French Onion Soup — Two Years Late

So I was teaching a knife skills class at Williams-Sonoma today (quick shout-out to all the beautiful peeps who came out, especially Rosie), when I got to the part about knife safety and proper guide hand technique.  As I was explaining the right way to do it, I couldn’t help but hearken back to that fateful day in the fall of 2014 when, as a first-semester student at Midwest Culinary Institute, I didn’t do it the right way.

It was week 6 and a beautiful Saturday morning in early October, and we were eyeball deep in stocks, soups and mother sauces.  Among other items on that day’s production menu was the classic French Onion Soup, and I was totally jazzed about learning how to make it.  I was humming along at my station, all burners firing as I boiled things, simmered other things, sweated aromatics for a stock, and, most importantly, lovingly caramelized those beautiful onions for my soup.  I was chopping veg like a ninja, totally in the zone, when it happened — I very suddenly learned a vivid object lesson about maintaining one’s focus on proper knife technique.

When the expletives died down and I realized that I had not, in fact, lost the tip of my left thumb (but came rather too close to that for comfort), I set about seeking someone to apply first aid.  My chef was accustomed to such mishaps, but before wrapping me up he could not resist the somewhat ghoulish urge to snap a couple pics of my mortally wounded digit on his smart phone.  “You’ll want these later,” he told me.  “It’s a good cut,” he told me.  Then it was off to Urgent Care to get stitched up by a doc who evidently had been trained by the Viet Cong — incredibly painful stuff getting a lidocaine shot under one’s thumbnail.

Anyway, it healed in due time and I was back in class the next week, but the worst part of the whole experience was not getting to complete my cooking that day, especially the French Onion Soup.  Over the weeks and months that followed, in true Robert Frost fashion I found that way leads on to way and the road not taken remains forever so.  Okay, maybe a bit overstated, but the point is that I never got around to making that soup recipe — until today.  It was good but not the best I’ve had, but nonetheless the catharsis was thorough and the closure is complete.  I no longer feel like less than a true cook.  I can now get on with the rest of my life.  I finally made the French Onion Soup — two years late.

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Baked Gnocchi with Asiago and Sausage

A few months ago during our 25th anniversary trip, Lolly and I stopped by the ritzy little hamlet known as Carmel-by-the-Sea in California to do a little reminiscing.  Many years ago during our time out in Monterey with the military, which is where met, incidentally, Carmel was a favorite place to hang out on weekends, and has probably the best beach on the Monterey Peninsula.

While there we enjoyed some adult beverages and an appetizer at a quaint Italian restaurant called Little Napoli, which is tucked away on a side street and comes complete with a lovely little shaded courtyard.  I would highly recommend the place if you’re ever in town, and have included a link below for your perusing pleasure.  The dish we ordered was a garlicky baked gnocchi with fontina and parmesan, and we were both impressed at just how intensely flavorful a few simple ingredients could be when combined properly.

What follows is my humble attempt to play off that authentic Italian goodness, but to turn it into a full blown entrée dish.  To that end I added some mild Italian sausage and my own blend of cheeses.  Here is what popped out of the oven:

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This was totally made up on the fly, and maybe not as awe-inspiring as what we had at that restaurant, but it was still pretty yummy.  Here are your necessaries:

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tbsp. chopped oregano leaves
  • Cracked pepper to taste
  • 1 lb. potato gnocchi
  • 1 lb. Italian sausage links
  • 2 cups shredded Italian cheeses (e.g. fontina, asiago, parmesan)
  • 1 tbsp. fresh chopped basil leaves

A word about the cheeses:  use whatever you like best.  Fontina and mozzarella are great melting cheeses, but are not as flavorful as some others like asiago.  I chose the latter, and combined it with some others that I just happened to have on hand — shredded Bellavitano and some leftover mascarpone, which is a little sweet and creates a nice balance to the spicy sausage.  I also worked a little grated reggiano into the mix.  The point is, do whatever makes your little heart flutter — it’s all going to be yummy.

In a small saucepan combine the olive oil, garlic, oregano and pepper, and place over very low heat for about 30 minutes to infuse the flavors into the oil.  While that is working, preheat your oven to 450 and start some salted water to boil your gnocchi.  By the way, I used store-bought gnocchi for this dish since they’re such labor-intensive little buggers to make by hand, especially on a Thursday after work — there’s no shame in that.

Next, slice the sausage links diagonally (or “on the bias” for those who prefer chef-speak) to about 1/2″ thick.  It’s up to you whether you remove the casings from the sausage — I didn’t.  It makes for easier slicing with them on, but the downside is that some of the slices may try to curl up a bit during frying.  Speaking of frying, that’s our next step.  I used a cast iron pan with just enough oil to lightly coat the bottom.  Heat the pan a little more than medium and give the sausage slices a good brown on both sides, which takes about 10 minutes to accomplish.  When the sausage is  finished cooking, remove it from the heat.

Time to toss your gnocchi into the water and cook until they begin to float to the top, which should take less than 5 minutes.  Drain the gnocchi with a colander and transfer them to a mixing bowl.  Pour your infused oil through a strainer into the gnocchi, and toss to coat them evenly.  Now combine the oiled gnocchi and sausage in a baking dish, sprinkle generously with your cheeses and finish with the chopped basil.  Bake for about 15 minutes until the cheese is thoroughly melted and just beginning to develop a little browning, like so…

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We served this up with a simple garden salad and a glass of DOCG Chianti, and munched it right down with a big happy grin on our faces.  The whole dish comes together in about an hour from start to finish, and is well worth the effort.  It’s not even a little bit healthy — in fact it’s a heart attack on a plate, but you gotta live a little.  Until next time:  Eat well, my friends!

Little Napoli restaurant, Carmel CA

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Roasted Vegetable Soup

When I eat too much junky food and drink too much beer, after a while I start to crave veggies.  This was one of those weekends.  I decided I wanted a vegetable-based soup for dinner, and toyed with the idea of adding some protein, maybe some diced or shredded chicken, but I just couldn’t get excited about that.  Vegetarians, rejoice!  This one’s for you.  It’s pure vegetable-based goodness with a rich roasty flavor that is sure to please.

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The beauty of a dish like this is that you have a lot of latitude to make it suit your own personal tastes, so I’m writing the recipe to reflect that.  To make a generous quart of this soup, or your own variation of it, you’ll need:

  • 2 1/2 to 3 lb. fresh vegetables
  • 6 whole garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • Kosher salt
  • Cracked pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. dried thyme
  • 1 qt. vegetable stock

I’m being somewhat vague on the “fresh vegetables” because to a certain extent you’re free to choose whatever makes your little heart flutter.  The trick is you want veggies that will roast well in the oven and are not super starchy.  Here is an approximation of what I used for this batch:

  • 8 oz. onion
  • 8 oz. zucchini
  • 8 oz. yellow squash
  • 4 oz. roma tomatoes
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1 green bell pepper
  • 4 oz. asparagus spears

Whatever you choose, wash your vegetables well, then cut them into fairly large chunks.  In a large bowl, toss the veggies and garlic cloves with the olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme to coat them evenly.  Spread your veggies on a large sheet pan and roast them in the oven at 450° until they are well browned and showing some char, which should take about 45 minutes more or less.

On a side note, I also made my own vegetable stock for this soup today, although you can buy several good pre-made options.  I save up usable veggie trimmings in a freezer bag for just such an occasion.  In case you hadn’t picked up on it from my earlier posts, we eat a lot of asparagus around here.  That means I had lots of asparagus ends, which are too fibrous to be edible by most mere mortals, but they do lend a wonderful flavor to a vegetable stock, so into the pot they went, along with some onion, carrot, celery and garlic.   Sweat the veggies in some oil until tender, and add enough water to cover them.   For seasoning add a bay leaf, some cracked peppercorns, and a little fresh parsley and thyme.  Simmer for about an hour and then strain and cool — voila, fresh stock ready to use for your soup.

Getting back to our main recipe, when the veggies are roasted to the degree you like, combine them with the stock in a large pot, bring the mixture to a boil then back it down to a simmer for about 30 minutes.  Remove your pot from the heat and carefully puree the soup with an immersion blender.  Please please please don’t spray scalding hot soup on yourself during this step.  You can also use a stand blender like a Vitamix, but again caution is the watchword because hot liquids in a blender have a tendency to cause the lid to blow off with very messy and potentially painful results.  If you do it that way, blend it in small batches using a pulse method, never filling more than about a third of the carafe at a time.  Also keep in mind as you puree that you don’t want total liquid.  The goal is to retain a nice hearty texture but without any noticeable chunks of vegetable.

After the soup is pureed to the desired consistency, you’re ready to rock and roll.  We garnished ours with a swirl of olive oil and some blanched asparagus tips.  Serve it up with a loaf of crusty bread and you’re in for a delicious, healthy meal.  We munched this down with a big happy grin on our faces, and I know you will too.  Until next time:  Eat well, my friends!

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