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Cook the Books! Dorie Greenspan’s French Onion Soup! Cry Me a River!

8 Jan

OK, so what do you do the night before a big trip?  Pack?  Water your plants?  Drop Fido and Spot off at the petsitter?  Charge up the old camera?  Print out your boarding passes?  Not me, friends!  I decided that I should cook an elaborate French meal on the night before my awesome partner Double S and I went to Yellowstone National Park.  Why?  Well, first, I’m zany like that.  I like to, say, stuff kimchi into jars at midnight on a Saturday.  Ask Double S about that one!  Second, well, I wanted to start the Cook the Books Challenge!  Oh, you don’t know?  Here are the deets!

I’ve told you guys about the blog challenge that my friend Meg and I came up with this year.   In brief, we are picking a cookbook for each month of 2013.  We’ll tell you about it in advance.  Meg told you about this month’s choice, Around My French Table a few weeks back.  You cook a recipe or recipes from the book each month, and you tell us about it.  We all learn to cook, more and better.  Easy peezy George and Weezy!  If you have a blog, well, first things first:

internet_fist_bump

Ok, sweet fist bump.  Moving on.  So if you have a blog, post about what you made from the book of the month by the 25th of each month.  Shoot us an email with the link to your post: cookthebookschallenge@gmail.com.  We’ll do a round-up of all the posts (with links and photos!) by the 31st or so of the month.   If you don’t have a blog, share what you made in the comment section of the round-up post at the end of the month.  Sweet1

Ok, so back to my shenanigans on the night before my trip.  That afternoon, I perused Around My French Table whilst Double S did the normal night before a trip activities as described above.  I dog-earred a few potential good candidates for a nice Sunday night supper, our last at home for a week.  I looked into the Deconstructed BLT salad.  I love deconstructed things.  What can I say, I’m a big fan of Top Chef AND being a pretentious hipster! I also looked into the nicoise salad.  I wanted to go classic.

But I finally decided on the Cheese Topped Onion Soup.  What’s more French than French onion soup, I mused?  This?

frenchman

Any time a French man is shown in a cartoon or pretty much any other medium of pop culture, said French man must be wearing both a striped shirt and a beret. It’s the law. Don’t fight it.

So starting at 6pm that night, I made my inaugural dish of the 2013 Cook the Books challenge.

Cheese-Topped Onion Soup, page 56-57.

I figured that 6pm was a perfectly fine time to start cooking this dish for several reasons.  1) Dorie Greenspan mentions in the recipe that it takes “an hour or more” to carmelize the onions.  And besides the carmelization of the onions, this recipe looked really easy.  And it was!  Except I didn’t realize the ramifications of the two little words “or more” after the word “hour.”  2) US pop culture teaches me that French people eat late, so when in Gay Paree (heh heh) do as the gay paree-sians do!  3)  I didn’t have to go to work the next day!  Off I went!

onions

If you make this onion soup, prepare to practice your onion chopping skills.  Chopping onions the right way will make your life in the kitchen much easier.  BTW, I took a knife skills class and Dorie explains the technique in two sentences that we spent quite a bit of class time learning.  Nice!  Onions were being peeled and chopped, and I was rolling along. Time to turn on some tunes!

See when I cook, I need music.  Lots of it, and loud.  Ok, so I’ll admit that I put my knife down, ran to my desktop and threw together a quick mix inspired by onions and the crying that results from their preparation.  Heck yeah, onion themed mixtape!

I love onions.  Raw, cooked, you name it.  I eat more onions than the average person, methinks.  Thus, around the old homestead, dinner often starts with me chopping an onion.  And onions really make me cry.  I know, I know.  There are tricks to avoid this, like cutting onions next to an open flame, having a piece of bread in your mouth while you chop, rinsing the onion first, wearing ski goggles or a scuba mask, standing on one leg and thinking about how you’ve disappointed your parents, and so on.  Seriously, all of those are true except one.  I’ll leave it to you to figure out which one.   But, at this time of the night, ain’t nobody got time for that.

That’s Sweet Brown, everybody, of the famous “Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That” meme of 2012, viewed by over 15  million people.  My cousin showed me the auto-tuned You Tube remix on Christmas Eve, and now Double S and I have been often telling each other that we do not have time for that, regardless of what “that” is.

All started off well.  I peeled and I bobbed my head, remembering those innocent days when Britney and Justin were still together.

I kept going, slicing the onion in half from top to bottom, remembering my days loving hair rock, which OK, technically, are still ongoing.

Yeah!  I kept cutting, this time lengthwise, again and again.  OK, this has been fun and everything, but when would this end?  Axl told me not to cry.

And I imagined hot early 90s babes fighting over me as I ladled them bowls of onion soup, like they do here over Axl Rose for some reason.  But you know what they say: no woman, no cry.  Which just so happened to be the next song on my mixtape!

When the peeling and chopping are done, time to start the carmelization process.  I hope you packed some water and comfortable shoes.  Man, did I gain a new appreciation for the art of carmelizing onions.  I started with my thick bottomed cast iron dutch oven and kept the heat as low as it goes on our stove.  The onions released a lot of water and after an hour, the onions just looked steamed.

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That kind of kept going for awhile.  I was concerned, but I was not gon’ cry.  Sing it, Mary…

After that first 90 minutes or so, I finally got concerned.  It was 7:30 and I had steamed onions.  Dorie makes it clear that your onions must be brown and carmelized to get the right flavor in the soup, and to be patient because you do not want burned pieces.  But, Dorie..it’s 7:30 for chrissakes!  I decided to switch pans.  I moved to a larger, shallower, non-stick skillet and set aside the excess water, thinking the onions needed to touch more area of the pan to actually carmelize, and it worked.  It took over two hours, but I got carmelized onions!

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Sweet!  Time for some Van Halen!

Lessons learned about onion carmelization, an important cooking technique you will learn if you make this soup:

  • Slice the onions as thinly and uniformly as possible.  And discard all of the thin outer layer.  That layer will never carmelize.  It’s OK to waste just this little bit.
  • Use the largest pot with the thickest bottom you have to carmelize the onions.
  • Adding a pinch of sugar at the beginning is recommended by Julia Child, and hey, she kinda knows about French cooking.
  • How much you stir is important.  From my research, if you can hear a sizzle, you’re fine.  Stir when the sizzle subsides, so not constantly, but about every 10 minutes or so.  I was definitely stirring constantly, which is unnecessary.
  • Keep the heat low as Dorie says, but be reasonable.  The intensity of the heat on your stove may vary.  After I toiled away with these onions, I did a little research into the fine art of carmelization.  Some sources say to start with the heat higher for about 20 minutes or so, while stirring very frequently, and then end with the heat as low as possible, while stirring frequently. Based on my evening, this sounds about right.  The onions have to cook and steam and release liquid before they can brown, so don’t just say eff it and start with your heat on high and keep it that way.  In the alternative, cook them on a low setting but not the lowest, then finish slightly higher whilst stirring constantly.  This is basically what I did, except I had them on the lowest of the low settings for too long at the beginning.  Cooks Illustrated recommends cooking onions over medium low heat, covered, for 20 minutes, then uncover and cook on low till desired brownness, stirring every few minutes.  Regardless, you kinda need to be all up on your pot for at least an hour to do this, probably more.  Unless…
  • Hey!  Have you ever roasted beets or brussel sprouts?  I have, and it’s an awesome way to cook these veggies, and often the onions are my favorite part.  I bet that carmelizing onions in the oven would work great and wouldn’t require as much attention, but some attention will always be required to get the desired brownness.  And yep, here’s a thread from Chowhound and commenters say it works!

So after the carmelization, the rest is gravy!  The soup cooks on the stove a bit, and then you need to think about cheese.  Dorie recommends a good Gruyer,e and I agree.  Double S picked us out some fancy stuff and it was delicious.

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The bread is also important here.  Get some nice, thick, good bread and toast it off a bit in the oven.  Top the soup with the bread and the Gruyere and pop it in the oven, in a crock that can withstand the heat of Satan’s lair, because as Dorie puts it, the French like their onion soup brûlante, super freaking hot.  Success!

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The soup was delicious!  And will be a welcome addition to our winter line-up of dishes that you make every once in awhile, to celebrate the season where you just want to wear comfy socks and be inside all day.  OK, so in the Pacific Northwest that’s kinda at least half of the year.  Right, Portlandia?

More importantly, what I liked about this recipe is the appreciation for onions and the carmelization process that I got …nay EARNED…from making this soup.  Carmelized onions are a special, almost sacred thing.  Don’t rush them.  Don’t make this soup when you only have limited time.  Learn what works for you.  Maybe a slow carmelization in your favorite dutch oven during a lazy winter’s afternoon whilst you sip wine and stir and listen to music.  Recommended!  Maybe an unattended stay in your crock pot while you toil away from 9-5 for the man.  Maybe a roast in the oven while you catch up on last season’s Breaking Bad, pausing to stir only once per episode.  And you NEED to catch up on Breaking Bad, best believe.

So I’m liking this cookbook so far.  There’s something for every season, and something suitable for pretty much any block of time you have available.  This recipe was time consuming, but there are others that can be knocked out on a M0nday night.  Stay tuned for what I made on just that typea Monday night!

As Meg and I have said, we will both be blogging about our exploits with this book throughout the month.  Meg has already made some stuff too!  Make one recipe or make a whole dinner party for your friends, but whatever you do, tell us about it!  By Friday January 25th, send us a link to your post: cookthebookschallenge@gmail.com.  And by January 30th, check back in for a comprehensive round-up, featuring your post and the posts of all your virtual friends.  Fun!

And bt dubs, we made it to Yellowstone and it was ah-mahzing.  More about that later…

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Buttermaking!

15 Apr

You know, if I won one of those megamillions giant lottery things that people were all getting in my way to line up for a few weeks back (in Seattle nonetheless!  Aren’t we above that, Seattle?  What with our soccer and our listen supported radio?),  I’d buy myself a few key things.  Definitely a tricked out Airstream so that Double S and I could take our already luxury camping asses to new extremes.  Perhaps a small bungalow in Kauai.  I’d likely pay top dollar to recreate the t shirt collection from my youth; yeah, I’m talking OP, Panama Jack, Vision, INXS Kick 1988 Tour, and so on.  And, after this month’s Grow It Cook It Can It challenge of making butter, I know I’d also buy grass fed local raw cream and make my own butter on the regular.  Or who am I kidding?  I’d probably have Jeeves make it.  All of this to say the following: grass fed local organic raw cream is expensive, yos!  Take it from the masters of 90s hip hop, the Wu Tang Clan and A Tribe Called Quest.   First, the Wu Tang Clan.  They were right, cash rules everything around me, cream get the money, dolla dolla bills y’all!  Cream does indeed get the money.  And I mean that literally!  Yep, I quoted the Wu Tang song “C.R.E.A.M.”

See what I did there?  Good cream is pricey, but you need it to make excellent butter.   Not no parkay, not no margarine.  Strictly butter baby, strictly butter.  See what I did there?  I finished my lengthy allusion to hip hop music.  I quoted a track aptly titled “Butter” from A Tribe Called Quest’s classic 1991 album The Low End Theory.  Yep, I did it, I gave you a DIY buttermaking overview using only hip songs from 1991-1994.  You’re welcome.

Seriously though, to make butter, first get your hands on some good cream.  You need cash to buy said good cream, Wu tang style.  If you’re just gonna use regular old pasteurized homogenized cream from the store, why bother?  I used some beautiful grass fed Cow’s Cream from Sea Breeze Farm on Vashon Island.  Check out your local farmer’s markets or food co-ops for some local raw goodness.  Well, unless you can’t legally buy raw dairy products.  Check it out here to see if retail sales of raw milk are legal in your state.

Sea Breeze Farm at the U District Farmer's Market

The friendly Sea Breeze vendor at my local farmer’s market told me that their cows have been munching on new spring grass lately so I should get some nice yellow butter. Excellent!

Nice and yellow.

Making butter is easy!    I really put it off because I had to go to the aforementioned farmer’s market to get cream, and it’s not in my nabe, and it rains a lot here.  Then when it’s not raining its too nice to be out driving to farmer’s markets or inside making your KitchenAid get all hot and bothered.  And then there was something else.  Yep,  a little bundle of joy and poop smells came into our lives here at the homestead this week.  A two pound, eight week old, highly adorable black kitten.  Prepare to SQUEAL.

It'd hard to get a clear picture of a two month old kitten. Here's good ol' no face!

Unless she's sleeping whilst cuddled in blankets. Awww.

Oh and how about a pic of her helping in the kitchen with the task at hand?  In your face, bloggers with your pics of your kids holding chickens, hugging goats, turning compost, and helping you stir in the kitchen!

New Kitten (name TBD) checks out the cream before I make butter. If this were a cartoon and I was an old lady, I would have put a dish of it out for her. Then that hapless putty tat Sylvester would have come around and all hell would have broken loose. Did I mention I loved Looney Tunes when I was a kid?

Once you have good cream, then you have some options.  You can put it in your KitchenAid mixer.  You can use a hand held mixer.  You can use a whisk.  You can put the cream in a jar and shake it.  But for me, it was a sunny April Saturday in Seattle.  We don’t get a lot of these, people.  So I put the cream in my KitchenAid, used the whisk-looking attachment, and let ‘er rip.

I split my quart of cream into two batches of butter, two cups of cream per batch.  Mainly because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the butter, but also because in case I effed everything up and the cream turned into an old shoe or something, I’d still have more cream for a second go round.  Not needed, I made regular old unsalted butter and a compound butter I made by adding sea salt and green garlic.  More about that later.

Blend, whisk, shake a jar all Laura Ingalls style, or just stand there staring at your KitchenAid mixer and contemplating your navel until the cream starts to thicken.  I had my mixer going at medium speed then upped the speed a bit as it started to thicken.  Scrape the sides of the bowl as needed.  First, you’ll think nothing is happening.  Don’t fret my pet!

It thickens up fairly quickly. Put your mixer on medium speed. This is about 3 minutes into the process.

Now we're getting somewhere!

Eventually the cream will thicken into whipped cream, then the curds from the cream/now almost butter will start to separate. Turn you mixer down at that point or buttermilk will splash everywhere.

Eureka! The curds are separating from the buttermilk!

Keep it going until it appears that all the liquid has been removed from the now butter.

Butter, baby!

You can, at this point, put the whole shebang through a strainer, further separating out the buttermilk.  Put the butter back in the mixer if it needs to further thicken or if it appears that more water must be squeezed out.

I then rinsed my finished butter.  I put the clump of new butter into very cold ice water.  Knead the butter a little bit in the water.  Change the water and do it again.  Then do it again until the water is clear after you’ve kneaded the butter.  Apparently this extra step makes the butter last longer in the fridge and not get a sour taste.  Why not, friends?

As I said, I separated the quart of cream into two batches of butter.  The first batch I left completely plain.  I didn’t even add salt, which is kinda unheard of for me.  For my second batch knew I wanted to make a compound butter with herbs that we’d use around the homestead.  We love garlic.  Then, at the farmer’s market on my way out, I spotted green garlic.

Ah, green garlic. Always a harbinger of spring in these parts.  Green garlic is garlic harvested before the cloves are allowed to mature into the big bulbs we all covert.  Oh yeah, big bulbs!  Amirite fellas?!  No?  Ok.  Green garlic’s bulbs are tiny and both the mini bulb and most of the green parts are edible and mild.  Perfect for salads and stir fries, and prolly also for a compound butter, I figured as I bought them from the friendly folks at Whistling Train Farm.

I covet the garlic we grow here at the homestead too much to cut my own green garlic at home.  Did I tell you about my garlic last year?  It was a success!  So much so that we blew through it too fast.  We planted a lot more this year.

2011 garlic harvest! We went through this very quickly.

I got a good haul from the farmer’s market.  We had a spring feast.

Coho salmon, green garlic, and lion's mane mushrooms. This is what spring looks like at a Seattle area farmer's market.

For my compound butter, I scrubbed about 5 pieces of green garlic and very finely chopped them.  I then added the garlic and about 1/4 of a teaspoon (plus an extra pinch) of good sea salt to the butter.  I mashed it for awhile with a fork.

At the end of the day, I had these beauties to show for my not too intense labor.

Very impressive!  No Jeeves needed!  We had some of the plain butter on some fresh bread from Bakery Nouveau with our dinner that night. Amahzing.  Speaking of amahzing, did you watch Happy Endings this season?  Recommended.

So that was kinda easy! Maybe now I’ll make the cheese I’ve been putting off making, even after a two night cheesemaking class.  And now I’m left with almost 3 cups of buttermilk.  I’m thinking buttermilk pancakes.  Or fried chicken?  Check back to see what I did with the buttermilk.  Don’t throw it away!

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