Onion Soup and Bone Marrow Toast

I’d like to take a second to wish my mother a speedy recovery from her cancer surgery.  You’re a trooper Mom, and we love you.

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This recipe started off as many excellent recipes do: with a spoonful of duck fat and four pounds of thinly sliced onions cooking together.  Mr. Henderson instructs us to shoot for softened, lightly caramelized onions, which can take up to an hour to achieve.

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When I was happy with the amount of browning on the onions, in went a bottle of good Normandy cider and a little chicken stock. The heat was raised until a slight simmer was going. The onions needed to cook down just a bit more.

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As the onions cooked, I turned my attention to the marrowbones.  I cranked the heat on the oven and placed the marrowbones inside to roast.

I’ve been asked many times about roasting bone marrow from people that want to try making some of Mr. Henderson’s recipes at home.  My advice to them is always the same: Oven at 450, marrowbones on a baking sheet, leave them alone for 15 minutes, then check to see if the tops have crusted over.  If you undercook them you’ll end up with semi-solid marrow that won’t spread over toast easily.  You don’t want to let them go too long though because the marrow will happily melt completely leaving you with a tasty but hard to deal with puddle of fat.  And that’s not good eats.

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Quickly I started slicing into the loaf of French bread I bought to make toast. A sprinkling of olive oil was added to each slice and I slid them into the oven alongside the marrowbones.

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Once the tops of the marrowbones had properly crusted I removed them and the toast from the oven.  The delicious and gooey marrow was spread thickly on the slices of toast with a healthy dash of salt.

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To assemble the dish I poured a healthy amount of the onion soup into a deep bowl, placed one of the marrow-adorned slices of toast on top of the soup and, to finish it off, I dropped a handful of chopped parsley “dump-truck style” all over everything.

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I’m a big fan of onion soup in general, and this is a fine, fine specimen of the onion soup genus. The duck fat and marrow added the rich, luscious flavor and mouth-feel that one would come to expect from onion soup, while the cider brought lots of nuanced flavors and a slight amount of extra sweetness.  I can’t wait to make this again, it’s an easy and delicious way to present bone marrow to people who might be afraid of it on its own.

New Season Garlic and Bread Soup

For the early months of spring you can get fresh garlic before it is dried.  It has a longer, greener stem, giving you the flavor of garlic with a youthful nature.  A food mill is very useful for this recipe–in fact a food mill is useful all the time.

This is the second to last dish I made for Brent and Harmony as thank you for their help getting me a day pass to this year’s SXSW.  I intended to stuff them silly and this recipe was going to help make that plan a reality.

The day before we had them over, I managed to find some very nice young garlic that hadn’t been dried at the Austin Farmer’s Market.  Supposedly it was the last of the season, so I felt pretty darn lucky all the way home.  I had been eying this recipe for a while and the prospect of getting to finally make it excited me.

The next evening during “dinner service” I removed the long stems and washed the heads to remove any leftover dirt.  Into a pot went the garlic along with a few cups of chicken stock.  The stock was brought up to a boil, and once it had been achieved the heat was dropped down to attain a slow simmer.  The garlic heads were left to cook for about forty minutes, which meant that the fresh cloves were going to be very, very tender.

Once the necessary time had elapsed, the garlic was removed from the chicken stock.  Mr. Henderson had instructed me to take the now softened garlic cloves and pass them through a sieve or food mill.  I don’t know if I had cooked the garlic too long, but no extra step was needed.  The cloves were almost liquid when I tore into the heads.  Through trial and error I found that the best process was to cut the bottom off a garlic head, and then squeeze the cloves out into the same chicken stock I had used earlier.

Right before serving we reheated the soup, mixing the garlic paste and chicken stock together along with some salt and pepper for seasoning.

In each serving bowl my wife placed a handful of cubes cut from the prior day’s bread.  The soup was ladled on top to soak in just long enough to soften the bread, but not long enough for it to start falling apart.

Here’s the final dish with some chopped chives as just a little garnish.  I hope Mr. Henderson won’t mind too much, as we all know how little he thinks of superfluous additions to a plate.

When I ate the first spoonful of the soup, I felt some disappointment.  There were no outstanding flavors that really jumped out and wowed me.  I felt sure that I had made some egregious mistake which had stripped the soup of its character.  But as I continued to eat, the realization of exactly what was going on dawned on me: this soup was very subtle with its flavor.  Metaphorically speaking it was a gentle lamb, not a roaring lion.  The garlic flavor was very light and refreshing, growing only slightly stronger with every mouthful.  The bread added some nice texture and volume to the soup, but without a doubt the star was the young garlic broth.  I’m already counting the days until I can buy fresh garlic again.

One down, seventy to go.

Leek, Potato, And Oyster Soup

You will need a blender for the recipe, as part of the joy of the dish is the smooth velvety soup within which lurks the oyster.

Seeing that the winter months have nearly ended, I decided to jump on this recipe so I could use oysters that were still nice and fat as opposed to the anemic and watery options come the summer. I’m also that much closer to finishing a section of the book, which is a bit surprising since I was truly afraid that I would have burned out on updating this website before that could happen. Maybe there is hope for me yet.

This is the first time that I’ve ever used the entire leek–minus the root–for a dish. I was a little concerned that longer green sections might taste like the wooden-esqe core of an older leek.

My wonderful wife prepped both the onion and the potatoes for me. While I’m sure it was done out of the kindness of her heart, I suspect that hunger played a bigger driving force than she would care to admit.

The book asks for a pan big enough to take all the ingredients, but unfortunately my largest pan couldn’t hold just the leeks, onion and garlic. I was forced to move to a largish pot. I let the aforementioned vegetables soften in a melted stick of butter.

Once everything was nice and giving, the potatoes were mixed in and left to cook for a few minutes. Chicken stock was then poured into the pot and I turned the heat up to attain a gentle boil.

With the potatoes cooked completely I seasoned the soup with some grey sea salt and fresh ground black pepper.

Something that still confuses me is that this recipe should supposedly serve six people. After all of the blending, I was left with just under 4 liters of soup! I suppose six really hungry people might able to polish it all off and then be full for the rest of the next day.

After blending everything, I put it all back in the pot and added every last drop of oyster liquor I could coax out of the little plastic container the pre-shucked oysters were in.

With so much soup I was worried that there wouldn’t be enough of the oyster liquor to really “get” that flavor while eating. Thankfully that wasn’t the case.

Two oysters were placed in each bowl, and then covered with the leek and potato puree.

The dish completed. It looks pretty much like pea soup, right? At least I think it does. A few scallion slices were added as a garnish to break up the sea of green.

I feel like I’m starting to sound redundant when I talk about the flavors of the dishes. I’m afraid that “rustic” and “homey” are soon going to wear out their welcome in my vocabulary. That being said, this dish is very, very homey. The leeks and potatoes work well with each other, and the briney liquor from the oysters expresses itself in the aftertaste of every spoonful. The oysters are really just a nice little extra at the bottom of the bowl as far as I’m concerned. The soup is the clear star, and something I would really like for lunch on a cold winter day or if I was recovering from a bout of the sniffles.

One down, one hundred and twenty eight to go.

Pea and Pig Ear Soup

This is based on a very dour recipe–dried peas, pig’s ears, and water, the ear giving certain body to the soup–but it is no less delicious for that.

Santa was very good to me–and hopefully to you–this year and brought me a 20 quart stock pot and a butane torch. I can’t wait to take the torch to a few piggy trotters to singe the hair off. Santa also bought me a very nice Canon Digital Rebel XT, so I’ll be learning how to take better pictures while working my way through “The Whole Beast.”

I’ll be the first to admit that I have been shying away from some more adventurous dishes. Sometimes it was due to necessity, as I don’t see my mother being able to stomach anything along the lines of brains. After finishing the Boiled Ham With Parsley Sauce I was left with a lot of wonderful ham stock and making pea and pig ear soup seemed like an innocuous way of breaking into the more interesting recipes. Considering it has a grand total of four ingredients, it should be simple, right?

While I was brining the picnic ham for the last update, I dropped the pig ears into the salty elixir for a few days. But before they went in, they smelled like, well, death. Putrid fits well, too. It turns out that the smell was due to the hair being burned off each ear. I thoroughly cleaned them both and that seemed to help the smell a little bit. Maybe I’ll be fixing those trotters outside now that I think about it…

Here are the ears post soaking. The brining helped with the smell quite a bit. I was expecting the ears to bit just a little bit bigger after sitting in the drink for three days, but other than the improved smell they looked exactly the same.

Dried peas, some onions and the pig ears. All that was needed at this point was the ham stock. It’s such a simple, elegant dish. That makes it even more embarrassing when I explain how I messed the whole thing up and hard to start over from scratch.

You see, the day I was making the soup I had friend over that I have been trying to help get a job at my workplace. Once I had the pea soup at a nice low simmer–or so I had thought–we left the kitchen to go over some details of the job. After two hours of “simmering” I came back in to check on things to find that the peas had charred to the bottom of the pot and all of the ham stock had boiled off. The absolutely worst part was the fact that I had used almost all of my ham stock. I certainly didn’t have enough to start over again immediately. Thankfully though, Mr. Henderson had included an alternative way of making the soup without ham stock.

Pork bones were the answer. Pork neck bones to be exact.

The new recipe called on me to use essentially the same ingredients except for water in the place of the ham stock and the addition of the pork bones and a whole head of garlic. I was lucky in the sense that I happened to have four extra pig ears brining, saving me another three days wait time.

This time, I watched the pot like a hawk. There was no way in hell I was going to let another batch burn. You can make out a pig ear in the upper left corner of the pot.

After a few hours, the ears were incredibly pliable. Silly Putty-esque would be pretty close in description. The ears had shrunk a fair bit in size due to the collagen and fat being cooked out. I then took the ears and stuck them in the fridge to cool them off and let them firm up a bit so I could then slice them up for frying.

Like so.

Mr. Henderson mentions that one should stir the hot oil so that the ear slices don’t stick together in a big mass. Despite my best efforts, a few of the ear slices still stuck together and I had to cut the crispy mass into smaller pieces. Biting into one of the slices, it would almost be tough to tell the difference between fried pig ear and some crispy bacon. Almost. The cartilage in the ear slice was still just a little bit chewy.

All of the elements together at last. The one nice thing about using the neck bones instead of using just the ham stock was that I could take the meat off of the bones and add it to the soup. Mr. Henderson was absolutely right about the dour nature of the recipe. I’m not a huge fan of peas in the first place, and this soup sadly didn’t make a convert out of me; however, my wife loved it. She said that while there wasn’t a huge wow factor, it was simple and homey and very tasty.

One down, one hundred and thirty three to go.

Pumpkin and Bacon Soup

A dish suitable for a large autumnal gathering. One pumpkin will feed many. For preference, choose an organic one, with a whitish green skin that feels very hard; they’re often available from health-food shops and some supermarkets.

Well, yesterday was supposed to be the big day: My first real post about making a recipe from the cookbook. I had originally planned on making Duck Legs with Carrots on Sunday as I have made it before, but after seeing this recipe I changed my mind. The fact that the temperature in central Texas has plummeted was also a factor. So later in the day when I got a chance I rushed off to Central Market for my ingredients, envisioning a lovely evening dining on a nice hearty soup laden with bacon, a mammoth cup of hot buttered rum and a fire crackling in the hearth.

Reality kicked me in the face when I realized that I was out of chicken stock after I got home. Making stock from scratch isn’t something that fits into 30 minute meals.

At one point I actually considered using some canned chicken broth. Whoever is reading this sure wouldn’t know or care. But a recent post on eGullet concerning Michael Rhulman’s new book, “The Elements of Cooking” perfectly embodies what I was feeling.

If his mantra ‚”How to perfect a good recipe: Do it over again. And again. Pay attention. Do it again.” strikes you as affected machismo, then the real world instruction “This is bullshit. Do it again.” is going to hurt your feelings. Far from being put off, I found the finger-wagging in Elements crucial in these days of Rachael Ray, Food TV’s paragon of the soft bigotry of low expectations. Book store shelves are groaning with books advocating half-assed technique, but finesse is vital and that essay may be the most important bit of information in the book. Finesse can be tasted in fine food and seen in the presentation, it’s what makes places like The French Laundry worth the expense, and it makes Thomas Keller’s cookbooks worth the hair pulling. The results are superior. It’s worth the care and attention to detail.

I’m cooking these dishes for myself, to learn and grow as a cook. Taking the easy way out isn’t going to help me accomplish that. So I put the groceries away, checked the cookbook for Mr. Henderson’s stock ingredients and headed back to the supermarket.

An hour later I had my stock pot on the stove, ready to go. If you’ve never made stock, I beg you–give it a shot once. It’s disturbingly simple, you can make a bunch of it at once and freeze it for later, and it beats the bejesus out of any broth or stock you can buy in a can or box. Heck, I watched football most of Sunday while I made chicken stock. Once you have it at the right temperature you can just leave the pot alone for a few hours, skimming scum off the top during the halftime breaks.

Stock

Here is the total sum of what it took to make a half decent chicken stock

  • Cut the meat off a chicken carcase, leaving the wings
  • Peeled and diced the vegetables
  • Dropped the above in the pot with a few herbs and a handful of peppercorns
  • Filled the pot up with water
  • Left the pot on the stove with a very slow simmer going
  • Threw away the vegetables and chicken carcase
  • Strained the stock

Finished Stock

That’s it. I could have clarified the stock as well, but Mr. Henderson claims that it wasn’t really needed. So again I beg of you–try making stock just once. The ease of it will surprise you.

Once I had stock on hand, I was able to start making the Pumpkin and Bacon soup.

The recipe itself is pretty straight-forward, with no fancy ingredients or special techniques. And that’s just fine with me. I need to establish better fundamentals before I try making El Bulli caviar.

Hello, sexy. I’ll say it here the first time, but I’ll be saying it again in the future: The pig is a magical animal. And this is a photo of two and a half pounds of smoked magical animal.

I dropped the cuts of smoked bacon into the pot with some leeks, onions and garlic. At this point in the recipe the kitchen smelled rather nice.

Pumpkin

The hardest part was cutting the whole pumpkin into one inch square cubes. Halfway through the cutting, my poor little knife callus just kinda gave up on me. It’s still smarting tonight. You can call me Mr. Softhands I suppose.

Let's get this show on the road

Here’s everything in the pot ready to cook. I ended up with a lot more pumpkin than I had room for, but I managed to stuff a good portion of the extra into the soup somehow as it cooked. I’ll have to ask Santa for a bigger pot this year.

And we're done

Once the soup was done, I noticed that there was about a half inch of bacon grease floating on the top of the soup. The recipe didn’t tell me to skim the fat off but I did so anyhow. I don’t think the flavor suffered in the least for it either.

One down

And here’s the final product with some nice rustic bread for sopping up the last dregs of the soup from the bowl. For my first attempt, I’d like to think I did pretty well. The pumpkin was soft and had soaked up some of the smokey bacon fat. The bacon was, well, bacon. My wife seemed to enjoy it too. I could see myself making this again in the future. Not like I need to though. Somehow I managed to ignore the fact this recipe can feed twelve people “easily”. Oops. I hope it’ll freeze well, as it’ll sure come in handy during the upcoming winter months.

One down, one hundred and thirty seven to go.