really long time? Bread. What else? Cheese. Also, ovens. Finito. Observations about this dish:

-It is the only dish I know of that tells you not to worry about burning the onions in the pot, just leave them alone.

-It was Julia Child’s last meal

-People are typically very impressed when one makes it from scratch, especially when you have all that time to entertain them since you don’t have to worry about the onions.

So make it from scratch, like all weensy little bistros in France take such pride in doing, though probably not with weary Frenglish-spouting students abroad in mind. You know what the French think? It wasn’t some Roman peasant who composed the first draft of this universally pleasing classic, driven by tyranny, poverty and hunger. It was big fat old Louis XV who found nothing in the food stores of his hunting lodge but onions, butter, and champagne (could you be any more French?) and threw them together thinking that three beautiful things could never make one beautiful soup. Well, the French, if you didn’t make the best damn onion soup in the world, I’d boycott it. But because it's so good, I've decided to make it in honor of the several thousandth or so birthday of this dish.

5 onions. Take your pick- sweet onions like Vidalias are nice, but mix it up.
4 tablespoons of butter
1 large box each of chicken and beef stock
1/2 bottle of white wine
large bunch of flat-leaf parsley
a bouquet garni
loaf of good quality white bread (like for bread and burrata salad)
giant mountain of shredded gruyere, swiss, or any other kind of good melting cheese

Peel, top 'n tail, halve, and thinly slice your onions. Don't let those little devils intimidate you, their invisible but potent sulfenic acid cloud can be avoided by slicing them under running water, or sticking them in the freezer for 15 or 20 minutes beforehand. Personally, I cry. It's a good hurt.

Heat up the butter in a large saucepan until it begins to foam, then add what will appear at first to be a considerable amount of onions, along with a teaspoon of salt.

Without stirring, let the onions cook on medium heat for 15 to 20 minutes, or until they're golden brown, then stir so that the onions on the top are now on the bottom and repeat. Cook on very low heat for another hour, making sure none of them are burning.

"Sad but true" fact: if you don't cook the onions for the soup all the way through, the fumes from the uncooked portion may exit through your pores for a solid couple of days. They're ready when they're totally limp and falling apart, no crunch to them whatsoever.

Add on top of the cooked onions your very own bouquet garni, which I'm going to translate as "bunch of herbs tied together and tossed in the pot of French food you're clearly making." If you find yourself completely out of kitchen twine (white string), use the herb itself. This makes it easier to fish out at the end. I tied together a bunch of fresh rosemary with parsley and it held together quite nicely.

Add the wine, 2/3 of the box of beef stock and 1/3 of the box of chicken. This ratio mellows out the frequently overpowering flavor of many canned and boxed beef broths.

The soup will look like this. Notice the sheen. That's how you know the onion fairy's been there.

Bring it up to a medium simmer and cook for another half hour or so. Preheat the oven to 375.

Cut the loaf of bread into 1/2-inch to 1-inch slices. Arrange artistically.

The size of the bowl and the shape of the bread will determine how many croutons go in, so try to estimate before you toast them (they'll shrink a little). They should fit snugly to the edges.

When that's done, grate a mountain of cheese. Since I was celebrating a French thing's birthday, I used real gruyere. It made a difference. I've also had it with swiss, raclette, fontina, and even mozzarella, but gruyere has a sharp taste that contrasts well with the smooth, sweet flavor of the onion broth and crisps up beautifully under a broiler. If you have some left over, make a French omelette for breakfast with a little green salad and glass of beer. Why the alcohol with breakfast? Because of the gruyere. Okay, we're clear on that.

Locate and remove the bouquet garni and any loose herbs. Ladle soup into a crockpot to the 2/3 full mark, then add your pre-sized croutons.

They should be submerged in the broth, but make sure you leave the tops dry.

Layer the cheese thickly on top of the crouton and bake for 10-15 minutes, or until cheese is completely melted.

Remove crock pots carefully and crank up the oven to broil. It'll take five to ten minutes. Return to oven and broil until cheese turns golden brown, about 3 minutes. The bake and broil technique results in a chewier top. If you're going for crunchy, omit the baking part and just broil the cheese.

Puncture with a spoon and eat from the inside out.

Receive much praise.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Steak Tartare

I would gladly die of E. Coli, as long as the raw beef it was chilling in was supreme. I love things served raw. Clearly. I mean uni shooters, come on. I love carpaccio, I love sashimi and oysters on the half shell, but my deep emotional bond with steak tartare has driven this whole thing I do like few other dishes. Savory beef mousse with lil bits of delightfulness. You barely have to chew it; just let it melt in your mouth. It’s like rib-eye’s gay cousin. And maybe, just maybe, if you’ve prayed to the steak tartare gods recently, it’ll arrive with a raw quail egg on top.

Steak tartare originates, barbaric as it seems, as meat tenderizing under the saddle of a soldier’s horse for long journeys. Not the most hygienic start to a dish that already turns some off for being… well, straight up raw meat, but it gets better. For many years, those favorite people of mine for some reason, the French, used horse meat in their variation. P.S. if you see a sign with a horse dangling from any restaurant in a foreign country, you must specify that you would like cow, as horse is going to be the default in any of these establishments. I don’t want to talk about it.

A lot of countries boast a chopped raw meat dish on their national menus, especially Eastern and Western Europe. I remember as a little kid watching my mom make meatloaf, meatballs, stuffed cabbage filling, hooking out a gob of raw meat out of the bowl and, my goodness, consuming it with obvious enjoyment. “You wanna try?” she’d coax, always the new-flavor pusher. “Ew mom, you’re going to get sick,” I’d reply.

A couple of trips to Europe in my early and mid-teens and my raw beef phobia morphed into an obsession with what I could ingest raw and not die. Or maybe die. An ominously (delicious) rare lamb kebab at a snack stand in Marrakech’s famed medina transmitted quite the amoeba clan once. After two days in the hospital, I inhaled a large portion of steak tartare during our Paris layover despite strict instructions from the doctor to stay on clear liquids and bland foods for a week. I claimed I couldn’t understand his accent and thought he said, “you’re good to go– the worse the idea seems, the better you’ll feel.” I might have had frog’s legs that night too. And crème brulee. And… wine. Lots. Needless to say, I showed up back in the States in a right bad state and my pediatrician of all people asked me what exactly I was trying to do to myself. By the way, it’s very embarrassing to go to your pediatrician at fifteen and deal with a little kid asking you, big girl, where does it hurt? My stomach, kid. My stomach. So use good quality beef that isn’t rare lamb from a grill in the dust in Morocco is the moral of this.

If you can chop an onion, you can probably make steak tartare. If you’ve ever added a little bit of ketchup or Worcestershire sauce to anything, tartare is right around the corner. Heck, if you’re famous for screwing up steak, get famous for not cooking it in the least.

Thanks to St. Bourdain of Food for this recipe, which serves 6

1 1/4 lb. of the freshest, most beautiful sirloin in the world
2 egg yolks
4 anchovy filets
2 Tsp ketchup
2 Tsp dijon mustard
1 Tsp Worcestershire sauce
4 Tbs soybean or corn oil
A few good shakes of Tabasco
1 small onion, chopped
2 oz. each of drained capers and cornichons
giant handful of finely chopped parsley
Toast points (fancy for toast cut into four triangles)
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

Put a plate in the freezer. You'll need it eventually.

First, take care of that lovely piece of beef. Trim off any large visible regions of fat and toss em out.

Slice all the beef into 1/2 to 1/4-inch slices, then gather them up in a pile and slice them the other way. You'll end up with fine cubes of meat that look like this.

Keep that bowl in the fridge while you make the other part, which looks even more attractive.

Finely chop four anchovy filets. I know, they're greasy and they smell, but thank the Caesar salad gods that someone figured out how to use them, because I guarantee if you've ever eaten at an Italian, Greek, Thai, Vietnamese, French, Korean, or Spanish restaurant or eaten anything with Worcestershire sauce (including this recipe) you have consumed anchovies and probably loved em. So chop.

Separate the whites and yolks of your eggs like so, using the shell to catch the yolk and drain out the white. Save the whites for breakfast, they'll keep nicely in a bowl for a few days, or freeze them in ice cube trays and they'll last 3 months or so.

Whisk the yolks with the mustard and anchovies in a large bowl.

Add the ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco (if less is good, more is better), and freshly ground pepper. Whisk some more. Add the oil. Whisk once again.

Drain the capers, and really examine the little buggers before you send them off. They're beautiful, all speckly and pickled and they open up when you squeeze them a little. Okay, enough playing with the capers, toss em in. Speaking of playing with capers, throw a small handful into almost any pasta dish in the last steps for a milder anchovy effect.

Chop your cornichons into small pieces and stir into the dressing with the onions and parsley.

It'll look like this, not great.

Now, add either the bowl of meat to the dressing or the bowl of dressing to the meat, and DIVE IN WITH BOTH HANDS FOR A CHANGE! Squish.

I could not for the life of me find a ring mold, a circle of metal or plastic similar to a cookie or biscuit cutter. I even looked for cookie and biscuit cutters and couldn't find one either. Granted, I kind of live in the ghetto where people don't need no ring molds, bitches, but I then realized the sawed-off top of a cup would probably work nicely. Trim it so that it's even all the way around, and definitely make sure there are no little plastic or styrofoam thingies hanging off. Better yet, find yourself some sort of ring mold.

This next part is pleasantly similar to making a sandcastle of raw meat. Actually, it is making a sandcastle of raw meat. Place the ring mold on the now chilled plate and load with the steak mixture.

Pack it in tight, but don't compress too hard. Slowly remove the ring, gently twisting from side to side to loosen it, then garnish with a sprig or two of parsley (and a quail egg cracked on top if you're so inclined. I am, but certain people are tired of me using raw eggs like they're not raw eggs and then making everybody eat them. Next time, though.)

Serve immediately with the toast points, or on crackers.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Baked: Eggs

To give you an idea of how desperately attached we are to eggs, here is a brief list of foods that would really suck without them.

Birthday cake, quiche, custard (we’re talking flan, crème brulee, frozen, in tart form, no custard whatsoever), French toast, pasta carbonara, meatballs, pudding, mousse, caesar salad, soufflés, 90% of cookies, pancakes, things one would dunk in egg and roll in whatever, you get the point. There is no wonderful food without eggs. Someday I’ll start a blog where I just wax poetic about the self-imposed dietary restrictions of vegans and how..just… god, I hate vegans.

But I love eggs. And I love goat cheese. And even vegans love crunchy bacon, they’re just on some internalized angst trip that they’re taking out on food for some reason and will hopefully get over in a couple of years.

This dish, e-z as the rest of them, is actually easier than making scrambled eggs. So very many things can go wrong when you’re making scrambled eggs. Curd too big, inside too runny, final product kind of just wrong. Or fried, they’re even worse. God forbid you don’t start with enough butter. All those little fried thingies that stay behind. I mean really stay behind. I mean soak the pan all day and still can’t get rid of ‘em stay behind. Boiled, oh, now there’s an adventure. Too fresh, you can’t peel the little devils. Too old, you get that lame ring around the yolk. Just right, still smell anyway. In this day and age, however, you can make boiled eggs slightly more interesting. And poached– I wish I could just poach an egg and be done with it. None of this vinegar debate, no stringy things making your poached eggs look like jellyfish, and no naked English muffins just hanging out on your plate waiting for their poached eggs and watching you ruin them, judging, judging.

Baked eggs, however, just need an oven. Don’t bother them. Just do this, and then pop this in the oven, and then leave them alone. They’re certainly the most anti-social of straight-up egg dishes, but it’s okay. They’re over-easygoing. I get one egg joke.

…I’m going to make some eggs now.

Goat cheese
Crunchy bacon
Thawed and squeezed frozen spinach
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

You can do this neatly with a pat of butter, or with heavily buttered fingers. Like mine. In any case, butter your ramekins. It’ll keep the egg from sticking to the side of the dish.

Take two slices of bacon for each ramekin and slice into half-inch pieces. Fry in a hot pan until crunchy. Drain the fat off on a plate with a few layers of paper towel.

Rinse the frozen spinach under cool water until thawed, about thirty seconds, then take a fistful and squeeze as hard as you can. A lot of water will come out.

It doesn’t matter if they just hang out looking like this until you need them.

Okay, you need them. Layer the bottom of the ramekin with spinach and lightly sprinkle with coarse salt.

Take the goat cheese out of the fridge. Goat cheese comes to room temperature fairly quickly and the warmer it gets, the harder it is to slice and stay round. Slice ¼ to 1/2 –inch rounds and place on top of spinach layer.

Sprinkle evenly with enough bacon so that you can’t see any spinach.

Crack an egg on top of the whole ordeal and stick in the oven.

Bake for 15-18 minutes or until white is set. Carefully remove the ramekin (ceramic gets SUPER DOUBLE BACKFLIP HOT, so definitely use an oven mitt), and add some freshly ground black pepper

Dig in. The goat cheese gets all fonduey and melts down into the spinach and up into the bacon and the yolk runs all over everything and it’s a few bites of flavor perfection that’s easier than flipping an omelet in a pan. And then cleaning omelet off the floor.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Bread and Burrata Salad

Oh my god. Burrata. Yes, it does mean “buttered” in Italian, and it has about the same amount of fat per serving. That disclaimer having been given, when you eat this soft mozzarella surrounding cream of mozzarella packed in mozzarella sauce, the part of your brain that thinks about calories will be entirely disabled.

Traditionally packed in leek leaves, burrata now usually comes in plastic wrap or containers, though often bearing a design of leaves.
If you do find burrata wrapped in leaves, make sure the leaves are green all the way through, as this indicates freshness.

Burrata is crafted in a fashion similar to regular mozzarella in the Apulia region of southern Italy. Instead of forming a solid ball of curd, the solid, stretchier part is wrapped around leftover scraps (stracciatella-“little rags”) of softer cheese and cream which form to make the creamy filling, called “panna” in Italian, and knotted inside the final product. If you ever get a chance to stuff pasta, and I really hope at some point you do, add some of this. Think of all the pop ravioli fillings you’re tired of seeing on a menu- pumpkin, lobster, sun dried tomato- not that there’s anything wrong with them, but visualize pumpkin and burrata ravioli. Porcini and burrata tortellini. Crab and burrata cannelloni. Burrata tossed with fresh rigatoni, broccolini and chili flakes. Someone stop me, please.

Burrata absolutely will not stay fresh once you free all that stringy, gooey goodness inside. Make sure you can use the entire hunk in whatever you’re making, like bread and burrata salad, one of its simpler manifestations. Suffice it to say, I have never had a leftover problem with this particular offering.

Ingredients in Los Angeles, ingredients in New York

Bread and Burrata Salad

12 oz. burrata (don’t drain it, everything in that package is tasty)
10-15 small (cocktail) tomatoes
1 loaf crusty Italian bread
1 bunch basil
The most virgin olive oil you can find, really green
Good balsamic vinegar
Coarsely ground black pepper
Kosher salt

With a sharp serrated knife, slice the bread into 1-inch cubes and place in a large bowl.

Slice the tomatoes in half (or quarters if you use larger ones) and add them on top of the bread cubes.

Carefully turn the burrata out of the container onto a cutting board and roughly chop into a dozen or so pieces. They will not be well formed, as once you cut into the cheese it will cease to be a solid and will live somewhere between elasticky string thing and amorphous blob, so however this step turns out is perfectly fine. Scoop the cheese off the board and add it to the bowl.

Make a chiffonade out of your basil, gently feeding the leaves into the rocking motion of your knife. Try to avoid “bruising” the leaves too much, as this causes them to lose their shape and color and quickly oxidize into basil mush.

Using your thumb, partially cover the mouth of the olive oil bottle and drizzle a couple of tablespoons on the salad (6-8 seconds of moderate drizzlage should suffice). Repeat this step using the balsamic vinegar, but dispense about half the amount.

Add a large pinch of kosher salt and copious amounts of fresh coarsely-ground pepper. Peper it squarely. <-- not a typo, check out Achewood.

Plunge your hands into the whole business and squeeze continuously for about 15 squeezes.

Eat with your hands at this point like you’ll be tempted to, or serve immediately. Unfortunately this dish must be consumed right away and in its entirety, because if it sits for too long, even in the fridge, the bread will get soggy. Like I said, it just won’t be a problem.