Tuesday, June 25, 2013

It's Raining French Onion Soup

It is June 25, 2013. It rained at my house today. For those readers east of the Mississippi River, that revelation may not seem too surprising. You are used to hot, humid and wet summers. We Californians are not.

I remember visiting my Aunt Ginny in Louisville, Kentucky in 1967 (and yes, I know how pronounce that fine city's name correctly and have fond memories of my Kentucky uncle - see my blog post about Black Eyed Peas). It was mid-June, it was hot and humid and it rained one day, and continued to rain, and it rained so much that the street outside Aunt Ginny's home filled with enough water that it was like a wading pool. My brother, sister and I ran outside in our day clothes, into the pooling water with our mouths open to catch the falling drops. We kicked up enough water that we almost drowned 4 year old Laura, but she was laughing too hard to notice. If we had seen the film, we would surely have been imitating Gene Kelley in "Singing in the Rain", so happy were we to be playing in the rain on a hot summer day.

Aunt Ginny stood on her front porch, with my mother, in astonishment. "Haven't they ever seen rain?", she asked. "Not in June when it's 90 degrees", was Mom's reply. It does not rain in California in the summer.

I have one other memorable summertime rain experience. I worked at Knotts' Berry Farm, the Buena Park amusement park, during the summers while I was in college. (It is vastly different from when I worked there 30+ years ago, but I will not dwell on that.) It rained on August 16, 1977 - a really unusual weather pattern for Southern California - and the park closed due to that rain. I did not have to report to work that day.

Now, I have no way of knowing if these two events are linked, and I'm not going to start any conspiracy theories, but it rained in Southern California on August 16, 1977 and Elvis Presley died that same day.

My best friend Pam was a huge Elvis fan and as a way to help her mourn, I suggested we go for a rain walk. We were goofy enough as 19 year olds that a lack of umbrellas, put away until winter, was no obstacle.  We  jumped and splashed  in our day clothes through the water that pooled on the streets of our suburban neighborhood, not a care in the world, temporarily forgetting the death of an American icon. I was my 9 year old self in St. Matthews, Kentucky once again!

The rain today has not been enough to flood our neighborhood street. It's not cold enough for pot roast and mashed potatoes - the temps are quite sultry and almost tropical so I'm imagining myself in Hawaii.  But I guess there is enough foul weather that my younger son has asked for French Onion Soup for dinner. Thanks to the well stocked pantry, I have all the ingredients on hand. We may not run out into the street, delighting in the rain, but we have dinner.

Photo by  Steve Hunter, Fine Cooking Magazine


French Onion Soup

 Serves 6


    • 4 Tbs. unsalted butter
    • 6 large yellow onions (about 3-1/4 lb. total), sliced about 1/8 inch thick
    • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
    • 2 tsp. all-purpose flour
    • 1 cup dry white wine (not oaky), such as Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio
    • 8 cups homemade chicken or beef broth, or low-salt canned chicken broth
    • 1 sprig flat-leaf parsley, 1 sprig fresh thyme, and 1 bay leaf tied together with kitchen twine
    • 1 baguette, cut into as many 3/8-inch slices as needed to cover six soup crocks
    • 1 to 1/2 cups (about 6 oz.) grated Gruyère cheese


    1. In a large, wide soup pot (at least 4-1/2 qt.), melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and season lightly with salt and pepper. (It might seem like you have far too many onions, but they'll cook down to about one-quarter of their original volume.) Cook the onions gently, stirring frequently, until they're very soft and have begun to turn a dark straw color, 35 to 45 min.
    2. When the onions are ready, stir in the flour and cook for 3 to 4 min., stirring frequently. Pour in the wine and increase the heat to medium high, stirring and scraping to loosen any caramelized juices, until the liquid is mostly reduced, 5 to 8 min. Add the broth, toss in the tied herbs, and bring to a simmer. Season to taste with salt and pepper and simmer for 20 to 30 min. to infuse the broth with onion flavor; the onions should be soft but not falling apart. Remove the herb bundle and taste the soup for seasoning. The soup can be made ahead to this point and then cooled and refrigerated for a few days.
    3. To serve -- Heat the oven to 350°F, put the baguette slices on a rack, and toast lightly (7 to 10 min.); set aside. Increase the oven temperature to 450°F. Bring the soup back to a simmer. Set six ovenproof soup crocks on a heavy baking sheet and ladle the soup into the crocks. Float a few toasted baguette slices on top, enough to cover the soup surface without too much overlap. Top the bread with a handful (about 1/4 cup) of the grated Gruyère. Slide the baking sheet into the oven and bake until the cheese is melted and just browning in spots, 10 to 12 min.
    4. Melted, bubbly, just barely golden cheese is what you're after. Serve the soup right away, while the crock is hot and the cheese is still gooey.

No need to shed any tears when slicing onions. I put on my trusty pair of Onion Goggles, pull out a big bowl and produce sliced onion perfection with my OXO Handheld Mandoline, one of the many wonderful items in my Camp Blogaway swag bag. Bon Appetit!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

It's Not Complicated!

Why do people make cooking so complicated? I went into my pantry the other evening, pulled out a couple jars of imported oven roasted tomatoes and crushed tomatoes and made a sauce for the Italian sausage ravioli I had in the freezer. Maybe it’s because I know how to cook, and cook for a living, that I can make a pantry raid into a successful dinner. It should not be all that hard for the average home cook. By doing a little research into how to keep a well stocked pantry and larder, anyone can provide their family with good food prepared with quality ingredients. Food TV is an excellent place for home cooks to find inspiration, and many people would never be in the kitchen were it not for Ina, Giada  or Bobby. Though I find there are far better televised food resources such as Jacques Pepin, Lidia Bastianich, Eric Ripert
Yes, Chef Eric is easy on the eyes and
 he knows how to cook!
Photo from PBS.org
and America’s Test Kitchen on PBS, if folks are shopping for and cooking with real ingredients because of “celebrity” chefs, I am happy. (Full Disclosure - I love Ina, I own all the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks and use her recipes repeatedly. But don't get me started on Bobby Flay!)

What really chaps my hide are shows like “Chopped”, which is broadcast on The Food Network. I’m not a big TV viewer, but occasionally, when I need a guilty pleasure, I’ll pause on “Chopped” as I channel surf. I watch it with both hope and disdain.

I get nervous as the TV chefs scramble for real ingredients that will make the ridiculousness in that basket somewhat palatable. I root for them; in a strange way, I want them to succeed. These chefs are really going to concoct something out of  Stinky Tofu, Shad Row Sack, Marmite and Astronaut Ice Cream. Yes, those ingredients  have all been in that ridiculous basket, perhaps not at the same time, but just the same. I begin to wonder what I would do with those ingredients and then I slap myself. This is reality TV not real cooking! The chefs are so earnest in their pursuit of greatness. They look into the camera and speak of how their Marmite-Shad Roe Frittata with Astronaut Ice Cream Foam will have the judges swooning. Oops, left out the Stinky Tofu. Geoffrey will not be happy.

Chopped judge Geoffrey Zakarian.
He knows what he's doing!
Photo from The Food Network

Here’s where I move into disdain mode: You can hold your hands up to the TV and feel the warmth of these chefs’ sincerity as they speak about their love of cooking, how they learned to cook from their mother/grandmother/dying frat brother, and how the potential win of $10K will allow them to expand their 20 seat diner/help offset their high interest loan on said diner/lead to a gig on The Food Network. They then proceed to diss and degrade their fellow competitors. It gets really nasty, and we all now know that that is exactly what the producers of “reality” food TV want – blood and guts and Avocado Crème Brulee. This is my big sticking point with shows like “Chopped” – COMPETITION!

Cooking is not about competition. Cooking is about love. Cooking is about sharing one of the most fundamental elements a human can share. We cannot breathe for one another, but we can provide nourishment for one another. We celebrate and mourn with food; we charm and court with food; we impress with food and we humbly offer it when we have little else to offer. Food is love.

Cooking for friends and family is one of life’s simplest and purest pleasures. If you need some encouragement, use resources such as cookbooks, online blogs and video tutorials, and watch food TV (PBS preferred). Purchase quality ingredients from  farmers’ markets and trusted grocers. Cook those ingredients well. You have dinner. It’s not complicated.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

I Dream of Italy!

I’m beginning to believe in signs. Maybe I always have. As a nine year old at the Balboa Fun Zone in Newport Beach, I squandered the last quarter my father had given me for games to have my fortune read . The gypsy fortune teller came to life as the coin clinked through the slot. She then clanked and clunked and swayed into a mechanical trance. She may have even winked at me. She raised her hand and then she jerked to a sudden stop, her face becoming as implacable as it had been before the clink of the coin.

There was a slight gasp, mine perhaps, as a card dropped magically into a small open drawer just below the frozen gypsy’s glass encased throne. It was my fortune... And it said...“You will go to the moon before you are 21 years old.” ... And I believed her! This was just 2 years shy of Neil Armstrong’s great leap for mankind in the Sea of Tranquility. How could I not believe the gypsy? Anything was possible in 1967!

I am now 55 and I have not been to the moon. But I still believe in signs, and when Italy began cropping up in almost anything I read or watched, I knew that, this time, destiny was firmly within reach. 

The first sign was an article I read in the New Yorker by Sean Wilsey, about his time as a gondolier in Venice.
Venice had never really registered on my travel radar – it seemed so old and flooded and touristy. But Wilsey’s article captivated me. Always a copious researcher, I spent nearly an hour on Google Earth, scrolling in and out of satellite images of the lagoon, the canals and the islands. I had to go there! Both my sons had visited Venice on a school trip and I could not let them one-up me. Having never been to Italy, they had one-upped me, but I think my whole summer in France as an exchange student trumps their 2 week trip to Italy, but I will not get competitive with my children!

Scrolling through recommended reads on my NOOK, I found The Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. I was captivated by the setting and it didn't take long for me to imagine myself boating along the coast of the Cinque Terre, a mysterious Hollywood star at my side. Those cliffs, the decrepit village, the fishermen so set in their ways, the lovers lost and reunited. I cried. Not only for the lovers, separated for 50 years only to be rejoined as one was dying, but for myself, because I wasn't in Italy. It was a sign...

Then a late night's Netflix surfing brought a movie that just had to be another sign: Roman Holiday, William Wyler’s love letter to Rome, starring the most perfect of star-crossed lovers, Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. And I cried, all the way through, because their love was so perfect, and Eddie Albert was so goofy-ly perfect and Rome was so perfect and it was all such a sad and beautiful fairy tale. And then I cried because there was just so much Italy in my life and I was not there.

The final sign was the most powerful. I've joined an online group of food bloggers and a regular listing of new blog posts comes into my inbox daily. A link recently caught my eye and I knew it was another sign: La Tavola Marche! A farm, an inn and a cooking school in Le Marche - magic! My trip to Italy is all planned, and until it becomes a reality, I can still dream of Italy!