Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Lonesome Road Kitchen Challenge: French Onion Soup

Cold... icy... snowy...you need comfort and you need it now.
You need homemade soup.
From scratch.
A soul-satisfying, steaming bowl of fragrant homemade soup made with lots of TLC, what better way to celebrate the cozy cocooning of the long winter months?
If you're like me, you love to experiment with all sorts of new ideas, but mastering the classics is a challenge in its own right. To make it even more compelling, sometimes the classics become a little... cliched. Rushed. Or pushed aside in favor of a trend. Morphed into something they were never meant to be: overly processed, lacking in fresh quality ingredients and unrecognizable in their current state.
Who hasn't had a cup of the local restaurant's version of French Onion Soup of the Day? A salty brown liquid tinted with caramel coloring, with giant hunks of tough old onions and pre-made onion-powdery croutons from a resealable bag with a shelf life of three years?
You deserve better. Reacquaint yourself with the real French onion soup, an old favorite that, when made as it should, will warm your tummy and your heart and make you wonder why you ever settled for less.
First of all, start off with the best beef stock you can. That is, make your own. It's not difficult. Get a couple of large beef soup bones at the store, and add some celery stalks with fresh leafy tops, a couple of cloves of garlic, an onion (peeled and quartered) and a large leek; parsley and black peppercorns. A couple of medium-sized carrots are nice, too, but keep in mind that carrots do make a stock or broth taste a little sweet.
If you're really trying to be frugal, freeze leftover beef bones from cooked bone-in roasts and steaks to use later for your beef stock. 
Cover the whole tasty melange with 8 cups of fresh water and let it simmer, partly covered, for as long as you have time. The longer the better, but even a little bit is preferable to using store-bought stock. A couple of hours is a good place to start.
If you have an extra day, let the finished stock cool down and store it overnight in the refrigerator so you can skim off any fat that will rise to the top. Carefully strain it and discard the vegetables.  
The difference between "stock" and "broth?" Generally, stock is made with meat and bones; broth is made primarily with meat only.
The next thing to remember about making fantastic homemade French onion soup is to slowly and patiently caramelize the onions.
Thinly slice two large yellow onions and three small leeks (white parts only). Many people add garlic to French onion soup, but I prefer adding leeks, with their complex flavor somewhere between onions and garlic, and their amazing aroma. Heat two or three tablespoons of olive oil in a large soup pot and add the onions and leeks, cooking over medium-low heat until evenly browned (not burned).
When onions are perfectly caramelized (about 30 to 40 minutes), add six cups of beef stock, two bay leaves, 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves, and salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. I know that many people add adventurous seasonings to French onion soup, but I like to keep it simple and let the flavors of the homemade beef stock and richly caramelized onions shine through.
Simmer everything together for at least an hour, then add three tablespoons of sherry or dry white wine and let the alcohol cook off a bit. (The wine is totally optional but adds so much to the flavor of the finished soup, in my opinion.)
Discard bay leaves before serving.
To serve, either spoon the French onion soup into ovenproof crockery bowls and top with a slice of toasted French bread smothered in cheese (preferably Gruyere, Fontina, Provolone, and a sprinkle of freshly grated Parmesan). Briefly broil until cheese is bubbly. Or, if you don't have ovenproof soup bowls, you can simply broil the bread and cheese on a baking sheet and drop into the hot bowl of soup.
Another option, if you're serving several people, is to pour the soup into a large ovenproof casserole dish and cover the top with toasted French bread slices and cheese, then briefly broil until cheese is bubbly.
Makes approximately five to six servings.

Soup, bread and cheese... what could be more gratifying on a cold winter day? Even better that it was created with love in your own kitchen from first-rate ingredients and techniques!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Cheap Eats in the New Year - the Legume Edition

Spend less, eat lighter.
Okay, maybe the salt pork isn't so light, but...
Is there anyone who isn't starting the New Year either wanting to save more money, or live a healthier lifestyle, or both? Tough resolutions to keep sometimes, but one thing can help: spending less money and making better choices at the grocery store. One way to do this, and (generally) eat healthier, is to substitute beans for some of the more expensive and fatty meats in your weekly meal rotation.
Many people claim to dislike beans. But have they ever had a plate of wonderful drunken pinto beans cooked with beer and poblanos, topped with crumbled Mexican cotija cheese? How about Greek Fasolia Gigantes Plaki, those huge beans baked with carrots in a fresh herby tomato sauce?  I didn't think so.
Canned beans have made cooking preparations so easy, there is almost no excuse for adding more beans (and fiber and protein) to your diet. However, canned beans can be a bit expensive to use on a regular basis, so you'll want to experiment with some of the cheaper dried beans. Most dried beans require soaking to re-constitute before cooking (lentils and split peas do not) and there are a couple of ways of accomplishing this.
The quick soak method will have you ready to cook beans in about an hour and a half. Simply put beans in a pan and cover with water. Bring to a rolling boil and boil for ten minutes, then remove from the heat and allow to soak for one hour. However... I seem to have the best results from the traditional overnight soaking. And really, it's so easy, all you have to do is plan ahead a little. Get the beans ready the night before, soak overnight on the counter with water to cover, then drain and rinse the next day and you're ready. The "drain and rinse" part is important. Don't cook the beans in their soaking water, otherwise you will toot. Part of the purpose of soaking beans is to release indigestible sugars and to simply clean them; they can't be washed before packaging because they can mold. So, you don't really want to eat beans cooked in dirty water that will make you fart, do you?
After your beans have been properly soaked, they will cook, covered, for an hour or two, cooked in fresh water to cover. Beans take well to all sorts of seasonings, especially herbs, but don't add salt to the cooking water because it will make the beans tough. Always season with salt after the beans are completely cooked.
However, if you're using delicious salt pork, you have little choice, and it doesn't really affect the texture of beans, while adding lots and lots of flavor. In the photo above, I cooked black-eyed peas, a traditional southern New Year's good luck meal, with salt pork, and the results were absolutely delicious - and easy.
In a large Dutch oven, saute together 6 ounces chopped salt pork until browned and some of the fat is rendered. Add 1 large chopped onion, and saute until transparent. Stir in 1 teaspoon ground cumin and 1 teaspoons chili powder, then add 8 ounces of soaked black-eyed peas (or any other similar bean). Cover with water, bring to boiling then turn heat to low. Cover and cook over low heat for at least 1-1/2 hours, for tender beans that are not mushy. Season with salt freshly ground black pepper, although you'll probably find that you do not need to add extra salt due to the salt pork.
Serve traditionally with cornbread and cooked greens. Makes 6 to 8 servings.


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