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.

Ham Hock and Stock

Ham stock

This is proper frugal food. A whole ham hock costs me £1.75 – and that’s a posh organic one from my local farmer’s market – and it’s easily made to stretch to three meals. It baffles me why this isn’t a more widely used joint of meat. Granted, the initial cooking takes some time but you’re not standing at the stove slaving away over it, it just bubbles away on its own for a few hours. If I wasn’t so paranoid about accidentally burning down my flat, I’d put this on in the morning, go out and do other things, and then come back and it would be ready. As it is, it’s a pleasant Sunday night ritual to cook a ham hock ready for the week.

You also end up with a great big ham bone. As tempting as it is to give this to a dog, a vet friend of mine told me off for doing this because the bone will have softened in the cooking and splinters easily. So. Don’t do that.

Ingredients for Stock

A ham hock
2 carrots
1 onion, red or white
6 or so peppercorns
6 or so juniper berries if you have them
A couple of bay leaves
A bouquet garni if you have it
Celery, leeks, whatever veg you have in except for brassicas like cabbage, broccoli or spouts. They can rather overpower the stock.
Water

No salt – the ham is salty enough itself.

The Cooking

You don’t need to peal anything, just wash the veg, cut the bulkier items in half and then bung all the ingredients in a large pan. Pour in cold water slowly. The reason you do it slowly is that you don’t want to disturb the fat on the ham too much – if the fat gets jostled and dislodged, bits of it will float around in the water and this is what makes stock cloudy and greasy. The water should just cover the ingredients.

Put it on a low to medium heat on the hob (stovetop). The aim is for the fat and scum to rise to the surface as intact as possible so you can skim it off easily and the stock stays clear.

Once it’s come to a gentle simmer, skim off any fat and scum that has risen to the surface with a spoon. Turn down the heat even more. You want the barest of simmering going on – the occasional “bloop” from a bubble every few seconds. This is so that the collagen in the meat softens and dissolves, which flavours the stock and means the meat doesn’t dry out.

For the first half an hour or so, check back and skim off any further rubbish that’s risen to the surface. After this time it will probably have all risen. You can do now go off and do your own thing for a few hours. I give it a stir every hour or so to make sure there’s no ingredients poking out of the top of the water and drying up.

The liquid will reduce a bit, which is a good thing. The flavours are getting concentrated. After 4 hours it should be nearly ready. Have a taste. If it’s full of flavour, it’s ready.

Strain the stock through a fine mesh colander into a suitable container and leave it to cool. You now have stock:

And ham:

Once the ham has cooled, tear it off the bone and either eat straight away or put it in the fridge for later. Chuck the veg and fat away, it’s no use to anyone but the pigs now.*

You can use the stock straight away but it might be a bit greasy. Instead, let it cool and then leave it in the fridge overnight. In the morning there will be a layer of fat on the top which you can skim off. The stock will probably be jellified, which is a great sign because it means you got the temperature right and the gelatin from the bones has leached out and the stock will be really full of flavour. It’ll become liquid again when you heat it up.

The stock is now ready for use. Tomorrow’s post will be a selection of recipes for the ham and stock.

*Don’t feed pigs with it. That would be wrong.

Bacon and Chicken Risotto

risotto

I’m lucky enough that my other half, Alex B, is also a very good cook. There are certain dishes that I will always leave to him, simply because he has the knack of them and does them really well. Also, it means I don’t have to cook every night.

His signature dish is risotto. You can’t beat it. So here I present his recipe, as written by him:

Ingredients
Serves 2 generously

100g streaky bacon or pancetta or lardons, chopped into squarish pieces
100g leftover roast chicken (or raw chicken)
1 red onion, chopped
500ml chicken stock, more or less. Use the best you can get because it’s important in this dish. If you have home-made chicken stock, this is the perfect way of using it.
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
150g risotto rice
100ml white wine
Frozen peas, however much you like
Parmesan, grated
Sage
Olive oil
Butter

The Cooking

Chop the onion and garlic and bacon into whatever sized pieces you would later like to eat. Chop or tear the chicken into small pieces. In this recipe I have used already cooked chicken, but you could also use raw chicken.

Pour the stock into a saucepan and heat until just about simmering. Leave it on a low heat throughout the cooking.

Heat the olive oil in a deep frying pan (some manufacturers call it a saute pan) and gently fry the bacon. (If you are using raw chicken fry this now too.) As the bacon is salty you will not need any other seasoning at this stage. When the bacon is mostly cooked remove it from the pan and put it on some kitchen roll. Add a little more olive oil to the pan and begin frying the onion gently. When the onion has softened nicely add the garlic for about a minute.

After a minute add another drop of olive oil and a small knob of butter. When the butter has melted put the rice in and stir it around to coat it with oil and butter and cook for about 30 seconds. Pour in the white wine and stir. If the wine is cold you might want to turn the heat up to get it cooking quickly – you do not want your rice sitting around in cold liquid. When the wine had reduced to almost nothing begin the add the stock, one ladle-full at a time.

You are now entering the main risotto-cooking process. This can take any time from 15 to 40 minutes, depending on the temperature you’ve got your hob. If the stock doesn’t bubble at all, then it’s not hot enough to cook the rice; if it is too hot then the stock will evaporate without pausing to cook the rice. When you’ve added the load of stock add any herbs you want. I used sage this time, but rosemary and thyme, or any combination of those three, would be good. Add your chicken and bacon now.

Stir the risotto every so often to keep from sticking to the pan (except, see below). Allow the liquid to reduce until you have got a thick, sticky porridge kind of consistency and then add another ladle of stock. Don’t worry about using all the stock, the important thing is to get the rice cooked properly.

Now: sticking. If you don’t stir the rice often enough, it will begin to stick to the bottom of the pan. Stir again and scrape any stuck rice off the pan. This is good, because it releases starch from the rice and helps to make the risotto all creamy and delicious. If the rice sticks too much it will form a sort of burnt layer underneath the risotto, but this doesn’t matter too much.

Continue cooking, adding stock, and stirring, tasting the rice every so often. Risotto rice shouldn’t be as soft as basmati or other kinds of rice. There should still be a bit of bite in it, without actually being crunchy. When the rice is cooked to your taste, add the peas for about 2-3 minutes and turn the heat down. Use as many peas as you would like to eat. Turn the heat off completely and add the grated parmesan and stir it in. Sprinkle some more parmesan over the top if you are greedy (like us).

Serve with some nice bread and salad.

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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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Pork tenderloin wrapped in pesto and parma ham with puy lentils

Pork tenderloin

This takes slightly more effort than just bunging something in the oven, but only slightly more and it is worth it. Pork and lentils are such a great match.

Ingredients
Serves 2

1 pork tenderloin
4-ish tablespoons of pesto – either shop-bought or make your own (takes 5 minutes)
4 slices parma ham or proscuitto
Aluminium foil

½ an onion, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
Puy lentils. Judge for yourself how much you want.
Vegetable stock

The Cooking

Pre-heat the oven to about 180C/350F

First of all, heat up the olive oil in a saucepan to a medium/high heat and chop the onion. When the oil is good and hot, bung in the onion and cook until softened but not browned (about 5 minutes). Add in the lentils and stir it well and cook for about a minute and then pour in some vegetable stock – enough to cover the lentils and then some. Because every time you cook lentils they’re different, you’ll need to judge for yourself if you need to add more stock as they’re cooking. I tend to top the stock up as I go so that it’s neither a big soupy mass nor dried out. Turn the heat down and simmer.

Now smear the pesto over the pork loin all over so it’s well covered. Lay out the slices of parma ham flat and so they overlap slightly. Lie the pork loin on top of the slices and then wrap the ham round the pork so it’s tightly wrapped. If you’ve got some ham left over you can also fold some over the ends. Now wrap the whole thing in aluminium foil and put on an oven tray. Pop it into the oven for 15-20 minutes.

By the time the pork is done the lentils should also be ready. Have a taste and season with salt and pepper if you think it needs it. If they’re a bit bland you can add things like Worcestershire sauce, thai fish sauce, mushroom ketchup. It’s up to you.

Slice the pork and serve it with the lentils. Lush.

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Boulangere Potatoes

boulangere potatoes

I was doing a roast chicken and wanted a nice potato dish to go with it. But everything I looked at has masses of cream and/or butter. Shockingly bad for the diet. BUT. This dish is low-fat and tasty and relatively easy to do. It takes a little concentration but once it’s in the oven it just sits there and cooks itself, no bother.

Ingredients
Serves 4

4-5 largish potatoes
2 or 3 cloves of garlic (I used 4 and it was too much. Yes, it is possible to have too much garlic.)
1 onion or a couple of shallots
4 bay leaves
Chicken stock (I used a tub of fresh stock bought from the supermarket. If you are better than me and have stock you made, then I congratulate you. If you want to use a stock cube, I promise not to tell anyone.)

The Cooking

Peel the potatoes. If you have a fancy machine for slicing things thinly, such as a mandolin, then use that and slice the potatoes thinly. If, like me, you like to live by your wits, use that magical kitchen implement – a sharp knife. It’s actually suprisingly easy to thinly slice a potato. I will admit that I did have to discard the ends of the potato though, I’m not risking chopping off my fingers for the sake of a few more slices. Not even I am that dedicated.

Also thinly slice the onion and garlic.

Pre-heat the oven to 180/360/gas mark 5.

Now layer the potatoes in the bottom of the dish, and sprinkle some of the onion, garlic and bay leaves on top, thus:

potato bake

Season with salt and pepper and continue to layer the potatoes, garlic, bay and onion, ending with the potato on top.

Now pour on the stock so it comes up level to the top layer of potato. I didn’t have enough stock so just topped it up with water. The world did not collapse at this improvisation, although I’m sure it would have been even nicer had I used 100% stock.

Pop the dish in the oven on the highest shelf, and leave it there for about an hour. When it’s ready, it’ll be tender when prodded with a knife and collapsing into the stock.

This dish is very forgiving and will stay in the oven longer if you haven’t quite timed it right. Lovely.

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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.