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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:

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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?

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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!

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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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12 Days of Xmas in ’12! Day Four!

12 Dec

So why do carolers get to go around demanding figgy pudding? Being all aggressive, saying they aren’t going to get off our property until they get some. Sure, they bring good tidings to you. And to your kin. But still. They even demand that we bring the figgy pudding right out to them. N0 saying ” Help yourself” to their asses!

I haven't had a lolcat pic awhile!

I haven’t had a lolcat pic awhile!

When I was a kid, at my Catholic school there would be a Secret Santa exchange between families in the school.  I found it incredibly exciting and fun, having never done anything like that before.  Now if I had to do that at work or something, I’d be beyond meh about it.  But back then, throughout December, we would be surprised by gifts or cookies miraculously appearing at our door.  Every night I was filled with anticipation.  What would they do?  What would they bring?  Would they knock, and then we’d run to the door to answer and catch them, and all that would be there is a gust of wind from their quick escape?  True story.  Holy crap, good one other family from 80s Secret Santa!   Families would get creative too, leaving gifts in the back yard or in mailboxes.  I was thoroughly impressed.  Of course, there was always the omnipresent fear that, come the end, the family would come over, a’caroling.   We always hoped it wouldn’t be so.  Just drop the cookies and be on your way! Kthxbye! Were we bad people?

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Are people still caroling out there, or did it stop and then reemerge as of late? A few years back, one of our more enthusiastic neighbors wanted to carol around the neighborhood. Either we missed it or it didn’t happen, memory fails, but needless to say I was tempted.  Why not?  I actually like Christmas music!  But do I want to annoy others and have them awkwardly stand there as I sing, not knowing what to do with their hands?  Probably not.

Is there ironic caroling? Well, if you’re in NYC and you want to order carolers at your next soiree, you can choose “Hipster Carolers.” Yep, you did it again, New York!

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That’s them, on the upper left hand corner. Can’t you tell from their Converse All Stars, stripes, and the wacky hat on the fat guy in the back? The other ones are, clockwise, Victorian carolers, “USO Style Trio,” and Evening Quartet. You can tell it’s evening cuz the fellas have their ties loosened and the ladies have slipped into something a bit more comfortable.

Speaking of hipster carolers, you have got to watch this.  I LOL-ed.  Repeatedly.

Today’s Xmas song of the day made me think about caroling.  Duh.  Why, cuz it’s the song I usually use to pretend that I’m caroling for friends and loved ones.  High-larious, right?  Here are Renee & Jeremy with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

This song is from their Christmas Album, Sunny Christmas.

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So I just read that Renee & Jeremy are an “indie children’s music duo.”  Wow, so that’s a thing?  I was always just banking on having any little ohbriggsy’s listen to They Might Be Giants kids songs only.

For today’s update, like a caroler engaging in a marathon session of caroling, I ate my way around the city and the country this year like an eating machine.  Check me out!

I went to Portland in March!  I had this awesome breakfast at Ken’s Artisan Bakery.

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I ate a sandwich at Kenny & Zukes.  It was delicious.

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Double S and I ate chaat from this food cart.

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In May, we went to NYC.  I visited my old nabe.

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I had amazing kimchi jjigae at Natural Tofu House in Queens.

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This was the hottest substance on earth.

I ate Peruvian food in Park Slope.  Love those sauces.

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We ate pizza, of course.

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We stumbled into bars in Soho and drank white wine in the afternoon.

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In June, we went to Chicago.  I made my long awaited sojourn to Rick Bayless’s restaurants.  We started at XOCO, whilst we waited two hours to be seated at Frontera Grill.  The salsa was amazeballs and the canned local midwestern beer didn’t disappoint.

IMG_0166Once we finally got our seat at Frontera Grill, we had some awesome dishes.  Like this tuna ceviche with mangos and fresh chips.

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We also ate this mole.

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We ate Korean BBQ late one night, as it is meant to be eaten.  Real, honest to goodness Korean BBQ cooked on charcoal.  It was incredible.

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Then I went to St. Louis.  My uncle fried this fish in his tricked out turkey fryer gas grill thing.  Seriously, best fried fish ever.

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Then I went to the Lake of the Ozarks with my parents.  For non St. Louis area residents, this is kind of a thing.  We ate at Stewart’s.  I got a novelty shirt that lauds the fact that they have the Biggest Buns at the Lake.  It’s about their ginormous cinnamon buns, of course!Hardy har har!

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My mom’s holding the leftover bun!

Then on my flight back to Seattle, we spotted Anne Burrell at O’Hare.

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You can tell by the way she is clutching her phone that she was super psyched for this moment.

Later in the summer, we roadtripped to Yosemite National Park.  In southern Oregon, we had these fried pickles.

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And Umpqua ice cream at a popular little roadside stand.

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We hit up the Rogue Creamery on our way south.  So good.

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In San Francisco, we went to Swan Oyster Depot.  My man David Chang called it the best restaurant in the US.  We had these oysters.

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And this Italian style sashimi.  So effing good!

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This sign was in the restroom.

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We also went to Incanto, the restaurant of Top Chef Masters winner Chris Cosentino.  We had this tomato risotto that was unlike anything I had ever tasted.  It was like eating the essence of everything that a tomato can and should be, at the height of the summer  The pesto was made from blanched leaves from the tomato plant.  I gotta try to make it this summer.

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I also had the best Italian sandwich I’ve had in quite some time.  At Molinari’s.

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We went to Arizmendi for baked goods.  I love that place!

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I also continued my quest to eat XLBs (aka soupy dumplings) in every city I go to.

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Back in Seattle, I continued to eat.  I took my parents to the market.  Cliched, yes.  But fun!

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Double S and I also went to An Incredible Feast.  Boy howdy was that amazing!  La Boucherie’s pork dish was my favorite.

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And I finally visited one of Tom Douglas’s restaurants.  I was a newbie to his empire here.  We went to Serious Pie.

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And I finally had the coconut pie.  Holy crap.  Best dessert ever?  Maybe.

Mmm, coconut pie and beer...

Mmm, coconut pie and beer…

Alright, a look at what I ate this year and a Christmas song?  Pretty sweet!

Renee & Jeremy…We Wish You A Merry Christmas

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