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:
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: email@example.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?
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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…