Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Recipe: French Onion Soup!

This evening in cooking class, we made french onion soup!
            It was the real thing: two kilograms of onions, a liter of beef broth born from scorched beef bones and simmered for 12 hours in a stock pot the size of an oil drum, and a block of ancient gruyere cheese that smelled like your very best vintage toe-jam.  It’s a  recipe for the ages - requires no particular technique, but the payoff is enormous; for every scrape of your wooden spoon across the enamel bottom of your cast iron pot, the flavor - and the afterburn - are massive.

It goes like this:

Peel two kilograms of onions (my partner and I had to do this in shifts on account of the tears) and put them through a food processor.  (Ye old traditional chefs can chop them by hand if they like.  We didn't bring along our swimming goggles.) 
            Take a deep, solid, cast-iron pot, chuck in the sliced onions along with 100g of butter and a pinch of pepper and salt (one pinch each), pop the lid on the pot and let the onions steam over high heat.
            Stir occasionally, and as the onions start to ooze and caramelize, stir more often, and after an hour or so, when you have a pot of dark, brown, odorous onions, add a liter of beef stock (in half-cup portions, so that you don't cool the pot down with a great one-liter liquid dumping) and a bouquet garni (parsley stems, thyme sprigs and a bay leaf, all tied together with string so that the woody stems don't get lost in the soup and end up between somebody's teeth), season it with more salt and pepper, and stir and stir and stir until the onion has disintegrated and the liquid has become thick and gelatinously brown and and you have one incredibly fragrant onion stew.
            But don't stop there!  Decant the stew into bowls, and top with a thick layer of gruyere cheese that your partner has grated while you've been stirring the onion pot.  Top the cheese with a layer of king-size croutons (take one baguette, a tureen of melted butter and a paintbrush - slice, paint and bake) and more cheese, and pop under the grill till the cheese is bubbly and you're about to lose your mind from all the incredibly redolent smells swirling through the air.  Eeek!

Now eat.

I adore me some gruyere cheese.  When Saul reached the cheese part of the cooking demo, reverently unwrapping a wedge of gruyere , inhaling deeply of the odor of mouldering socks and pubescent male bedrooms, and passing the block of cheese around the class for our own personal moments of reverence, the Nurse who Will Not made her Great Pronouncement of the evening:  
          "Oh, that stuff."  She said.  "You know, Coles (a supermarket chain) sells a version of this.  It's called Gruyere, too.  It doesn't look anything like what you've got there, and it doesn't taste anything like it, and it's all waxy and slippery, but it also doesn't smell like that stuff there (urgh!) - and that's the main thing."
             Saul didn’t even try.  He merely breathed deeply and tossed an extra pinch of salt into his onions.
            With malice forethought.
            The squeamish hospital nurses are a something of a bewilderment to Saul.  There are three of them this term, and he's not entirely sure what they're doing here.  They appear to be cooking under sufferance,  they emit screams (with hands clapped to mouths and pointing fingers of horror)  whenever Saul adds salt to a frying pan, they quote heart-health statistics at him whenever he cooks with butter, and most deplorable to his French-trained soul, they refuse to cook animal flesh to a state that is anything less than black and leathery - and then they slice and pan-fry the leather to make certain that there's absolutely nothing organic left in it.  The things those three women found it in them to do to a Chateaubriand two weeks ago had Saul almost in tears. 
            He recovered - and rebounded - last week when he brought in a tray of plucked ducks for duck l'orange:  these women don't enjoy handling raw meat, and when he lifted one from the tray and it dripped, they gagged and had to turn their faces to the wall, and all evening it was clear on his face that the intermittently squeamish noises of maternity ward nurses suffering a crisis of nerves when faced with a raw duck was pure music on his ears.  One hopes that this class will broaden a few horizons, but at present they're refusing to join us on the main range for cooking.  They prefer to work with the slow domestic gas stoves on the back wall - this way they don't have to worry about somebody (read Saul) accidentally (read More Malice Forethought) dropping a pinch of salt into their pot as he passes.

Mr Tabubil is working a project that doesn't leave him time for cooking classes at the moment, but he stopped by on his way home from work, and stayed for dinner.  He wasn't given much of a choice.  Saul fell upon him with a delighted cry of "Maaaattteeee!" and fussed around him like the old proverbial mother hen, filching everybody's croutons and dipping spoons into everybody's soup and generally "feeding him up". 
            "You're looking thin, mate.  Isn't she feeding you?  What sort of hours are they working you?  Don't they leave you any time for meals?  Here, have a beer. Red wine?  White wine? Another slice of bread?"
            Even after the filched snacks, Mr Tabubil was hungry- Saul caught him slicing the end off a baguette and brushing it with the melted butter, and disappeared into the walk-in fridge.  He reappeared a few minutes later with a club sandwich three inches tall, and sat Mr Tabubil down at a work-bench and watched delightedly as he ate the whole thing.
            Mr Tabubil still had room for most of a big bowl of soup afterward, which might be why tonight, as I sat on the sofa gently off-gassing, he was sitting upright in bed complaining of a terrible stomach ache and belching like a bull moose.
            This soup is an amazing recipe, but don't try it if you have to be around people for fourteen or fifteen hours afterward.

Seriously.  We were a cautionary tale for the ages.

(Bonus quote for the day:
            The Nurse that Will Not: "How do you tell when the caramelization process is completely finished?"
            Saul : "The onions are completely black and have turned into briquettes.  Any other questions?"
            The moral of the story being - don't attempt to mollify a French chef by suggesting that he "top his French onion soup with Coons Tasty Cheese (TM) to stop it smelling funny."*)

*Translation for non-Australians:  in our supermarkets, domestic cheese comes two ways:  Mild and Tasty.  That funny foreign stuff is for gourmet wierdos who shop the deli section. 

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