Sunday, January 29, 2012

sunday soup day.

a steaming bowl of soup on a cold, lazy day has this sort of calming effect on me. sometimes progresso or campbell's can provide that temporary high, but there's really nothing like just rolling up your sleeves, turning on the stove and just making your own.

so with the idea of french onion soup lingering in the back of my brain for the last... oh, 3 months, i got into the kitchen with a recipe up on my laptop screen and 3 pounds of onions on my cutting board.

plus, when was the last time campbell's tomato soup supplied any sort of delicious leftovers the next day?


so i got chopping these absolutely monstrous onions. each one was almost a full pound!

no time to mess around with those pesky little onions. you know the ones where you cut off both ends, peel off the skin and you have all of a golfball sized "onion" left to work with. come on mother nature, give me a break! i want an onion i can actually work with!

let's make a full pot of french onion soup with only three onions.

yes. please.

by the way, best way to chop an onion is to cut off the tail so you have a level bottom that you can stand it on. then slice the onion in half, like i did above. after that, remove the skin and place the wider cutside down and make even, thin slices heading from the cut end to the end that is still in tact. i personally believe this is the easiest way to slice an onion because the bulb end holds it all together and you're never wobbling around with an unsteady vegetable and a sharp knife in your hand. not a good combination.

so three onions later, i had a very large bowl of onions sliced and ready for caramelizing.

starting with only a tablespoon of olive oil and half of the onions, i put the heat on medium and just let 'em go. i stirred them fairly often because i didn't want any to get more done than any others since my stock pot was already 1/4 of the way full.

...and because it's just one of those intoxicating aromas that i find very difficult to walk away from.

as they continued to caramelize, i continued to snitch hot morsels of sweet onion-y goodness.

hey. no harm, no foul.

once the first half of the onions were a nice caramel color, i added the other half of the onions.

letting the first half get a head start makes it so some of the onions are almost disintegrating when the glorious time comes to slurp up this sensational signature.

once the second half is added, i turned down the heat to medium low. it'll take almost an hour, but be patient and just let them hang out and get tasty.

and tasty is just what they got.

at this point, i would not think any less of you for taking a forkful for yourself.

in fact, i would probably encourage it.

it's crazy to think that this was once 3 pounds of monstrous onions that pushed the boundaries of a large mixing bowl. because now i can push all of those melt-in-your-mouth little bits to just one side of the pot.

(proof that caramelizing them loooow and sloooow can work all sorts of magic.)

once they've turned that dark brown color it's time to finally make this into a soup.

the recipe i was using called for 2 quarts of beef stock and a quart of chicken stock, along with a little lemon juice, worcestershire sauce, salt and white pepper. i also decided to add a little dried thyme and a little sprinkle of cayenne because as far as i'm concerned, a little bit of heat never hurt anyone.

but wait.

hold on a second.

there's something that needs to happen before all the liquid goes into the cauldron of deliciousness.

and its name is whiskey.

ok technically the recipe called for bourbon, so if you're making this and you have that on hand, feel free to use that. but the very limited amount of liquor that inhabits the top shelf of my parents' pantry apparently does not include bourbon. and even if it did, i would probably be from 1988 and i would be reluctant to use it anyways.

so regular whiskey would have to do. 

just throw about 1/3 of a cup into the onions and let it cook off for about 5 minutes.

(p.s. alton brown tid bit comin' at ya! if you ever hear that you can cook off all the alcohol in something, it's a myth. unless you cook it for like 5 hours, there is still going to be a significant amount of alcohol left in it. not enough to get you shhwasted with a slice of rum cake or a bowl of soup, but still.)

ok nooooow you can add in everything else. then just throw that sucker on low, cover it up, and try to resist it for about an hour.

your patience will be rewarded.

meanwhile, i made some croutons! on friday on my way back from a job interview in downtown milwaukee, i stumbled across this amazing bread shop.

homemade bread?
still warm?
made by a cute little old lady?

my original intent was to just pick up a scone since i hadn't had breakfast yet, but with everything going for this place, there was no chance i was leaving without a loaf of something.

and the faint sound of oven timers going off in the background completely validated my purchases.

so i cubed up what was left of my sourdough loaf and tossed them in olive oil, onion powder, garlic powder, rubbed sage, cayenne, and white pepper.

perfect complimentary flavors to my soup that is just getting better and better on the stove.

just place them in a 350 degree oven and take them out once they're golden brown on the edges and very crunchy. i realize they're going to be soggy once they're in the soup, but it adds a little toasty flavor and they hold up better than just weird little cubes of bread.

and finally... the time came.

my family was all home, it was an acceptable time of the day for dinner (not that the time of day has ever stopped me from enjoying something delicious before) and the flavors had been fairly well developed.

i dished up the soup, threw some freshly baked croutons in the bowl, and topped it all off with some shredded swiss cheese.

it came out a little too salty and peppery, which i accredit to the fact that i used bouillon for the stocks (pretty salty to begin with) and white pepper (much stronger than regular fresh ground black pepper). but in the end, it was still fantastic. (and i adjusted the recipe so yours will be better!)

a fairly lazy soup for a fairly lazy day. like i said earlier, it really doesn't get much better.

French Onion Soup

1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil
3 lbs. sweet onions, thinly sliced
1/3 cup bourbon or whiskey
2 quarts beef stock
1 quart chicken stock
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground thyme
Homemade Croutons, see recipe below
Swiss cheese, shredded

In a Dutch oven or large, heavy pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add half of the onions and cook, stirring, until dark golden brown and caramelized, about 15 minutes.

Add the remaining onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until a deep caramel color, about 1 hour.

Add the bourbon and cook, stirring occasionally, until evaporated, about 5 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients except the croutons and cheese, and stir well. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thicker and fragrant, about 1 hour.

 Remove from the heat and cover to keep warm. Serve in a bowl topped with Homemade Croutons (or other crouton or crusty bread of your choice) and sprinkled with swiss cheese.

Homemade Croutons

Day old bread (french, sourdough, whole wheat, whatever you got!)
Olive oil
Onion powder
Garlic powder
Rubbed sage
White pepper

Cube up the bread into bite-sized croutons. Toss them in the oil and then sprinkle with a little of each of the other herbs and spices. Toss again and then place on a baking sheet in a single layer. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes, or until golden brown and crunchy. 


Thursday, January 26, 2012

sweetbreads and panna cotta... as intrigued as i was?

restaurant week.

just the sound of it seems to call my name. a week of restaurants? i mean if it means great food for a price that's even close to a post-grad, unemployed, 21-year-old's budget, then i am so in.

and with a lot of high class restaurants in madison, wisconsin, offering a three course meal for only $25, i think that qualifies.

(we don't need to mention the fact that my date and i also shared a not-so-budget-friendly bottle of reisling. but it waaaas delicious.)

so after very little convincing, reservations were made.
and after some straigtening of the hair and zipping of a dress, i was on my way to madison.
and after some meaningless circles around the capitol building, i made my way into the restaurant.
and then after some direction giving from the not-so-madison-savvy yours truly, my date and i were seated in a gorgeous restaurant, nibbling on bakery-fresh bread and fresh whipped lemon herbed butter.


did i mention the wine?

1st course

tia's choice:

wisconsin beer cheese soup made with spotted cow and garnished with cheddar fricos

this was really great. the beer taste was present, but not over-powering and the little cheddar fricos were a perfect crunch to the creamy texture of the soup.

(my definition of "fricos": take shredded cheddar cheese, mound them on baking sheets into little rounds and then bake. once they're out of the oven, they're basically like crispy, very cheesy crackers... umm. yum!)

my choice:

sauteed oyster mushrooms, sweetbreads, house cured pancetta

ok let me just start by saying that sweetbreads are not a delicious pastry-like creation made with sugary goodness. no no. sweetbreads are actually glands or the pancreas of beef.

let me give you a second to get that.

beef pancreas.


aaaaand i ate them.


aaaaand they were so. good.

they kinda tasted like slightly processed chicken with a little fat around the edges.

...but better than that. because that does not sound delicious. hmmph.

anyways, on to the second course.

(by the way, i apologize for the less than great pictures. i forgot my camera in my car in the parking garage down the street and up two levels, so my camera phone had to do. sorry!)

 2nd course

tia's choice:

roasted eggplant timable with chick pea fritters and yogurt cucumber sauce

do you know what a timbale is? because i didn't. and neither did tia. and she's a culinary student, dang it! we didn't even know how to pronounce it. should we go with a spanish pronunciation? or a french pronunciation? or should we just play the dumb american card and call it exactly how it looks? ehh who cares how you say it... it tasted so flippin great!

it was like an eggplant and roasted red pepper puree all tucked inside a crispy eggplant ribbon "crust." thin strips of eggplant must have been baked to a perfect crisp around the savory and creamy center.

oh and don't get me started on the chick pea fritters. i love chick peas. on salads, in wraps, smashed and made into hummus.... i'm not picky. but this was like slightly smashed chick peas mixed with some real good herbs and i'm sure some other great ingredients and then made into little chick pea fritters that kinda reminded me of a potato pancake. crispy on the outside, soft on the inside.

and the cooling effect that the yogurt cucumber sauce had was perfection.

my choice:

chicken and goat cheese crepes with a smoked tomato sauce and a warm beet and black eyed pea salad

crepes? flavored with herbs. so light and airy and simple and goooooood.
chicken and goat cheese filling? umm hello? doesn't that already say how great it was? it had goat cheese. c'mon people.
smoked tomato sauce? if it tells you anything, i could've eaten it as a soup... or drank it out of a glass, let's be honest.
warm beet and black eyed pea salad? beets were lovely, as beets always are. and paired with the tender and starchy peas it made for a fantastic little topper.

a fork-full of an herbaceous crepe wrapped around hot, shredded chicken and oozing with goat cheese with a few small cubes of beet and a couple black eyed peas all smothered in that smoky tomato sauce.

you can only imagine my state of bliss.

on to the third course! and what's that? i still have wine. oh, this is definitely a great dinner.

3rd course

tia's choice:

cabernet panna cotta with caramelized pears

holy guacamole. both of us had heard of panna cotta but neither really knew what it was exactly. it has the consistency of a custard, and after a little google magic, i will let you in on the secret. it is like a custard in the sense that it is a combination of milk, cream and sugar that is heated. however, there are no eggs, but instead gelatin is added to make it thicken into the beautiful consistency that it's known for. so there you have it.

and the caramel that was so craftfully swooshed across the plate was divine. i appreciate a good swoosh.

my choice:

deconstructed door county cherry pie

if you know me at all, you'll undersand why this was an obvious choice. i should just leave it at that but, i wouldn't want my last two fabulous summers of my life go unnoticed! i was mostly behind the scenes after all. but being surrounded by "door county cherries" and "door county cherry chocolate fudge" and "door county cherry tart" and "door county cherry turkey sandwiches" and "door county cherry meatloaf" can get a little repetitive.

...even if a few of those examples are slightly exaggerated.

either way, i had to have it. and it did not disappoint. in fact, dare i say it was better than (almost) every other menu item ever coined with the door county cherry name?

(i say almost because there was the wood orchard door county cherry strudel that i was physically incapable of resisting.)

but the crisp and uber flaky round of pie crust, the ultra light, but incredibly flavorful cherry "filling", the obviously homemade whipped cream and the gorgeous (and somewhat shimmering..?) white chocolate garnish paired to be the absolute perfect ending to a fabulous meal.

and with clean plates, an empty wine bottle, and a diminishing crowd in the restaurant, we left with new culinary discoveries in our bellies and the strong desire for restaurant week to be everyyyy week. 

Sunday, January 8, 2012

bloggers aren't allowed to take time off.

i know, i know.
it's been over a month.
i've come to terms with the fact that i am one of the least consistent food bloggers out there.

but if you graduated from college, didn't have a job, and moved in to your parents' basement, your motivation wouldn't exactly be top notch either.

believe me, i have absolutely nothing against my parents.  in fact, my living conditions have improved.

i've been updated from a kitchen that got claustrophobic when all 3 roomates were trying to make a sandwich, to one with an island, a double oven and a snack bar.
i've been updated from garage sale treasures (which were perfect grandma schultz finds!), to kitchenaid pots and pans.
i've been updated from a set of dishware consisting of 3 bowls, 3 plates (all chipped) and non-matching silverware, to nice white plates that i never have to double check to see if they're clean.

but as i turn the corner from my "bedroom" towards the stairs to our 1st level, i glance toward the boxes and rubbermaid tubs that hold my once and future kitchen. i think of my seasoned george foreman, my 99 cent potato masher, and my well-stocked spice cabinet now carefully shoved together with other college apartment remnants like highlighters and desk lamps.
...they deserve so much better.

i hope you see where my lack of motivation to blog has come from. i have still been cooking, no doubt. christmas, new years (that blog post to come soon!), my parents' anniversary all called for culinary feats and feasts. today included.

today was my mom's birthday. but first, let's rewind.

for the first few months of this last semester, i was asked by the head chef/good friend of mine to work at his fabulous restaurant known as vino in the valley.

here's my plug for them: go there. weave your way through miles of gorgeous wisconsin landscape. feel like you're lost and on a roller coaster and then pull into the restaurant in this beautiful, vineyard-laden, naturally peaceful valley. then order whatever sounds good (which will be everything). then get a glass of wine, sit back, watch the sun set over the hills and dig into some seriously good italian eats.

so the fist time my parents came up to visit me, i took them there for dinner. and while the trip there had them second guessing ("how can this place be all that good?! it's in the middle of nowhere!?"), the food and atmosphere of the place had them begging to go back.

and my mom begging me to get the chicken fettuccine alfredo recipe.

back to today, her birthday. let's put it loosely and say she has probably asked once every two weeks since the beginning of october for me to make this for her. so i decided today would be perfect. i mean really. as far as birthday presents go, who would honestly turn down a delicious meal over a sweater you're probably going to return anyways?

after a little convincing, i got the recipe. although i can't really say that a list of measure-less ingredients and rough instructions count as a "recipe" according to webster's definition. then again, when was the last time i busted out the measuring spoons for something other than a cupcake recipe..?

so here it is, folks. with written consentment from the magician, benjamin sauer, himself, i give you the absolutely delicious garlic cream sauce.

warning: do not treat this with disrespect and substitute vegetable oil for butter. or jarred minced garlic for the freshly chopped stuff. or God-forbid milk for heavy cream.
we'll both be disappointed in you in the end.

first start with some olive oil and butter in a pot. my batch was pretty big since i was cooking for 8, so adjust everything accordingly.

while that's heating up a little, chop some sweet onion and fresh garlic. saute that until the onion is translucent and the garlic is starting to slightly brown.

by the way, these aren't instructions straight from the chef himself. this is how i did it. ha!

...but it should be pretty similar. i did watch him do it a few times (a weekend) at vino.

it's at this point that an intoxicating aroma is drifting around your house/apartment. the distinct aroma that if i had to choose one thing to smell for the rest of my life, this is what it would be. call me crazy, but the bouquet that onions and garlic emit from sauteing in olive oil could send me into a culinary coma just as easily as bobby flay walking through my door and asking if i want to grill up some burgers with him. i mean seriously, people.

anyways, back to reality. once the above magic has happened and the onions and garlic are looking better than ever, glug in a good amount of white wine. like a good amount. like i poured a glass for myself and the rest of the bottle went in the pot. yeah, this is not a few splashes, my friends.

then, stick that sucker on medium to medium low and let it reduce away. by "at least half," says the professional. however, since i was clearly not in the right state of mind when i went to the grocery store the day before and consequently bought 3 quarts of half and half instead of heavy cream, i was playing the waiting game for my mom to return with my more accurate dairy product. moral of the story is, i let mine reduce by more than half.

as you can tell, my inch-deep layer of white wine reduced to make an oniony-garlicy white wine sauce. spread that on some toast and call it a day!

...that's right, i promised a cream sauce. ok. fine.

what seemed like 76 pints of heavy cream later, i had what was starting to looks like a garlic cream sauce.

especially after the very precise measurements of nutmeg, garlic powder, onion powder, chicken base, salt and white pepper.
ha! i said precise.

while the sauce continued to reduce and the flavors got oh-so-fantastic, i started to grill the chicken. on my mom's christmas gift from my brothers and i, no less. i have been wanting an indoor cast iron grill pan for myself for a while, so i guess i just figured that getting one for her was just as good. and then she could grill in winter, which is what my family basically lives off during summer. 

and would you just look at those almost fake grill marks! after these thick chicken breasts were cooked thoroughly, i sliced them thinly, or into roughly 2-bite-sized pieces and placed them in the cooler... er, refrigerator along with the fettuccine noodles i had cooked off earlier.  

bubbling away and emitting more intoxicating aromas into the house. no complaining here!

since my family was getting hungry and my sauce hadn't reduced to the thickness that i had wanted, i decided to put half of it into a wider pan and add the chicken to it.

i cranked the heat, and let it bubble and thicken some more.

aaaaaaand some more.

but hey! i had time. i had homemade garlic bread broiling away in the oven.

 just some melted butter, fresh minced garlic, dried parsley, dried basil and salt and pepper. mmmmm. toasty, buttery, and major garlic pow.

and the final product was done! topped with shredded parmesan cheese and sopped up with that garlic bread, it was totally perfect. as i brought my dad his second helping, i had to ask. "pretty close, mom?"

"definitely pretty close."

well. i tried my best. and added as much love as i could. but i guess sometimes you can't recreate something exactly the way it once was without an exact recipe.

and sometimes... that's ok.

Garlic Cream Sauce a la Benjamin

Olive oil
Garlic, fresh, minced
Sweet onion, small dice
White wine
Heavy cream
Onion powder
Garlic powder
Cayenne pepper
Chicken base
White pepper
Parmesan cheese, shredded

Saute onion and garlic in olive oil and butter mixture. Add white wine and reduce by at least half. Add heavy cream and all spices and seasonings. Reduce until it reaches your desired consistency. Toss with chicken and fettuccine noodles and sprinkle with shredded parmesan cheese.