Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Day 22 (Round IV) "In the trenches": Onion soup edition

As cheap as it gets. You can get ten pounds of onions for less than 3 dollars--more if on sale or at a farmer's market--and the latter is better for the local economy anyway.

When I was 20 years old I talked my way into a job as the first line cook they hired in a new restaurant startup. I had been building houses and I was fed up with getting home at 4pm too exhausted to practice. And I thought that learning to cook would be a portable workable trade--which it was--and didn't yet know that it's one of the more self-destructive lifestyles--that would take me a while to learn.

So I hoicked myself down to a small restaurant startup in my home town, to which I had moved back after burning out at the University of Chicago, and applied for a gig as their first employee. The only reasons I can think why they hired me--with little to zero professional cooking experience--would have been (a) they were both so exhausted: him from cooking 8am-12midnight, her from hostessing the same hours, and then doing the books, that they couldn't see straight, and (b) because they were unused to an applicant with such a polysyllabic vocabulary.

I learned a lot cooking there. I learned how to think like a cook, to understand the slow-motion ballet that is the interplay of cook, utensils, pans, foodstuffs, and heat, and to understand the heightened sense of accomplishment--and, let's face it, adrenaline--that came from cooking 115 meals over a 12 hour shift.

I also learned this version of onion soup.

Slicing the onions:

Rule #1: Chop way more onions than you think you'll need. Then chop the same volume again.

Hint: this is one of those "you've got to have a sharp knife" situations (or sitcheeayations, to quote O Brother). Cut the top and bottom stem off the onion. Then cut in half, DOWN from top to bottom (e.g., along the stem). You'll wind up with two half-hemispherical pieces, each half-sphere made up of the semicircular concentric half-rings of the onion's layers. Turn one of the halves flat-side-down on the cutting board. Slice once, twice, or three times across the axis of the stem--so that you wind up with a sideways stack of two, three, or four concentric half-circles. Then turn the knife 90 degrees, and cut down across the stack: you'll wind up with small, regular bits as the right-angle slices you've made, and the layers of the onion, yield three-dimensional rectangles.

Melt a good deal of butter over a not-too-hot flame in a large tureen. You're going to caramelize the onion: that is, you're going to cook the onion in the hot butter so that the onion turns brown ("caramel-colored") throughout, with crispy edges. This changes not only the texture of the onion, but also brings out its sweetness.

As the onion is cooking-down, keep stirring, scooping the hottest parts from the bottom of the tureen and "turning-over" the chopped onion, just as if you were turning soil. Continue this until the onion is completely caramelized.

As the onions cook down--and I'm talking maybe by 75%: 1 gallon of onions going down to 1 quart or less--add thyme, sage, garlic, black or white pepper, a bit of salt or tamari (the latter gives a nicer color), a good splash of white wine. Lower the flame to medium and stir in the spices, giving them a good 3-4:00 minutes to cook into the onions.

Once the spices have been heated through and absorbed by the onions, you can add 1 cup of stock per quart or so of onions. You can use any kind of stock: rendered or dry, chicken or vegetable. Be advised: if it's a commercial stock, especially the dry sort, you'll need to ramp down the added salt, as commercial stock contains a lot. When in doubt here, use less salt, more pepper, and more wine.

Allow to simmer on a low heat for at least 1 hour. Meantime, grate some hard-but-not-sharp cheese (Jack is good, sharp cheddar too); avoid the very salty romano's or parmesan, as there is already enough salt in the recipe. You're also going to restrict the cheese to a sprinkling on top of the bowl as you serve: people go wrong with onion soup when they use too much cheese, insufficiently toasted. Use less cheese and melt/toast further.

Meantime, slice a good whole-grain or sourdough bread and toast the rounds, enough so that they are crsip but not browned.

Spoon soup into bowls. Place a toasted bread-round on top of each bowl and sprinkle cheese over the top. Toast in a 450-degree oven for 3-4 minutes, until the cheese bubbles and melts.

Serve with a sharp white wine and a green salad, oil & vinegar dressing preferred.

Good peasant food.

Thanks, Steve Z.


John Hazelwood said...

Given the previous statement that 1 gallon of onions cooks down to a quart, am I to assume the ratio of 1 cup of stock to 1 quart of onions is indeed referring to the cooked onions?

Dr Christopher J Smith said...