Saturday, September 11, 2010

Amasea's Kitchen in Sun Valley: Imperfect French Onion Soup

There's a little crisp in the air, and my mind turns to thoughts of soup.

My very first "major" cooking experience (i.e., planned out, shopped for, from a cookbook) was French Onion Soup, cooked from the recipe in "Easy Basics for Good Cooking" (1988 edition), a Sunset tome that I have used so much the pages are broken into a half-dozen chunks separated from the paperback cover (Thank you to Jeanne, who passed away not so long ago; her inscription with the gift was "Bon Appetit, XOXOXO"). The recipe for this does not appear to be available online, and I'll share it here only if y'all demand.

Tonight, however, I went with the recipe from "Cooking" by James Peterson, as follows (all rights reserved back to the authors). This is the first time I've made French onion soup in a long time, but the husband may be the biggest onion lover ever, so I'm not sure what took me so long to get back to it.

French Onion Soup
Makes 6 cups or 6 first-course servings

5 pounds onions, preferably red Bermuda type, sliced as thinly as possible
3 tablespoons butter, plus six tablespoons (optional)
1 cup dry sherry or medium-sweet Madeira
1 cup water
1 quart broth, preferably brown beef, chicken or turkey
6 slices dense-crumb white bread, crusts removed and cut into 3/4-inch cubes
2 cups grated hard cheese such as Gruyere, Gouda or Fontina (about 7 ounces)

In a heavy-bottomed pan large enough to hold the soup, cook the onions in 3 tablespoons butter over medium heat, stirring for about 10 minutes or until they release some of their liquid. Raise the heat to high and cook, stirring often, for about 30 minutes or until the liquid runs dry and caramelizes on the bottom of the pot and the onions are melted into a compact tangled mass. Keep a close eye on the onions as they cook so that the liquid doesn't run dry before it should and cause the onions to stick.
Add the sherry and water, bring to a boil, and cook, scraping the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to dissolve the browned-on juices, until the liquid is reduce by about half. Add the broth, season to taste, and simmer.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the bread cubes on a sheet pan and toast in the oven, turning them every few minutes, for about 15 minutes or until browned on all sides.
Return the soup to a simmer if it has cooled. Put 6 soup crocks on a sheet pan (so the soup doesn't overflow onto your oven floor). Ladle the broth and onions into the crocks. Using half the bread cubes, spread them evenly among the crocks. Top with half the cheese. Spread the remaining bread cubes on top, and then the rest of the cheese. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until boiling broth starts to drip down the sides of the crocks.

OK. I did that, except with a half recipe. I was kind of disappointed.

There were several issues that I had with this soup that I don't remember having with the "Easy Basics" recipe.

The husband sliced the onions on a mandoline (awesome tool, but I made him do it because I'm super-sensitive to the onion nerve gas), but there were *so many* of them...the final soup, paying attention to the proportions and timing, ended up more like stew than soup. Onion noodles, the husband said, trying to describe the overall texture (he also suggested, entirely facetiously, that we add gummibears for texture). So I suggest adding more broth. We also used chicken broth, because we had it, but beef really makes a world of difference.

I used challah bread for the croutons, because it was taunting me from my bread basket, and I now regret that. It's too light, toasts to quickly, and absorbs the liquid from the soup too quickly. Take my advice and don't use challah bread.

I went for Rembrant brand extra-aged gouda, because the portion in the grocery store was fairly small (read: cheap) and I know I like the flavor of aged gouda on its own. Not the best choice, honestly. Either I didn't use enough of it when baking or it was the wrong kind of cheese, but it just kinda dried up and toasted brown over the croutons instead of creating that *amazing* cheese crust that the best French onion soups have. I added a pre-cut provolone slice over the top when it didn't look like things were going to turn out well, and that helped, but it still wasn't gooey awesomeness. Oh bubbling cheese-y awesomeness, how I love thee.

Third, there wasn't a great depth of flavor. I added four bay leaves with the chicken stock, and you could definitely taste them in the soup, but they were basically part of the same flavor profile as the onions, rather than being a good first-flavor or last-flavor. In tasting at the table, I thought mustard seeds or chipotle might help fill out the flavor profile, and I'll try that next time.

So. I hate to say it, but Sunset got it right this time, and James Peterson got it wrong. Unless I am misremembering my original French onion soup cooking experience (which is possible; I was inordinately proud of myself, and my parents reinforced that) or I did something bad by halving the recipe (which is possible; the width of the pan base could alter how the onions cook or the broth cooks off), I'm going back to Sunset next time.

Sasha's Kitchen: Holiday Brisket for the Jewish New Year

This year, my husband and I hosted the traditional Rosh Hashanah dinner for the Jewish New Year in our home, inviting my in laws over for a home cooked holiday meal. A traditional Rosh Hashanah dinner includes elements of sweetness throughout the meal, to wish everyone a sweet new year. This year, we prepared several favorites that I have already shared here on A Kitchen In Brooklyn, including my mandarin orange caramelized almond salad, traditional apples and honey, my apple pie (which I make with local organic apples), and a new recipe for whoopie pies (coming soon!), among other foods.  The main course of this meal was my brisket, which I prepared using a first cut Kosher brisket of the best quality (very lean and delicious).  The different between my brisket and many other holiday briskets is that it is a loot lighter - a small amount of tomato paste is added to enhance the flavor and color, but the sauce is not heavy on cans of tomato puree like most other briskets. The result is delicious, light and enjoyable.

Sasha's Braised Holiday Brisket

31/2 to 51/2 lbs of first cut Kosher brisket
salt and pepper to taste
3 T canola oil, plus more if needed
2 large onions, diced
3 garlic cloves, diced
2 T tomato paste
1 1/2 cups good quality red table wine
4 1/2 cups low sodium chicken stock
2 bal leaves
1 lb of parsnips, chopped
25 baby carrots
1 T balsamic vinegar
4-5 sprigs of thyme
1/2 tsp rosemary

Season both sides of the brisket to taste with salt and pepper. Using a large dutch oven, heat the canola oil and sear the brisket on both sides for about 4-5 minutes on each side. Remove the brisket and set aside for now.  Add the onions and garlic to the pan (and a bit more canola oil if needed). Cook stirring on medium heat for about 5 minutes until the onion is soft.  Stir in the tomato paste and cook for another minute. Add the red wine, chicken stock, bay leaves, thyme and rosemary and bring to a boil. The add the brisket and vegetables to the dutch oven.

Place the covered dutch oven in the oven, preheated to 325 degrees. Cool until the brisket is done and falls apart with a fork - this took us about 2 hours for a 3 1/2 lb brisket, but could take up to three hours if you use a larger cut of meat.

Remove the brisket and the vegetables (you can discard the parsnips at this point, as they are only to add flavor). Let the remaining sauce stand in a pan for 10 minutes. The skim off the fat and reduce the sauce by half on medium high heat, for about 20 minutes. Add the balsamic vinegar to the sauce. Slice the meat with an electric knife (my husband does this part), slicing against the grain.  Serve immediately with the remaining vegetables and the sauce.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Eric's Kitchen in NJ: Seafood Paella

Jenn and I went to Spain last summer and had amazing seafood Paella at a few different places and I've been dying to attempt to make it myself ever since we returned. Luckily my Mom let me borrow her giant Le Creuset pot and some real Saffron, 'the world's most expensive spice by weight'. You can actually see a strand of it in my picture above right on a piece of chicken in the lower left hand corner. It's red and stringy.

Anyway, I made way more food than Jenn and I could eat in a night so we'll be having Paella quite a lot this week but I can think of worse tragedies to befall on us. It also came out exactly how I was hoping. I used the Paella recipe in the Joy of Cooking as a reference but didn't agree with a lot of their decisions.

Ingredients (serves 8 supposedly):
1 lb. bag of mussells (scrubbed and de-bearded)
1 lb. of shrimp, de-shelled and de-veined
2 chicken breasts
5 oz. of chopped chorizo sausage
5 oz. chopped baby bella mushrooms
1 vidalia onion minced
1 bunch of cilantro, chopped
1.5 red peppers, chopped
2 cups of arborio rice
4 cups of hot broth (mine was from cooking the mussels plus some chicken bouillon)
1 cup white wine
2 tbsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. Better than Bouillon chicken base
Konriko's Creole Seasoning
Pinch of dried Saffron

So the Joy of Cooking recommended cooking the chicken ahead of time and adding mussels and shrimp at the very end right before serving. I decided this seemed like a terrible idea as I wanted to cook the rice in the broth from the mussels to begin with. So the first thing I did was to steam the mussels in 3 cups of water and 1 cup of white wine with a couple of tablespoons of minced garlic and some chopped cilantro. I had Jenn do a coarse chop of the veggies in the food processor (we just got one) and then I cooked the chicken breasts with half the veggies in some olive oil and seasoned them with some Konriko's Creole Seasoning. I made sure the chicken wasn't overcooked as you're supposed to bake the whole shebang in the oven for 15 minutes at the end at 350 degrees (I also pre-heated the oven). Once the chicken was almost done I took it out and Jenn sliced it and I set it aside.

Then I took the other half of the veggies and cooked them with the shrimp and some more creole seasoning. For whatever reason I put Cajun spices on everything. I took out the shrimp and the mussels when they had opened and set those aside separately since I didn't want to over cook them and decided I'd add them at the very end and let the rice heat them when serving. I also set aside the wonderful broth from the mussels and added a tsp. of chicken bouillon.

So then I put all the cooked veggies and the sliced, mostly cooked chicken in the pan and slowly added the rice and broth, stirring often. I made it as if I was making risotto as it's the same type of rice. You want to coat the rice with a little fat (olive oil in this case) and then slowly let it soak up the broth. Although knowing that it was going to cook more in the oven I just got it started, stirred and then stuck it all in the oven saving the mussels and shrimp for the end.

When it came out all the rice was at the bottom so I had to stir it again but it was perfect. If you want to adjust the recipe it's just 1 part rice to 2 parts broth. If you make this I hope you enjoy it as much as we did. I think it's one of the best things I've ever made.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Sasha's Kitchen: Chocolate Chip Cookie Peanut Butter Whoopie Pies

For my next experiment making whoopie pies from my new cookbook, Whoopie Pies by Sarah Billingsley and Amy Treadwell,  I decided to try making a chocolate chip cookie-cake type whoopie pie and prepared a peanut butter filling to go with it. The recipe makes so many of these little whoopies that it's important to have some friends to share them with - my whoopies have been quite well received at my husband's office. I plan on making another batch of whoopie pies later this week (red velvet with marshmallow filling) when we host dinner at our house for Rosh Hashanah.

Chocolate Chip Whoopie Pies
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
4 T unsalted butter
4 T vegetable shortening
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 T milk
1 tsp white vinegar
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 cup mini chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 375. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl and set aside. In your mixer, beat the butter, shortening and both sugars until the mixture is light and creamy, for three minutes. Add the eggs and buttermilk and beat until combined. In a measuring cup, combine the milk, baking soda and vinegar.  Add to the mixture, along with the dry ingredients and beat on low until combined. Stir in the chocolate chips with a spoon (not with the mixer, or they will go to the bottom).

Drop 1 T of batter onto the parchment paper lined baking sheets, spaced at least two inches apart. Bake each sheet, one at a time, for 10 minutes. This made 30 whoopies for me, which translates to 15 whoopie pies when they are combined with the filling.

Peanut Butter Buttercream
3/4 cup peanut butter
6 T butter
3/4 cup confectioner's sugar
1/2 tsp salt

To make the buttercream, beat together the ingredients for the frosting in the mixer. Spread between two of the whoopie cookie-cakes.
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