Friday, January 30, 2009

French onion soup

There's nothing better in those cold winter days than warming up to a hot bowl of soup. French onion soup is an especially good and comforting one and really a cinch to make. It can literally be whipped up in under 30mn.

All you need is 2 to 3 medium onions, some butter, water, a good Swiss Emmentaler or French Gruyere and a nice piece of stale bread. Now I do insist on the fact that the bread has to be a good 3 to 4 days old in order to absorb a maximum of liquid. If using old bread doesn't sound too appealing, you can always substitute fresh bread, but the result won't be comparable. Fresh bread has a higher water content and therefore cannot absorb moisture in the same proportion as a more dehydrated bread would.

Here is my twist on it. The butter is first melted in a cast iron pot on high heat. The onions are peeled, cut in half and sliced. Then they're tossed in the pot along with a good pinch of kosher salt to help them break down. They have to become sweet and tender and caramelize all around. The caramelization is important as it is what will yield its typical brown color to the soup. You might want to play around with the heat a little in order to get that nice caramelization without burning the onions.

When the onions are ready 3 to 4 cups of water are added along with a good tablespoon of kosher salt. The heat is turned on high to bring it to a boil. It is then simmered over low heat for about 20mn and seasoning is adjusted. I personnally like this soup with a lot of freshly ground black pepper.

When ready to serve first arrange several pieces of bread in a bowl, then laddle the hot soup over and sprinkle all over with cheese. Wait 5 mn until the cheese has melted and forms a kind of "crust" on top.

If you're after that beautiful golden brown top, the soup needs to go under a hot broiler for about 5mn. Ideally, the soup should be served in stoneware bowls for that special rustic look, but any kind of ovenproof dish would do the trick.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Swiss chocolate sandwich cookies

I never buy dessert, except may be for ice cream. I realized Saturday evening that my latest batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies had already been devoured (I have 2 little monsters who love sneaking in the kitchen and trying out mommy's confections especially when it involves chocolate and cookies). As for the pint of chocolate ice cream in the freezer...What chocolate ice cream in the freezer?

I remembered this recipe for chocolate sandwich cookies I had read about two months ago (I never forget a good recipe) and now was the right time to give it a try. This recipe was adapted by Nick Malgieri from "Swiss baking and Confectionery" by Walter Bachmann.

It's basically a chocolate cookie dough rolled and cut out with a fluted round 2 inch cookie cutter and a double chocolate (milk and semi-sweet) filling for the chocolate lovers like me. The filling is spread evenly between 2 cookies and a light dusting of powdered sugar makes them as sweet to look at as they are to eat.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Brown rice with butternut squash and toasted pumpkin seeds

I love meat. Sautéed, simmered, stewed, roasted, boiled, grilled, boneless or bone in, ground, skewered, as a steak, sausage or roast, raw, I love meat.

This is why, after reading Michael Pollan’s book : “The omnivore’s dilemma”, I started thinking about the way I, we, eat meat. It felt so right to me hearing someone say that the killing of an animal should be done in the most respectful way, a kind of ritual in which Man is reminded of where he comes from, thanks Mother Nature for the animal giving up his life so that his species can live on and will eventually in return feed the soil that will feed the animal grazing in the prairie. A perfect circle of life.

On a more practical level, it also reminded me of the importance of knowing where your meat comes from and how the animal was raised and put down. Whenever I see the name of a restaurant chain or beef on sale at ridiculous prices there’s this thought of Steer 534…
This whole industrial meat chain is horrifying, disgusting, shocking. It is like a scene from a horror movie except you can’t close your eyes, it’s there, it’s happening right now! I guess what strikes me most, besides the conditions surrounding the animals’ lives and deaths, is the fact that some people actually work there. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t think those guys are any worse than you or me. I don’t think they are to blame. They just got the job they could get and that’s that.

What I am most upset about is the fact that some people “have” to take these jobs. How can they go to work everyday without their sense of pride getting more and more tarnished as the days go by? How can they get rid of the lingering smells on their skin, in their mind? How can they sleep peacefully at night? How can they live with themselves? How can they stay sane? Here’s the trick, I think they can’t.

Because this is all rather upsetting to me and because I want my dollars to go directly support the causes I believe in I have decided to watch my meat intake. Like Michael Pollan suggests, a human being can only kill so many animals and at the same time remain respectful of the life he’s taking away. Therefore (and don’t forget I’m a meat lover) once or twice a week in my house dinner will be free of animal protein. It’s not a big sacrifice, and it helps remind us to be more thankful for the meat we do eat.

Which is what brings me to my meatless dish of the week Brown rice with butternut squash and toasted pumpkin seeds. A satisfying winter dish that could easily get meatier with the addition of mushrooms. The butternut squash is first peeled and cut into bite size chunks, then boiled for about 12 mn until just tender. Then I toss it in some olive oil on medium heat I add salt, pepper, garlic, ginger, flat leaf parsley, when all incorporated, my already cooked unsalted rice goes in with a good splash of tamari, some toasted pumpkin seeds and scallions.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Roasted golden beets and carrots with pastured pork chops

There is no way back now. Winter is here to stay and so are root vegetables. This recipe comes from Jamie Oliver's new book Jamie at home. He was not a chef I particularly admired when he first started, but with the years, he has taken a direction which, I have to confess, adheres very much to my own principles of cooking and eating. Eat locally, organically, sustainably, responsibly.

I spotted some beautifully fresh organic golden beets the other day at my local Whole Foods and the first thing that came to my mind was "roasted beets". I'm happy Jamie and I now think along the same lines, as I was able to find his version of roasted golden beets. I had never had golden beets before....but their cousins the red beet. Oddly enough, I found their taste to be absolutely identical so I guess the interesting part lies in their playful vibrant colors and different nutritional contents (golden orange and deep purple couldn't possibly be made of the same phytonutrients).

They are very sweet and do have a sourness to them which vinegar usually enhances in a subtle way. But in that instance, the use of balsamic vinegar seemed to be an adequate choice for the beets, bringing out both their sweetness and sourness.

Both carrots and beets are first boiled to absorb enough water to cook properly and avoid the ''shriveling in the oven''. Anyone who has tried to roast vegetables in the oven before will know what I'm talking about*. They are then seasoned each in a different way : the juice of an orange, the leaves of a few thyme sprigs, smashed garlic cloves and olive oil for the carrots, balsamic vinegar along with a few unpeeled whole cloves of garlic for the beets, last but not least, fine gray sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper for everyone. Last step is roasting them in the oven**.

Moving on to the pork chops, I have to tell you that this pork is the best tasting pork I have ever had, and I'm not even kidding! I get it from a farm nearby, where I also get my eggs, chicken and beef. It's a small farm operated by a couple who uses the rotational grazing method. The animals spend their lives out in nature doing what they were meant to do and they are treated humanely. No pesticides, antibiotics, vaccines or growth hormones there, only the most respectful ways of treating living beings and the environment we all share. In return, the meat is spectacular.

For this recipe, the pork chops are seasoned scored and sage leaves are inserted in the slits. They are then seared, and cooked. Finally, the pan juices are deglazed with fresh lemon juice and poured over the chops.

I'd say not too bad for a weeknight's meal.

*Cook's illustrated this month features an article about roasting green beans and the shrivel action. It says : ''Wrinkles aren't always a sign of overzealous cooking. For roasted green beans, shriveled exteriors indicate a successful transformation from bland and stringy to tender and flavorful''.

**In Jamie's original recipe the vegetables are roasted in a 425 degree oven for 30mn. I would recommend bringing the temperature down to 375 (especially in a convection oven ) for about 20mn.

Friday, January 2, 2009

First brunch of the year

I found this recipe about a month ago, and just reading it I knew it would be a perfect new year’s brunch : ricotta pancakes along with caramelized apples topped with cooked prociutto drizzled with warm maple syrup. I could feel how the rich sweetness of the maple syrup would pair perfectly with the saltiness of the prociutto and I couldn't wait to try it.

I made the pancake batter with a mixture of ricotta, buttermilk and organic lemon zest and peel. The apples were quartered cored and peeled, then tossed in melted butter and maple syrup and cooked in a warm oven until slightly browned on top. The prociutto was cooked on a baking sheet for about 10mn until crispy.

The result was up to my expectations. The ricotta made these pancakes unbelievably moist even though thoroughly cooked. The different textures gave the whole dish a certain dimension : the crunchiness of the salty procuitto against the melt-in-your-mouth consistency of the fruity apples. Just plain beautiful to start off the year on a sweet note.