Friday, February 1, 2008

laying the memory of a bad meal to rest

A good meal can haunt you. Unfortunately, so can a bad one.

I don't mean meals that cost more than they were really worth. An overpriced meal will usually fade from memory within a few days. I refer to meals that are so bad, they're an injustice. Those meals can haunt as persistently as the memory of the best meals you've ever eaten. Sometimes, the only way to put them to rest is to make them yourself and do them well.

I went out to dinner with a group of friends during my last semester of college. We went to a very popular restaurant in town, and I made the mistake of ordering the French onion soup. Said soup was terrible: overly-sweet onions in insipid broth, covered in puff pastry topped with too much cheese. The results were heavy, oily, and so salty, I had the waitress running to repeatedly refill my water glass. It shouldn't have been possible, but that soup sat like a leaden ball in my stomach.

Now, the puff pastry might have been excusable, and the onions possibly forgivable, but the broth was an abomination. It might have been acceptable in a hearty stew, reduced to a faint note by the presence of other ingredients, but in the company of onions alone, its flaws were glaringly obvious.

French onion soup is simple. The preparation is difficult to screw up. The catch is that it demands good, rich beef broth, the kind that clings to your spoon. That kind of broth doesn't come from bouillon cubes or ready-made stock. There is only one way of getting that kind of broth: making it yourself.

The supermarket I usually shop at tends to be fairly hopeless when it comes to specialty items, but there is one case in the meat section that sometimes contains oddities - oxtail, marrowbones, even suet - and on my last shopping trip there, I found beef feet. Beef feet are full of connective tissue, which is rich in the gelatin that gives good beef broth its velvety texture. They were cheap, too. I ended up buying every package in the case.

I placed the beef feet in a roasting pan with mirepoix, fresh herbs, and a splash of red wine, and roasted them until the bones were browned and fragrant.

Then they went into a stockpot, to be simmered on low heat for several hours. The results were strained and reduced to produce a caramel-colored liquid with a dark, full flavor. I could have served the beef broth straight at that point, with nothing other than a little chopped fresh parsley for garnish. But I had set out to put French onion soup to rights, and so I saved that idea for another day.

Moving on to the soup itself. Onions, thinly sliced and sweated in butter until they turn sweet and golden. A splash of cognac, simmered until the fumes burn away. The beef broth, carefully poured in. Additional simmering. And then the ladling of the soup into big bowls, to be served with crusty bread.

The results were exactly what I had hoped for. Sweet onions floating in deep, beefy broth, fragrant with cognac and butter. Rich, but not heavy. A solid, nourishing soup. And as I ate, the dreadful soup that had haunted me became nothing more than a distant memory.

French Onion Soup

The classic preparation calls for rounds of toast with melted Gruyère to be floated atop the individual bowls, but I don't really see the appeal of eating rounds of soggy bread, particularly when they're too large to fit neatly on a soup spoon. I prefer to serve the soup with crusty bread on the side, and save the Gruyère for the cheese course.

(Serves one, with leftovers)

Take two large onions and cut them into thin slices. Melt a knob of butter in a heavy-bottomed pot over very low heat. Take the onions and spread them in layers on the bottom of the pot. Put the lid on, and leave the pot alone for fifteen minutes.

When the fifteen minutes are up, come back and give the onions a stir. They will have begun to soften. Leave them for another fifteen minutes with the lid off. Stir again. Repeat as necessary until the onions are completely softened and golden yellow in color.

Pour in a splash of cognac and let the fumes burn off. Add three cups of beef broth. Bring the mixture to a boil, then simmer for an additional fifteen minutes or so. Season with a dusting of freshly ground black pepper. Ladle soup into an enormous bowl. Serve with crusty bread and a green salad.


Ann said...

Mmmmm...! Your method is very like my own. Good homemade beef broth, carefully caramelized onions... oh yeah, babybee!

I have a draft post of my own on my slow progression to perfect FOS. Just waiting until the next time I feel like making it so I can get a photo.

Yours sounds fabulous!

Maryna said...

wow, I'm going to a french restaurant RIGHT NOW and, because of this, I'm going to order french onion soup, something I haven't eaten since three years ago in Montreal on new year's eve.

Katy said...

guess you are right! There are tons of us around. You know, I try to keep my sanity through cake decoration classes once a week and today I just got back from a chocolate class. That and talking about liability of food producers in torts. Its ok, we will get through it and then either work for the fda or do wine law. It will be great... well... either that or work hard enough to pay back those loans and then open a restaurant.

Lisa said...

I haven't made beef broth since culinary school. You inspire me.