Posts Tagged ‘magic’

french onion soup

The weather has been such a tease lately. Seventies on Sunday, thirties this morning, it’s gray, it’s sunny, it’s in-between! Oh my. I made onion soup (B: “French onion soup?” Why, yes, is there any other kind?!) for lunch yesterday, one of the more gloom and doom days we’ve experienced in a while. For about an hour this morning (the hour when the sun was out), I wasn’t sure about posting a hearty soup-and-cheese-and-bread recipe today. But then the clouds came out to play, and it seems like a soup day after all.

This recipe is a total French classic, executed in a brilliantly simple style by Julia Child, who was not French but might as well have been. And while I usually attach the caveat of “this may not be authentic, but it is delicious!” to my recipes, this one is both. Ha! This is the one type of cuisine I can lay claim to.

It’s a double-edged sword, though, because I think when most people see the words “French Food,” they still imagine the fancy, the expensive, the impossible-to-replicate-at-home. This little ol’ soup could not be farther from such monikers. You brown the heck out of a pound and a half of onions in some olive oil, butter, and salt. You sprinkle in a little flour (to thicken) and you add liquid. Julia recommends beef stock and a splash of white wine, which is what I’ve used the past couple times with fabulous results, but my dad gets the same mileage out of water and sometimes chicken stock. You simmer it all together, the longer the better, and ladle it into a bowl with little floaters of toasted bread and cheese. Friends, this is one of the cheapest dishes you can make.

And before we go on, a word about that cheesy bread. I am, to my bones, no fan of the gratin top that accompanies 99% of restaurant onion soups. You know what I’m talking about. When the cheese gets all melted under the broiler and forms a sort of gooey lid over [soggy] bread and, beneath that, the actual soup. Not for me. The way I was raised, there’s a basket of toasted baguette rounds and a plate of grated cheese on the dinner table, and you adorn your own soup bowl moments before eating it. The cheese still melts, but the bread stays crunchy — and that textural contrast is, after all, the entire point of adding toasted bread to soup.

I hope I’ve made myself clear.

But even if you’re a devotee of the gratin top, you’ll love the soup underneath. Try it today! Before the weather gets nice!

Julia Child’s French Onion Soup
(Adapted Mastering the Art of French Cooking, with some proportions tinkering)

Enough to generously fill three soup bowls

  • 1 1/2 lbs or about 5 cups thinly sliced yellow onions
  • 3 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp sugar (helps the onions to brown)
  • 1 1/2 tbsp flour
  • 1 quart boiling low-sodium beef stock, or 2 cups boiling water and 2 cups beef stock (N.B. For this amount of onions, Julia actually recommends two quarts of liquid. I halved it, the first time by accident, and now because I find the soup so much thicker and richer for it.)
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 3 tbsp cognac (optional; I omitted)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • several rounds of thinly sliced toasted baguette
  • 1 cup grated Swiss or Parmesan cheese

In a large, heavy-bottomed stock pot, melt the butter and oil together. Add the onions, cover, and cook over low heat for 15 minutes.

Remove the cover, raise heat to moderate, and add salt and sugar. Cook 30 to 40 minutes, stirring frequently, until onions have turned an even, deep brown color.

Sprinkle in the flour and stir for 3 minutes.

Add the boiling liquid and wine. Simmer partially covered for 30 to 40 minutes, skimming occasionally. Season to taste. (At this point, you can remove from heat and let the soup hang out until ready to eat.)

Just before serving, add the cognac. Pour the soup into bowls and add bread rounds and a generous handful of cheese. Enjoy!

groundhog blizzard

If I talked to you in the last two days, chances are I used the phrase “not that bad” regarding the snow. I was skeptical and unimpressed. The snow was falling fast, but the flakes were so tiny, and since the wind didn’t start until last night I honestly did not believe the hype.

I would like to take it all back.

To say that we are snowed in would be a gross undersell. We are “snowed in,” if that means that the wind has compacted snow into the door screens, so they now weigh twice as much as usual. We are “snowed in,” in that the snow is a foot high against our wooden doors and they only open with a colossal heave-ho.

Here, what used to be our front porch steps.

Here, the inner back door, somehow also studded with snowflakes.

Luckily, we still have heat, electricity, hot water, and a full fridge. (We also have a broken snow shovel. But it’s okay, we’ll just pop over to Lowes for a new one! Perhaps we should have checked that earlier.) So, you know, if anyone feels like snow-shoeing over for cocoa, come on down, we’ll be here a while!

For more news, see the Press Citizen.

decking the halls

Our Christmas tree has been up since the end of November — perhaps, strictly speaking, a little too early, but as I keep explaining to critics and their raised eyebrows: Boyfriend and I are having our Christmas on December 15. Shouldn’t ten days early on the presents means ten days early on the tree? That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Our mound of presents has been growing since the first of the month, and I can’t wait to rip all that lovely, lovely paper and ribbons apart this afternoon. The best part: getting to do it all over again in just a week and a half! I think I may even get to decorate a second tree this year. My parents and I always put out the Christmas books from when I was little, and I love rereading them every year: Spot’s First Christmas, The First Christmas, The Night Before Christmas. I know the exact cadence of my mom’s voice when she reads this one aloud — but I think you’ll agree, the text stands on its own just fine, too.

little tree

little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower

who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly

i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don’t be afraid

look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,

put up your little arms
and i’ll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy

then when you’re quite dressed
you’ll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they’ll stare!

oh but you’ll be very proud
and my little sister and i will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree

we’ll dance and sing
“Noel Noel”

e.e. cummings

truffle oil popcorn

I promised to tell you about Graham Elliot, the restaurant Billy and I ate at last Saturday night. I forshadowed with three of the most beautiful words in the English language: Truffle. Oil. Popcorn. This is what they give you to nosh on, instead of bread and butter. They give you popcorn in small, industrial boxes, drizzled with truffle oil and tossed with black pepper and shaved parmesan. It is, as our waiter warned us, “addictive,” but luckily that is one part of the meal that arrives, and refills, free of charge.

I say the “the one part” because the rest is expensive. Not prohibitively, not necessarily, but you should know that the menu online doesn’t come with a price list in a gesture of, If-you-have-to-ask, __________. (Fill in the blank.) At one point during dinner, B leaned over and said, “I’m glad that we are both happy spending all our money on food.” You have to be.

Graham Elliot is what would happen if the French Laundry and its three Michelin stars met a grunge rock band. There will be foams and deconstruction. There will be loud music and a tongue in cheek menu notes like “if you feel like taking yourself too seriously during dinner, ask your server for our house copy of ‘war and peace'”. The header for the hundred dollar wines will be called, “big whites and reds (the baller section)”. There will be truffle oil popcorn in an industrial tin.

romaine. anchovy. parmesan. brioche. anchoide. peppercorn. How better to start than with a deconsructed Caesar salad: a brioche twinkie crouton (with dressing subbed in for the twinkie marshmallow fluff) topped with a shoot of lettuce and topped again with a whole anchovy and “parmesan fluff.” It’s a great conceit — GE would call it “awesome”, as in “keep an open mind and awesomeness will result,” which is in print and I am NOT making up — but I wanted a truer, crunchier crouton. And more leaves. And basically, I wanted it to taste miles better than the Caesar-dressed romaines I haphazardly throw together on a regular, lunch basis, and it didn’t taste miles better. Not because I AM AWESOME or MY RECIPE IS, but because there wasn’t so much taste following the presentation.

butternut. curry. coconut. lemongrass. ginger. lime. The second course was a soup. It was outrageous. I could eat the vat. But first, let me tell you that they bring out soup bowls, with pepitas and other crunchies arranged artfully on the bottom. The liquid comes in a beaker. (A lab beaker! Seriously!) At the table, the server pours the soup over the nom nom crunchies, and you are instructed to please taste the soup immediately, then swirl it with the crunchies and “observe how the chemistry changes.” Did I roll my eyes? I confess nothing. But the change was extraordinary. At first, a sweet, mellow, and well, squashy taste and then — swirl — it turned sharper, with those faintly bitter and sour hints of lemongrass and lime. This was one of my favorites.

scallop. persimmon. endive. walnut. vanilla. gooseberry. Then the sea course. Two scallops on the plate, each occupied with their own favor, one sweet with vanilla and persimmon and the other a more savory take. There were also some incredibly pillow-light and fluffy gnocchi, and I found myself wishing for an entire plate of just that. I didn’t love the flavoring on this dish. The scallops themselves were lovely, so was the gnocchi. I’m a simple girl. Just give me that. Or soup.

waygu. potatoes. more truffle. (Can you tell this one isn’t on their website?) The land course! Two rounds of perfectly rare waygu beef, tucked over miniature purple potatoes and baby carrots, all topped off (at the table, from a beaker) with more truffle broth. I find this complaint almost unbearably “let them eat cake,” so please don’t mock or hate when I’d had, by that point, too much truffle. There. Now I will always be the girl who ate too many truffles. But I just wanted my perfect meat and potatoes on their own.

chocolate. marshmallow. graham. peanut. honey. brulee. I am just going to go die now. Do you know what this was? It was a homemade, haute s’more with peanut butter and vanilla ice cream foams. It weakened me. A cut of graham cracker. A slab of good, but really good milk chocolate. A bouncy, from-scratch and perfectly square mashmallow, browned right to the point of gooeyness. Did I mention there were two s’mores? I ate it as nature and campfires intended, hands and all, and the waiter laughingly told me, “That’s the first time I’ve seen someone eat it like a real s’more.” People! When it’s called high-low, you gotta act like it!

Graham Elliot actually hit the nail on the head with this declaration on the website:

It does redefine fine dining. Sometimes, the resulting cleverness leaves a little taste to be desired (deconstructed caesar, I’m looking at you), but it’s ultimately a successful experiment. Right down to the beakers. And next time, I’m going five rounds on the haute s’mores.

why buy it when you can make it yourself: part chicken stock

When I had a really bad cold this time last year, my mom asked, “Don’t you have any chicken stock?” Knowing the kind she meant, I said no. To which she promptly rejoindered, “Well tell Billy to go out and buy you a chicken to make stock with!”

What an inane and poorly prioritized conversation, you are likely thinking, but that’s because you don’t know my dad’s chicken stock. It’s magical. It heals. It soothes. It does your laundry.

Okay, it doesn’t do that, but I grew up on chicken noodle soup from this base and can’t tell you how many times it stalled an impending cold-and-flu cloud in its tracks, and indeed sent it packing to the next desk down. I also couldn’t figure out why my barley and rice didn’t taste as good in Iowa as at home, until I realized my dad doesn’t cook them in water, but chicken stock. The flavor’s insane. Insane rice? Yes. You must be catching on. Same goes with, you know, any number of recipes here or elsewhere that call for chicken broth. Make this; use it instead.

Not just for the joy of “Little House on the Prairie”-ing. My store bought, low-sodium chicken broth in the fridge counts among its ingredients yeast extract and cane juice. The mind boggles. This doesn’t belong in stock. And I buy the hippie kind. Make this; use it instead and be amazed.

Chicken Stock
This is a recipe in the barest sense of the word: add several handfuls of chopped this and that to a pot, cover with water, and cook for several hours. You can, of course, alter the herbs to taste, and no you don’t need an entire, perfect rotisserie-cooked chicken carcas. But for you measurement geeks:

  • Leftover bones from one whole chicken
  • One cup roughly chopped celery
  • One cup roughly chopped carrots
  • One onion, halved and stuck with 6 cloves
  • A bunch of parsley
  • A bunch of fresh thyme
  • A couple bay leaves
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Plop all the ingredients in a large pot and add enough water to cover. Bring to boil and reduce to simmer. Cook, covered, on low heat for around three hours. During the first half hour, hour, skim off any particles or fat that float to the surface. Cover and continue to cook two to three hours. Strain and refrigerate overnight. The next morning, skim off any more fat from the surface, and freeze until needed.


If you have a chance to see Material World: Sculpture to Environment at North Adams, Massachusetts’s MASS MoCA, before it closes in February, I hope you do. The museum is a converted electronics plant, complete with rugged brick walls, heavily clanging doors, squared-off support beams, and wooden floor, all criss-crossed overhead with steel beams. It is beautiful. It radiates place. It bolsters the art inside, giving it a setting to dialogue with, in contrast to the “white box gallery” aesthetic of Chelsea, et al. I think white walls and concrete floors make the art look lonely and oddly small. Isolated planets in miniature. At MASS MoCA, they feel emboldened with context, history, an extra oomph.

And “Material World” is the perfect show for this old-soul building. Seven contemporary artists were invited to create large (huge) scale, site-specific installations in the museum’s second and third floor galleries, using uncharacteristically humble materials like fishing line, sheet plastic, bubble wrap, and paper towels. The result is an ephemeral delicacy that nonetheless looms large. (I almost wrote “booms large.” Not incorrect either.)

All of them were beautiful — truly — but “White Stag”, a crumpled paper dreamscape created by collaborators Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen blew me away. It crawled over two floors, coiling quietly on the lower and on the top-most, unfurled like so many trees before big factory windows overlooking the Berkshire mountains.

I wanted to curl up inside in the trees’ hollow knots (have you seen the California Redwood forests? Like that.) and explore every crinkled paper wrinkle and fall asleep in the museum. I’m trying to give you a little more to go on: quiet and white. Room-sized fragility but it still felt permanent. I didn’t want to leave, but since all museums must close, I instead bought the catalog and took (perhaps forbidden?) photos, and have now recommended this all to you. Just to say I haven’t felt so bundled together and rolled up cozy by art in a long time.

terminally uncool but worth it

Let me get this out of the way: I don’t mean to feed the dragon. The Washington Post beat me to this realization two years ago, and I only had my first taste last weekend. I am in fact late to the party. Furthermore, I know cupcakes are over. We have entered the cupcake backlash period. Macaroons are the next big thing, if donuts don’t get there first.

BUT. Let me just tell you. Georgetown Cupcakes — specifically their “Chocolate Squared” cupcake, is:

  • The best cupcake I’ve ever had
  • Better than any New York equivalent
  • You know, probably a “Top Five All-Around Dessert”

Friends, let’s dig a little deeper. Cupcakes attained It status within the last ten years, and in no small part thanks to the iconic Sex and the City scene of Miranda and Carrie wolfing down Magnolia’s and dishing on crushes. It was a New Yorky thing to non-New Yorkers, and that made it cool outside, and it was a West Village thing to New Yorkers, which made it cool inside, too. Then cupcakes got too cool for their own good. One reason: some bakeries got too big for their britches, and decided to expand to Los Angeles or Dubai, and is anyone really surprised that the buttercream’s not as fresh when the owners are also drafting a five year plan for the United Arab Emirates? No. Another reason: it’s cool to hate on the trend for being trendy.

But before cupcakes were the zeitgeist, and being the zeitgeist brought them down, they were perfect. Here’s why: small cakes. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like cake. But who wants to make or buy an entire cake when it’s just you? Or when half your guests like vanilla, and the other half wants chocolate? (This happens. I took advanced requests before bringing birthday cupcakes to my third grade class. What, this is just me? Moving on.)

Cakes are harder to share with coworkers or classmates. They never cut cleanly, or evenly, and the third or fourth slice always gets messed up because frosting’s collected on the knife blade, so it just drags through the cake and sort of squishes it in a depressing way. There are often leftovers. Cakes just look like a giant mass of calories, staring you down. But dammit all if cakes aren’t just the best tasting thing ever.

This is why cupcakes are great. You don’t have to cut them. They’re easy to share with groups. They’re frankly portable, and who isn’t constantly stricken with the thought, “I’m having a lovely day, but I really wish I had a small, portable cake to nosh on right now”? You can make a batch of six, or forty eight, and why stop there in fact, you can make thousands, as Georgetown Cupcakes does. They come in any flavor cakes do, and are customizable beyond that. They are CUTE and PRETTY.

All that is why we first fell in love with cupcakes. And one more thing. Although some cupcakes are overly sweet, or not perfectly soft around the outside, or topped with air-hardened frosting — the best cupcakes are truly the center piece of a cake, the sweet spot of perfect frosting application and evenly set, crumbly-moist batter. And Georgetown’s chocolate squared cupcake happens to be cut from a outstanding, intensely chocolate cake. Lots of butter, sifted flour, and undertones of coffee that intensify the chocolate. SO MUCH CHOCOLATE, but it feels lighter than air.

And that, in a nutshell, is the giant success of the chocolate squared. I’m going back, and I don’t even care if it’s uncool!