Amazing French Onion Soup

French onion soup

This is one of the best soups I have ever made. Truly, it is tastiness in soup form. I made it using a recipe written in my notebook by a waitress in a café in Montmartre which had no amounts, cooking times or instructions. Just ingredients, and my memory of what it tasted like. So I made up how to make it, and it has worked an absolute treat.

The secret is a good stock. If at all possible, make your own stock. Chicken, vegetable or beef, whatever your preference. Mine was made with veal bones (happy, farmer’s market veal), which I roasted and then simmered with carrots, celery, a leek, an onion, some peppercorns and thyme and parsley for 6 hours. You can follow this basic method, but using roasted chicken, beef or veal bones. Ham stock wouldn’t really work here. Yes, I know making stock seems like a real faff, but I swear on my life that it’s worth it. Honestly. Trust me. You know it makes sense.

If you really don’t have the time to make your own stock, get a couple of cans of beef consommé from the supermarket. Baxter’s do a nice one. If you can’t find that, use a tub of fresh stock from the chiller shelf. And if you can’t find that and only have access to stock cubes then you’re not trying hard enough and you should go and sit in the corner.

Ingredients
Serves 4

4 medium/large onions
Butter. A slab slightly smaller than a deck of cards.
About 3 tblsps brandy
A large glass of white wine (about 250ml)
About 2 pints of stock.(see above)
Old bread, best if it’s gone a bit stale. About 2 rolls’ worth, or equivalent.
Gruyere cheese. About 200g, grated
A nice crusty baguette
Salt and pepper

The Cooking

Cut the onions in half lengthways, peel them and carefully slice them (not chopped, sliced into crescents). I say “carefully” because I’ve just bought myself a shiny new Global cooks’ knife and I slipped while slicing the onions and did myself an impressively bloody injury. Happens to the best of us. In a large saucepan, melt the butter and once it’s started foam add the sliced onions.

Make sure the heat is fairly low – you want the onions to soften slowly and not burn. This is to draw out some of the sugar in the onions. Leave the onions to soften for quite a while, giving it a stir every 5 minutes or so. It might take up to 45 minutes for them to get really lovely and translucent and sweet. Keep the faith, it’ll get there. Once they’re all juicy and soft, add the brandy and cook for another couple of minutes, then add the wine and cook for another 5 minutes just to take the edge off the alcohol.

Add the stock and bring the whole thing up to a simmer. Once it’s simmering, add half the grated gruyere and the old bread, broken up into chunks.

onion soup

Let it simmer for 20 minutes or so until the bread has almost dissolved. Have a taste and add salt and pepper as you think it needs it.

Ladle the soup into soup bowls. Put thick slices of baguette on top as croutons and then sprinkle over the rest of the cheese. Put the bowls under the grill on a high heat for 4 minutes or so until the cheese starts to bubble and turn brown. Serve immediately. Moan with pleasure.

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How to reduce saltiness in soups/stews

It’s easy to accidentally over-salt soup, stocks and stews and for ages I thought that there wasn’t anything you can do about it. But it turns out it’s quite easy to repair something that’s too salty: just put a raw potato in the soup or stew. As the potato cooks it will absorb some of the salt and then before you serve up just remove the potato. Simple.

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Low-fat Smoked Haddock Chowder

Haddock Chowder

I’ve been making this soup for years. It’s low-fat, filling and incredibly tasty. It’s also a one-pot dish and only takes about 1/2 an hour to make.

Ingredients
Serves 4

175g smoked haddock
1 pint skimmed (lowest fat) milk
400ml vegetable stock (I use Marigold powder)
70g sweetcorn
70g peas (frozen is fine)
100g prawns/shrimp (cooked, pealed)
1 medium/large potato, peeled and cubed
1 small onion, chopped
2 teaspoons cornflour + a little water

The Cooking

Put the fish and milk into a largish pan and bring to a simmer. Poach the fish for about 4/5 minutes until it breaks up easily. Drain the fish, reserving the milk. Break up the fish gently with a fork (don’t mash it).

In the same pan, sweat the onion and potato in a little oil or butter until the onion turns translucent. Add the stock and simmer until the potato is tender (about 10 minutes, maybe less). Now bung in the reserved milk, sweetcorn, peas, prawns and haddock. Bring back up to a simmer.

Mix the cornflour with a little water and add to the soup, stirring it in. In a couple of minutes the soup will thicken.

Serve!

Ham Stock & Ham and Lentil Soup

Ham stock is simple to make and it’s incredibly useful for enriching sauces and soups. I will warn you – it doesn’t smell very nice when it’s cooking. But it’s worth it.

For bonus points, you will also have a bunch of cooked ham which you can pick apart and use for sandwiches or in soup (see below).

Ingredients
Makes about 2 pints

1 ham hock or other cheap joint, perferably with a bone in
2 carrots, snapped in half
1 onion, quartered
6 peppercorns
4 or 5 sage leaves

Don’t, whatever you do, add salt.

The Cooking

Some people prefer to soak the ham to reduce the saltiness. I like it salty. If you don’t then soak the ham overnight in a couple of changes of water.

Bung in all in a large pot. Cover with water and bring to the boil. Skim off any scum and then leave to simmer for about 4 hours. Check occasionally, tasting and topping up the water if necessary. Strain into a large bowl and reserve the ham for later use. That’s it!

Ham stock is very gelatinous and after being left in the fridge overnight it will turn to meat jelly. Mmmmm… meat jelly. It will now be easy to skim the fat off the top of the stock. You can freeze it or it’ll keep in the fridge for 4-5 days.

Ham stock is particularly good in lentil soup.

Ham & Lentil Soup

Ingredients
Makes about 2 pints

1 pint ham stock
1 pint water
2 carrots, diced
1 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Small knob of butter (heh, “knob”)
200g lentils (I like Puy lentils for their earthiness)
3 or 4 sage leaves
However much ham you want, leftover from making the stock
A dash of worcester sauce

The Cooking

Melt the butter in a large-ish pot and chuck in the onion and carrot. Saute until they’re softened and jusy catching on the bottom of the pot, then add the garlic and fry for another minute or so until you can really smell the garlic start to cook. Don’t burn it.

Now throw in the lentils, sage leaves, pint of stock and pint of water. Shake in a few dashes or worcester sauce. Bring up to the boil and let it simmer for about an hour. Taste regularly and add more water if needed.

After an hour, add in the ham and simmer for another ten minutes. Ta dah! A wholesome, filling soup made my your own fair hand.

Accidental Food and Unreliable Recipes

On reading other food/cookery blogs I’m seeing plates and bowls of good-looking food. And I wonder – who are these people who know how to cook so well, so prettily? I’m not a bad cook, I’d go so far as to say I’m growing into being a good one, but my meals are much more trial and error.

It should also be taken into account that I am often a fool. Today, for example, I was making what was shaping up to be a pretty good chicken noodle soup with some stock I made yesterday. I had the leftover chicken from Sunday’s roast, I chucked it in the pot, and only then did I remember that I had flavoured the roast chicken with a lemon butter under the skin. The chicken noodle soup was… lemony. Really quite lemony. Which is not the flavour I was going for.

As it turned out, Mr B enjoys lemony chicken noodle soup and the meal was not ruined, particularly with the addition of kneidl. But I never see this happen in other people’s blogs. Their food looks pretty, colourful, less accidental.

And here’s another thing – sometimes it’s not me being a fool. I also had a go at making dashi (Japanese stock) today. From all the recipes I looked at, it looks pretty simple. Put kombu in water, bring to boil, add bonito flakes, turn off heat, when flakes settle at bottom of pan all is done. Except none of these recipes (NONE) mentioned that you need to poke the flakes to make them settle. I left those flakes floating on top the water of 20 minutes. “This can’t be right”, thought I, “I will investigate”. At which point I poked some flakes gently and they all immediately sunk to the bottom of the pan. I drained the stock, had a sip, and oh my lord it tasted like tuna water. It wasn’t good.

I gave it the benefit of a doubt and tried it again. Nope. Definitely tuna water, caused by excessive bonito flake soaking. I threw it away.

So you see. Sometimes I’m a culinary clever-clogs, some days (like today) I should just stick to stir-fry.

Pesto

Pesto

Pesto is one of those things which is absolutely always worth making yourself because it tastes so much fresher and it’s incredibly easy. I mean really, really easy. Made in five minutes easy.

To make the amount shown in the above picture (which should serve four):

Ingredients
Basil (about 30 leaves)
100ml good olive oil
40g pine nuts (you can toast these if you like, I don’t always bother)
50g Parmasan cheese, freshly grated. If you can get pecorino cheese, use 25g pamasan and 25g pecorino
Salt

Cooking

“Cooking” is a bit of a misnomer, because all you need to do is bung it all in the blender and whizz it until it’s the consistency you want. Ta dah! I think it’s even nicer the next day when the ingredients have had the chance to get to know each other. It’ll keep in the fridge for a few days (but not much longer).

And it doesn’t just have to be served with pasta. It’s good on chicken, fish, asparagus too. Or stir some into a vegetable soup. I urge you, make your own pesto today,

Chicken Stock & Bonito Flakes

chicken stock

Following yesterday’s roast chicken, today is chicken stock. There are as many recipes for stock as there are cooks, and mine tend to just be what I have in the fridge. Although I think with stock, it’s important to know when to leave well enough alone. If you chuck a load of garbage in, it’ll taste like garbage.

As you can see from the picture, today’s stock contains one chicken carcass, one leek, several shallots (I didn’t have any onions in), about 10 peppercorns, some mushrooms and some sage leaves (left over from the Saltimbocca). And water, of course.

It’s been on the hob for about two hours now. I reckon another hour or so and it’ll be done. The flat smells chicken-y.

***

We were in central London for Mother’s Day today, and after a meal of steak and kidney pudding and mashed potatoes, I went to the Japan Centre and got some bonito flakes.

They’re dried fish flakes. Now I need to get some kombu (seaweed) I can make dashi, a Japanese stock. Then I can make noodle soup. I am so looking forward to that.