Sunday, November 29, 2009

French Onion Soup

In my life, two things are certain. One, I love my mother. Two, my mother loves French Onion soup more than pretty much any other meal.

So, when I saw the french onion soup recipe in the Les Halles Cookbook, I knew I had to make the dish especially for her. And what better time to do so than when I stay with her over Thanksgiving weekend? I ran it by mom and my sisters, and they all agreed that it might just be the best idea ever. So when Thanksgiving Day came around, Husband J and I trucked two quarts of the dark chicken stock I made last week out to the suburbs so that we could make French Onion soup for the family on Black Friday.

We started out the day by avoiding the Black Friday crowds and heading to the antique mall (where I found a vintage (looking) half bottle of Eau de Joy, score!!!), then shopping for ingredients at the local Whole Foods. Once the onions, port, cheese and baguette were in hand, we faced a different problem--no oven-proof soup crocks. I'd thought of bringing my ramekins from home, but it seemed too much trouble to bring those and all of the chicken stock needed for the soup. But my plan to find adorable vintage onion soup crocks at the antique mall fell through when said adorable crocks didn't exist. There were good looking ones at the Whole Foods, but they were individually packaged with powdered cheese soups (bleh). So Husband J and I did the unthinkable... we ventured into the local K-Mart.

We wandered the aisles, half cowering in fear, gazing at the cheap-ass Martha Stewart collection kitchenwares and the disproportionate number of deep fryers. As we were about to give up, Husband J suddenly found a set of adorable red flower-shaped ramekins, absolutely perfect for our soup purposes. We gleefully snapped up six, and ran home to prepare the soup.

First step is of course, prepare the onions. The recipe calls for one big onion per serving, and chopping six onions proved pretty time consuming, and kind of offensive. I'm not really bothered by chopping onions, but as I went from one to the next, everyone started to complain about watering eyes and started opening windows and turning on fans. I? Shed nary a tear. Weird, right?

Anyway, once chopped, the onions went into the pot to caramelize with a huge load of butter.

It took a while for the onions to get dark and beautiful, but once they were, we poured in some port:

and some vinegar:

and some bacon:

then added the chicken stock and herbs, and brought the whole mess to a boil, then simmer. While the soup simmered, we toasted baguettes brushed with oil to make toasts, grated a ton of Gruyere, and prepared a big salad.


With the soup finished, it's time for the fun part! First float a toast in the bowl, then pile the Gruyere on top. Then put the bowls under a preheated broiler so the cheese melts and chars and forms a crust.

This is where I ran into some problems--Mom's broiler requires that several buttons be pushed before it turns on, and I foolishly only pushed one. The broiler didn't turn on, but the residual heat in the oven melted the cheese into a greasy mess with oil pooling on top of the soups and the baking sheet. I realized what had happened after a minute and turned the broiler on, but the crusts were not as robust as they could have been. I mopped up all the oil I could, and served.

Well, as always, the soup was a huge hit. Mom loved it, which was very satisfying, and to me it tasted exactly like the real thing, what you'd order in a classy French restaurant. (Minus, my grandmother commented, excess salt and gobs of cheese, which I think was a compliment).

Lessons Learned: Make sure the broiler is on before putting the cheese soups under it. Just because you are not affected by onions doesn't mean everyone else is. It is possible to produce delicious french onion soup in your own kitchen. K-Mart is good for something after all.

Next Week: Braised short ribs

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Dark Chicken Stock, Demi-Glace

Happy Thanksgiving every (United States Citizen) one! Time to kick off a week of pure, unadulterated gluttony! It's the American way!

I'm starting us off by making some more sauce bases, namely dark roasted chicken stock (which I will need to make French Onion soup) and demi-glace, so as to make the best of my ball-less second batch veal stock.

I started out with the demi. First thing is to reduce wine equal to about a quarter of the stock to be reduced. I'm working with about 8 cups of stock, so 2 cups of red wine goes into a pot with some chopped shallot. I reduced the wine by half over medium heat. This smells really amazing by the way--I'm a huge fan of warm mulled red wine with spices, and there's something so delicious and warming and wintery about hot red wine. I can already tell this demi shall be hardcore.

Next, add the stock. Now this is kind of an interesting proposition, as my stock has been in the fridge since I made it, and it has turned rather gelatinous. Ok no, it has turned full-on gelatinous. It's basically veal Jell-o you guys. SLIMY veal Jell-o. Kind of weird? Kind of gross? Kind of what it's supposed to do? Yes, yes, and yes. This is I guess what separates veal stock from other kinds of stock, it's full of natural gelatin so it makes a very thick sauce. That's all well and good to know intellectually but not so comforting when plopping spoonfuls of what's basically meat flavored knox blox into my formerly delicious wine reduction.

Chunky, goopy veal Jell-o.

Have I put you all off Grandma's Thanksgiving jello mold with the floating mandarin orange slices? Because that's my goal here.

Fortunately with the heat turned up, the chunks of veal Jell-o started melting and forming a nice dark colored liquid. After the five minute mark, no chunks remained. The sauce now comes to nearly a boil, then down to a simmer, to reduce to a "lush, dark, intensely flavored brown sauce" that is "reasonably thick but not candy-sticky." Sounds good to me.

While the demi is reducing, it's time to make the chicken stock. I won't go over it too much here, as dark chicken stock (as opposed to the light chicken stock I made a few months ago) is basically made the same way as the veal stock from last week--roast bones, roast veg, dump into pot, simmer, done.

I just want to reiterate how much I looove roasting that mirepoix. The whole house smells like delicious thanksgiving (probably because it's the main ingredient in every stuffing ever), what a great way to get ready for a holiday.

The bones and roasted mirepoix go into the pot to simmer for 10 hours, which is about how long it took for the demi to reach maximum thickness. I followed Julia Child's advice and strained the stock then poured it into a spare ice cube tray for single-serving portions.

Eight full cups of stock leads to one ice cube tray of demi. Uh... wow. Maybe, and this might be the heresy talking, I should actually just buy high quality demi glace instead and save those 20 hours of simmering (and my gas bill). We'll see how this stuff actually tastes.

Lessons Learned: Veal Jell-O is pretty gross, but it's making some pretty delicious smelling demi-glace.

Next Week: I know everyone is tired of me making sauces and stocks, but they have to be done in order to keep cooking! Next time I'll be using my dark chicken stock in French onion soup.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Veal Stock

Okay so all two of my readers are scratching their heads and pondering where the hell I've been over the past two weeks. I'm sorry, guys! I got sick the first weekend and spent a day in bed alternatively wanting to 1) eat nothing ever; and 2) die, and the second weekend I had to work. So I've left you hanging! You! My public, you! So sad!

Anyway, this week I'ma make it up to you by making the very first "recipe" in the Les Halles Cookbook: veal stock. Now, I say "recipe" in cute quotation marks, because Tony does not provide a recipe. It's more of a free form suggestive section, where he recommends cramming some veal bones in here, chopping some onion and carrot there, dumping it into a pot and simmering for eight hours. It's kind of a big deal, because so many of the recipes in the cookbook call for the addition of either veal stock, or the faux demi-glace made from the veal stock (more on that later), and you basically can't make a lot of the recipes in the book without it.

Veal stock is kind of an issue,though, cos if you've been following me through this at all, you've seen me whine and gripe about the fact that I can never find any veal bones, ever, because there are no butchers in DC. Well as it turns out I was wrong, there is like A butcher in DC, and I found him, and he rules. He is in Eastern Market, where I high-tailed it this Saturday after a lunch at the Good Stuff Eatery (which is oh my god so good but I wanted to die after eating there). I grabbed 10 pounds of fresh (!!!) veal bones, chopped up into small pieces, just waiting for me to make some delicious stock. So hardcore! And they had chitterlings! YAAY!

Anyway. We lugged the bones home and in the morning, it was time to make some stock.

First, wash the bones with cold water and dry them off.

Apologies for the blurry pics this week, the camera is having some glitches or something, and we're not getting sharp pictures no matter what we try.

Then, line an oiled roasting pan with the bones, and roast at 350 degrees for about 50 minutes. However, as Tony says, "if you want to cheat..." OH MY GOD YES I WANT TO CHEAT TELL ME HOW!!! ...dollop some tomato paste onto the bones, sprinkle with a handful of flour, and work the stuff into the bones before roasting. Which I did.

While the bones roasted, I chopped up a mirepoix of 50% onion, 25% carrot and 25% celery, put it in another roasting pan, and shoved it into the oven. Roasting mirepoix smells like Thanksgiving!

Once the bones are browned, and the mirepoix is caramelized, dump both into a pot with some thyme and peppercorns, fill the pot with water, and bring to a simmer. The pot then goes on to simmer for a good eight to ten hours, while the house fills with the aroma of delicious meats. Actually I think this aspect of the stock making process is overrated. The stock smells great for a while, but then you just get kind of sick of the smell of simmering meat. Veal stock is a pretty oily, fatty stock too, so the house just gets to smelling unctuous. The smell gets literally everywhere, causing Husband J to remark, when time came to go to sleep, "my pillow smells like meat! I have a meat pillow!" Sounds kind of wrong, huh?

Anyways, once the eight-to-ten hours is over, it's time to get all the solids out of the pot and strain the liquid through a strainer lined with cheesecloth. This left me with a rich brown liquid with a bit of oily fat on top that didn't strain off, and which I left to gather in a layer on top of the tupperwares as it cooled in an ice bath for future scrapage.

Ladling stock out of the pot to strain.

Voila, now there is veal stock and I can make Husband J's favorite dish, onglet salad and like 75% of the other recipes in this book. Hooray!

Actually I ended up having to make two batches of stock, since the bones and veg didn't all fit into one that still had room for enough liquid to make a decent amount of stock. So another pot went onto the stove on Monday night, causing all kinds of havoc as we (well, Husband J) had to get up at 3:30 am to turn off the burner, and then again at 6:30 to strain the still hot liquid. The second pot of stock didn't quite turn out as well as the first, it was lighter in color and seemed almost greasy rather than gloriously fatty. However, I'm not going to cry over a ball-less stock, but will instead raise the bar by turning the stuff into Tony's makeshift demi-glace in the next couple of days.

Lessons Learned: Butchers are pretty awesome. Roasting mirepoix smells like thanksgiving but simmering veal stock just smells kind of viscous.

Next Week: Well, I'm going to try to make demi-glace over the week, but the next weekend is another work weekend, and I'll be out of the country on business. So no cooking. But the NEXT weekend is Thanksgiving, after which I have promised to make my mother French onion soup. So there's that! Stay tuned!