Hardly anything I can think of trumps the utterly simple deliciousness of a well-prepared French onion soup. Similarly, I can think of nothing utterly worse than a thin, flavorless ill-prepared version. Like all dishes with very few ingredients, the key is making each one count. For an exquisite French onion soup it boils down to three things: a top-quality, rich dark beef stock, long, slowly simmered caramelized onions, and Gruyere or Comte cheese for topping. Therefore, if at all possible make your own stock, don’t rush the onions, and go for the best quality imported cheese you can afford. Processed Swiss will work in a pinch but the flavor and color will be diluted. Aside from its heady layers of sweet onions marrying with nutty, bubbling cheese and a rich broth, this is an ideal soup for entertaining (such as New Year’s Eve or Day!). All of the components can be made ahead and put together at the last minute before serving, and I’ve never met a soul (French or otherwise) that doesn’t love the stuff.
(Adapted from pre-published pages for The French Cook: Soups and Stews, Gibbs Smith, Fall 2014)
Soupe a L’Oignon Francaise
French Onion Soup
(Makes 6 servings)
Special equipment: Six 1 1/3 cup oven-proof bowls or ramekins
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 large sweet onions (preferably Vidalia), or substitute regular white onions, peeled halved and thinly sliced (about 6 cups)
3 cloves garlic, smashed and finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, chopped
3/4 cup good quality white wine (suggest Chardonnay)
1/2 cup dry vermouth
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
4 cups best-quality, unsalted beef stock (preferably homemade)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the croutons and cheese garnish:
12 slices 1 or 2 day old French baguette bread, cut into 1/2”-thick slices
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups grated Gruyere or Comte cheese
In a 5 1/2 quart Dutch oven or similarly sized soup pot, melt the olive oil and butter together over medium high heat. When melted, add the onions, garlic and a generous dash of salt and pepper. Stir to coat. Continue cooking another 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until all of the onion “water” is cooked off and the onions have become quite soft. Add the thyme and continue cooking. The onions will start turning golden and caramelizing in 10 minutes. This is what you want. Taste and adjust salt and pepper as needed. Increase heat to high, add the wine, stirring to pick up any brown/caramelized bits and reduce by half. Add the vermouth and also reduce by half. Sprinkle the flour evenly over the soup, and stir to mix into the onions, cooking for one minute. Add the beef stock, stir. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer, cooking another 15 minutes, uncovered. Meanwhile, turn the broiler on high. Arrange the croutons in a single layer on a baking sheet. Drizzle each side lightly with olive oil and rub it into the bread. Place the sheet on the top shelf and broil until just golden on each side, turning once. You can stop here and store the soup separately from the garnishes overnight in a refrigerator or continue to finish the soups. To serve, taste the soup again, and adjust seasoning if necessary. Ladle boiling hot soup into each bowl/ramekin. Top each with 2 or 3 croutons and about 1/2 cup grated cheese. Arrange on a baking sheet and broil until the cheese is golden and bubbly, about 4 to 6 minutes. Serve immediately with fresh thyme sprigs for garnish if desired.
Bon appetit et Joyeux 2014!
Wall Street Journal’s Gastronomy columnist Aram Bakshian, Jr. wrote a very flattering review of The French Cook: Cream Puffs and Eclairs(as well as 4 other cookbooks) in this past weekend’s (December 14 and 15) edition. What a lovely Christmas present!
Here’s an excerpt from the column:
“There’s a bit more puff to the pastries described in Holly Herrick’s “The French Cook: Cream Puffs and Eclairs” (Gibbs Smith, 127 pages, $21.99). The latest addition to its publisher’s volumes on aspects of French cooking, this is a slender tome about a fattening yet exquisitely airy and oh-so-French dessert genre: cream puffs and éclairs. The lightness comes from the choux pastry base of simmered butter, water, flour and eggs, which Julia Child described as “one of the easiest pastries to make,” once you get the hang of it. Whatever its size or shape, the choux pastry serves as a model home for hundreds of fruit, custard, crème, cheese and chocolate fillings. Many of them are included here, from quick-cooking fruit sauces like Coulis aux Framboise (raspberry sauce intensified with crème de cassis) to the multilayered flavors of Profiteroles (cream puffs) with Salted Caramel Macadamia Nut Ice Cream and Warm Caramel Sauce (a great combination of a lot of sweetness with just a touch of savoriness). Ms. Herrick, an award-winning pastry chef herself, is the ideal docent for this classic gallery of French desserts, and her recipes, for even the most complicated items, are concise and clear.”
Mr. Bakshian also rightly states at the top of his piece that “Christmas remains a bastion of culinary custom, a time to open our hearts, loosen our belts, and enjoy food rather than obsess about it.” Indeed! Wishing you and yours an especially warm, loving, beautiful and delicious Christmas and good tidings for 2014.
In between holidays, I’ve been having fun in my kitchen experimenting with French soups for my upcoming book on the same subject. One of the things that makes soup French (aside from being delicious) is the attention to detail in the garnishes and in the presentation. This fantastically layered and delicious soup gets treated to a garnish trifecta with housemade croutons and creme fraiche as well as bacon. In the book it is in the cold soup chapter, but it is just as delicious served piping hot. To go that route, instead of following the directions for cold below, just be sure to reheat the soup thoroughly before serving. I love the idea of serving this brilliantly red, white and green soup as a start to Christmas dinner. It would be the perfect prelude to a standing beef roast. Adapted from (draft version) The French Cook: Soups and Stews (Gibbs Smith, Fall 2014).
Roasting already sweet, available year-round grape tomatoes makes these royal-red gems even sweeter and a decadent flavor backdrop for fresh thyme-cloaked croutons and salty bacon. A swirl of crème fraiche (recipe and method to follow) on top delivers a crowning French flavor twist.
Roasted Grape Tomato Soup with Thyme Croutons, Bacon and Creme Fraiche
(Makes 4 to 6 servings)
1 quart (4 cups) fresh red (or substitute another color such as yellow) grape tomatoes, thoroughly rinsed
1 large shallot, peeled and cut into 8 pieces
1 teaspoon Champagne vinegar (or substitute cider vinegar)
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 cup chicken stock
Salt and pepper
For the croutons:
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
1/2 small, day-old baguette, cut into 1/4” cubes
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper
4 slices bacon, browned, drained and coarsely chopped (optional)
1/4 cup crème fraiche (recipe follows this one, below)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
Preheat oven to 450F. In a roasting pan or full-sized, edged baking sheet, combine the tomatoes, shallot, vinegar, and olive oil, tossing to coat evenly. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Top with the fresh thyme stalks. Roast in the pre-heated oven for about 30 minutes, or until the tomatoes start to pop and implode, tossing 15 minutes into the cooking. Leave the oven on (for the croutons) and discard the thyme branches. Spoon the roasted tomatoes, shallot and any roasting juices into a food processor fitted with a metal blade or a blender. Use the chicken stock to deglaze the hot roasting pan, stirring up any browned bits. Add the stock to the processor/blender. Blend until chunky smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Turn into a bowl, cover and chill for at least 3 hours or overnight.
To make the croutons, toss together the thyme, bread cubes, olive oil and salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Turn out onto a small baking sheet and roast in the pre-heated 450 oven until golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes, tossing once. Set aside to cool. To serve, ladle the soup into individual bowls, top each with a dollop (or drizzle) of crème fraiche, 4 or 5 croutons, 1/2 teaspoon bacon, and a drizzle of fresh thyme leaves.
Make Your Own Crème Fraiche
Crème Fraiche, a thick, fermented whole cream, is the darling of Dieppe in the milk and apple rich region of Normandy, France. Though increasingly easier to find in the United States, it can still be a challenge. For a more authentic and easier crème fraiche when not in France, it’s best to make your own. In addition to its distinctive creamy flavor, crème fraiche (made with heavy cream) will not break when cooked into soups or sauces and makes a beautiful garnish for any soup, hot or cold.
Last week, a full two weeks before Thanksgiving was even scheduled to arrive, I got an intense craving for turkey. No, not the deli variety, and not the roasted kind you can buy. I needed to have a fragrant bird filling up my house with its gorgeous aromas while I worked on my new French soup cookbook upstairs in my office.
So, I went to the grocery and bought a small, five pound, bone-in turkey breast. I had to wait a day to thaw it in the fridge, and then I got busy doing what I always do for any turkey I’m about to roast. I rub mine down with olive oil, season generously all over with ground black pepper and kosher salt, and nestle a couple of pats of butter under the skin of the breast. I start mine in a hot, 425F oven and let it cook for about 20 minutes, or until it starts to form a kind of golden “crust” within which the seasoning is embedded. Then, I reduce the heat to 325F, and start basting it with a combination of 1 cup white wine, 1 cup chicken stock, 1 tablespoon honey, and 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, whisked together. I baste (or return the love back to the turkey) every 20 minutes, spooning the flavorful pan juices over the bird along the way. Stop cooking the turkey when the center of the breast reads 160F and let it rest, lightly covered with tin foil, for at least 30 minutes. This whole process, at 20 minutes per pound, took less than 2 hours.
Then, I started carving the juicy, tender white meat away from the bone for the week of turkey sandwiches I enjoyed the past several days. Never one to endorse wasting food or flavor, I coarsely chopped the remaining carcass and put it in a large stock pot with a quartered onion, a couple of stalks of celery, a carrot, 2 bay leaves, and enough water to cover the contents . I brought it up to a boil, reduced to a simmer, and cooked it ever so slowly, uncovered for about 6 hours, skimming off any “scum” as it rose to the top. The result was a gorgeous, clear, fragrant stock.
So, a little bit early, I had on-hand exactly what you will have on-hand the day after Thanksgiving. Plenty of turkey and stock to put to good use. The obvious solution is a fragrant, light and delicate soup. Because the book I’m working on uses French technique and method, I cut up all of the vegetables very finely, into what is called a brunoise. This is a tiny 1/8″ dice. It looks pretty and allows all of the vegetables to cook quickly and for the same amount of time. A petite dice of warm croutons on top finishes it off in a very French way for this wonderfully American holiday. Because basically everything is prepped ahead, it comes together in just about 20 minutes. Bon appetit! If you’re careful in your planning, you should still have plenty of roast turkey for sandwiches. This soup uses only about 2 cups.
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled and very finely chopped
2 large stalks celery very finely chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and very finely chopped
2 cloves garlic peeled and smashed into a paste
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups very finely chopped crimini mushrooms (Note: Remove any dirt with a damp paper towel and pull out any tough stems before cutting.)
1 1/4 teaspoon dried rubbed sage leaves
1/4 cup dry vermouth
6 cups reserved turkey stock
2 cups turkey breast, skin removed and cut into 1/4″ cubes
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves finely chopped
For the croutons:
1 cup dried white bread, such as baguette, crust removed and cut into 1/4″ cubes
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried rubbed sage leaves
Roast turkey on Thanksgiving using method described in the front of this recipe. After the meat’s been cut off the bone, reserve the carcass and prepare the stock using the method in the front of this recipe and reserve the stock and the turkey meat separately in the refrigerator. The following day, proceed as follows.
In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter and olive oil together over medium high heat. Add the onion, celery, carrots, garlic and a light dusting of salt and pepper. Stir to coat, reduce heat to medium, and sweat the vegetables for 5 to 8 minutes or until they’re softened. Add the chopped crimini, dried sage and stir to coat. Add the vermouth, stir and increase heat to medium high. Reduce the vermouth to a glaze, another 3 to 5 minutes. Add the reserved turkey stock and cubed turkey meat. Bring up to a boil and reduce to a simmer over medium low heat. Cook for 20 minutes to soften the veggies and bring the flavors together. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.
Meanwhile, to prepare the croutons, melt the butter and the oil together over medium high heat in a saute pan. When sizzling, add the cubed bread, salt, pepper and dried sage. Toss to coat evenly. Reduce heat to medium and continue cooking the croutons, tossing, until golden brown on all sides. Reserve warm.
Serve the soup very hot in shallow bowls. Garnish with a drizzle of freshly chopped rosemary and arrange a pyramid of warm croutons in the center of each bowl just before serving.
Bon appetit and Happy Thanksgiving!
Early spring selflessly affords us with so many wonderful things to celebrate. Here, in Charleston, the air is sweet with the heady frangrances of jasmine, wisteria, and budding trees everywhere. It’s so breathtakingly beautiful, it mandates automatic forgiveness for the pollen that clogs the air and heads of the allergy afflicted masses. Here and elsewhere baseball season begins, Easter and Passover’s celebrations are underway, marathons are being run, and the thing that makes me happiest of all, Farmers’ Markets are dusting off their tents and setting up shop for another long and delicious season.
Nothing puts spring in my step like farmers’ market opening day. The vendors and farmers are rested from their early winter break (although farmers’ work never ends) and tables are bursting with the bounty of spring – tender, sweet onions, asparagus, fresh-from-the-earth potatoes, strawberries, rhubarb, turnips, greens – some of my favorite things. I’ve long held an internal debate about what seasonal foods I most prefer. As much as I adore the tomatoes and peaches of summer and the squash and apples of fall and winter, I always come back to spring as my #1 top pick. I don’t know if it’s because the silence of the winter season seems so long, but there is something about these foods that render me virtually giddy.
So, this past Saturday morning, when Charleston’s downtown Farmers’ Market opened, it felt like I was seven years old on Christmas morning, the anticipation level was that high. I pulled out my trusted, striped farmers’ market basket, donned a beaming smile and headed straight for Marion Square. As always, it was a feast for the senses and the soul. The smell of baking bread co-mingled with the sweetness of strawberries, familiar farmers and vendors smiled and sold their wares, even as more new faces and vendors did the same. It was intoxicating!
I loaded up with all my favorites and headed home to figure out how to best put these goodies to use. This was another reminder of why spring produce is especially idyllic. It needs precious little prep or ingredient additions to render it just about perfect. Super fresh produce responds very well to roasting which does a simple and fantastic job of coaxing the sugars and flavors of the supple produce out of them and directly into your happy mouth and stomach. Hence, the recipe that follows.
Roasted Spring Veggie Medley with Bacon and Scallions
(Yield: 4 to 6 servings)
In this delicious and nutritious warm veggie side, potatoes, spring onions, summer squash (though not yet quite in season), spring onions and asparagus are roasted separately (or alongside each other in the same pan) to retain their individual flavors and then tossed together, topped with sauteed bacon and scallions just prior to serving. Look for the freshest, thinnest skinned new potatoes you can find and leave the skin on. They will take just a little longer than the vegetables to cook, but the short wait is well worth the while. Non-meat eaters feel free to omit the bacon.
10 well-scrubbed small, fresh potatoes, quartered
3 spring onions, trimmed to 3″ length of the green stems, and halved
1 yellow squash, washed, trimmed and cut into 1/2″-thick slices
10 spears asparagus, washed trimmed (cut about 1″ off the bottom) and gently peeled about 3″ up from the base
Extra Virgin Olive oil
Sea or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 slices bacon, sauteed and crumbled into large chunks
3 scallions, finely chopped
Preheat oven to 425F. Prep the vegetables. In a large roasting pan, arrange each of its kind together in a single layer, side by side. If the pan is too small, roast any remaining vegetable kind (for example asparagus) in a separate pan. Drizzle the veggies generously with olive oil, salt and pepper. Toss each group together to coat. Roast at 425 until tender and barely colored/golden, tossing once or twice. The potatoes will take a little longer than the rest. After 20 – 25 minutes, remove the asparagus, onions and squash with a slotted spoon and transfer to a serving bowl. Keep warm by covering with a piece of aluminum foil. Increase the oven to 450F and continue roasting the potatoes until very tender and just golden, another 10 minutes. Meanwhile, saute the bacon over medium high heat until crispy. Drain on paper towels. Crumble or chop into a small dice. Toss the potatoes together with the warm vegetables. Topp with the bacon and scallions and serve immediately. This is a delicious dish on its own, or would work magic as a side to poultry, fish, pork or steak.
Mom’s Stewed Strawberries and Rhubarb
(Yield: About 2 1/2 cups)
Me and my siblings were basically sweet and dessert deprived as kids because my mother didn’t believe in them. However, she always obliged when strawberry and rhubarb season came around with this simple and delicious compote. Serve it warm over ice cream or cold over yogurt for breakfast. Unlike Mom, I add a little cinnamon and vanilla, but feel free to omit if you want it “plain.”
4 rhubarb spears, trimmed and cut into 1/2″-thick pieces
2 cups fresh strawberries, hulled and halved
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 vanilla pod, cut in half vertically
Generous pinch ground cinnamon
Combine all of the ingredients together in a medium sauce pan. Bring up to a boil over high heat and reduce to medium. Continue to simmer, uncovered, until the rhubarb has broken down into a sauce and the strawberries are still chunky, but very soft. Remove the vanilla pod and discard. Serve warm or cold as suggested above. Refrigerate, covered, for 2 to 3 days. This will also freeze well for several weeks.