Flavorful Few: French Onion Soup

13 Oct

Some recipes are all about technique and time. Applying those two things to the simplest, humblest of ingredients can bring a true depth of flavor to the party without clearing out the pantry. Take French onion soup for example. Vegetables and herbs deeply caramelized, deglazed with a bit of wine, thickened with flour, simmered with broth, and topped with a broiled cheesy crouton. Caramelize, deglaze, thicken, simmer, and broil. It’s the steps that build the body of the soup, not a pantry full of ingredients.

Surprisingly hearty and heart-warming, there’s no reason not to stop and make this right now! Just be sure to take it slow and you’ll be enjoying a rich bowl of satisfying soup in about an hour and a half.

French Onion Soup

  • 3 lbs. Vidalia onions (about 4 large onions)
  • 4 oz. unsalted butter
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • ¾ cup dry white wine
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour
  • 8 cups unsalted beef stock or low-sodium beef broth
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • French bread and grated gruyere cheese for serving

Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat and then add the onions, garlic, bay leaves, thyme sprigs, and some salt and pepper.

Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are well-caramelized and very soft, about 45 minutes.

Add the white wine to the pan, scrape the bottom of the pot to release the fond (browned bits), bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat and simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated, 10-15 minutes. Remove the bay leaves and thyme sprigs.

Sprinkle on the flour and give the mixture a stir. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for about 7 minutes.

Add the beef stock/broth and bring the soup to a simmer. Cook for 10 minutes. Taste for seasoning and adjust salt and pepper as needed.

To serve, preheat a broiler. Ladle the soup into a heatproof bowl and top with a slice of French bread. Add a generous helping of gruyere cheese on top of the bread.

Broil until the cheese bubbles and the bread is toasted. Garnish with fresh thyme.

Basically crispy, gooey grilled cheese and savory soup all perfectly balanced together in one bowl. Yum! This recipe makes quite a lot and does freeze well. By taking your time during the initial making of the soup, you have something intensely deep, rich, and satisfying that you can reheat quickly when a craving strikes.

So take those simple ingredients and make them shine!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Easy Energy: Granola Bars

12 Oct

Granola bars are pretty great grab-and-go calorie-dense snacks. But if you’ve bought them, you know they’re also kind of expensive per portion. Fortunately, making your own is very simple, cost-effective, and also makes it easy to customize the bars to your tastes.

Granola Bars

  • 5 cups rolled oats
  • 1 cup pecans
  • 2/3 cup brown sugar
  • ½ cup honey
  • 4 oz. unsalted butter
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 ½ cups add-ins (seeds, dried fruit, nuts, chips etc.) I went with ½ cup pumpkin seeds, ½ cup chopped pitted dates, and ½ cup dried tart cherries

Line a 9×13 in. pan with parchment paper and set aside.

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F, and then spread the oats and pecans out on baking sheets and toast for 10 minutes or until fragrant.

Chop the pecans and transfer the oats and pecans to a large bowl.

Combine the butter, brown sugar, honey, vanilla, and salt in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring the mixture to a boil and boil while stirring for one minute.

Pour the butter mixture over the oats and pecans and stir thoroughly, until there are no dry spots.

Add the dried cherries, pumpkin seeds, and dates and mix thoroughly. Note: If you are using chocolate or other chips, wait 15 minutes before stirring them into the mixture so that they don’t melt.

Pour the mixture into the prepared 9×13 in. pan and press down firmly with greased hands into an even layer. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, or until very firm.

Cut into 32 squares.

A little crisp, a little chewy, and just sweet enough. Store at room temperature in a sealed container or individually wrapped in plastic wrap for easy on-the-go snacks. Super simple, right? And the possibilities are endless! I especially like coconut, pineapple, and macadamia nuts, or chocolate, dried cranberries, and walnuts. Pistachios, candied ginger, and dates as a combination was also a big hit. Sometimes I divide the batch in half and press into two 8×8 in. pans so I can make two different flavors.

No matter how you dress them up, these snacks are a welcome surprise in any suitcase, lunchbox, purse, or backpack. Hope you find your favorite flavor!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Sniffle Stopper: Vegetable Soup

24 Sep

Ever since I started taking immuno-suppressants for my RA, I’ve had a constant, nagging cold. Maybe that’s why I woke up at 4:45 am today with an immediate and insatiable craving for vegetable soup. Your body tends to speak to you, and I’ve learned it’s generally a good idea to listen. So yes, there I was at 5 am in Safeway, standing in the produce section without a list. While things usually go better when I plan, vegetable soup is one of those things that you don’t really need a plan for, you just need to know what vegetables you like and what looks good at the store. It’s also helpful to know a little bit about what stands up well to being cooked in broth without going to mush on you, and that’s why I think that simple though this recipe may be, it’s well worth sharing because of its balance of textures and flavors. Let’s put the soup on!

Vegetable Soup

  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 leeks (white part only, save the tops for stock!), diced
  • 2 cups carrots, peeled and cut into circles
  • 2 cups red potatoes, diced
  • 2 cups green beans, cut into 1 in. pieces
  • 1 cup celery, diced
  • 2 qts. low sodium chicken broth
  • 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes, pulled into pieces
  • 2 ears corn, kernels removed
  • ¼ cup flat (Italian) parsley, chopped
  • 1 tbsp. lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a stockpot over medium-low heat.

Add the leeks, garlic, and a heavy pinch of salt, and sweat until the leeks are soft, 6-7 minutes.

Add the carrots, potatoes, green beans, and celery, and cook 5 minutes more, stirring occasionally.

Add the chicken broth and turn the heat up to high. Once the soup comes to a simmer, add the tomatoes and corn. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and cook for 25 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.

Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the lemon juice and parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Simple, savory, and perfect for the crisp autumn days ahead. It’s got a nice mix of textures, an intoxicating aroma, and all the vitamins you could possibly want. Maybe this lip-smacking medicine will subdue my sniffles a little bit. Even if it doesn’t, it certainly satisfied my craving for a hearty soup. Hope it warms your heart too!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Kyoto Comfort: Miso Soup

18 Sep

The morning that Joe and I arrived in Kyoto last year was rainy and cool. Actually most of our trip was spent under umbrellas and wrapped in raincoats (save for a literally perfect, amazingly clear day at Mt. Fuji), but it didn’t slow us down much.

At the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto

That morning in Kyoto we were tired and hungry after the long trip from Tokyo, so after we dropped off our suitcase at the hotel, we wandered back through the train station in search of something warm to eat. We stumbled upon Suika KYK, a restaurant specializing in tonkatsu, which is deep-fried breaded pork cutlet. And yes, the tonkatsu was delicious, savory, and crispy.

But I was equally enchanted by the deep, umami flavor of the miso soup served alongside it. Later, back in Tokyo, we ducked out of a storm into a Japanese steakhouse and were again greeted with a warm atmosphere and steaming hot bowls of miso soup.

With the recent residual storms from Hurricane Florence keeping the skies grey and the ground wet, I found my mind wandering back to those steamy bowls of soup that warmed and comforted my body. So one cool, gloomy morning I decided to allow myself a brief moment to embrace a memory that soothed me, and recreate a few cups of deeply treasured moments.

Miso soup is simple to make from scratch. Built right, we’ll end up with a rich, deep broth and a soup that’s both deeply satisfying and pretty healthy, too.

Miso Soup

Dashi:

  • 6 cups water
  • 1 – 12 in. piece kombu
  • 1 oz. bonito flakes / katsuobushi (dried, fermented, and smoked skipjack tuna)

Soup:

  • 1 recipe dashi
  • 2 tbsp. white miso paste
  • 2 tbsp. brown miso paste
  • 6 oz. firm tofu, well-drained and cut into 1/2 in. cubes
  • 2 green onions, bias cut into small pieces, white and green parts divided
  • 2 ½ oz. dried mushrooms (I used oyster and porcini)
  • 3 small heads baby bok choy, stems chopped into ½ in. pieces, leaves sliced
  • 1 in. piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced

To make the dashi, combine the water and kombu and bring to a boil.

As soon as the water boils, remove the kombu. Add the bonito flakes and stir to mix.

Remove the pot from the heat and allow the bonito flakes to steep for 5 minutes. Strain the dashi through a cheesecloth-lined sieve.

In a large pot, heat a tbsp. of neutral oil over medium-low heat and add the white parts of the onions, ginger, and garlic to the pot. Cook until softened and fragrant, about 5 minutes.

Add the dashi and bring to a simmer.

Add the miso pastes and mushrooms and cook 10 minutes, or until the mushrooms are tender.

Add the bok choy stems and simmer another 10 minutes.

Finally, add the tofu, bok choy leaves, and green onions, and simmer 5 minutes.

Serve, and let your heart and whole self feel warm.

While it’s a pretty light soup in a caloric sense, the tofu, mushrooms, and bok choy give it texture and heartiness that make it perfectly suitable for a meal. You could certainly add some noodles to it for something more substantial, though I think it makes a wonderful breakfast just as-is.

My life has been flipped upside-down in the last six months, but I am so grateful for the power of food and cooking to continue to not only bring me physical and mental comfort, but to bring joyful memories and thoughts to the forefront of my mind when I’m shaken. I sip this soup and I am back half-way across the world with my best friend. It is self-care in the truest and sweetest sense.

Ciao for now,

Neen

 

Wrapped Up Happiness: Soft Caramels

14 Sep

Recently I made a batch of soft caramels and realized that I suddenly had 64 caramels in my house, one stomach, and a husband who does not like caramel. Rather than freeze them, I decided to put a call out on Facebook: “Anybody a big fan of soft caramels?” Within minutes I was out of candy. After I shipped them off, several of the people who received them asked me about the recipe and it occurred to me that I’ve never shared it here. A cinnamon variant of them won a blue ribbon at the Arlington County Fair this year and yet somehow it never dawned on me to post it. Oops, my bad?

Anyway, it’s a delightfully simple recipe where the only real difficulty is that you have to stand at the stove for about 20 minutes and have a half-decent stirring arm. These are nice, soft caramels that are firm enough to cut and wrap easily, but that practically melt in your mouth after the first bite. Sound good to you? Me too, they are my favorite candy. And I’m super happy to share them with you.

Soft Caramels

  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 8 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 1 cup light corn syrup
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 ½ cups evaporated milk (1 can)
  • Pulp from ½ vanilla bean, split and scraped

Line an 8×8 in. baking pan with parchment paper.

Place a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat and have a candy thermometer standing by. I use a probe thermometer with a paper clip attached because I watched a lot of MacGyver as a kid.

Melt the butter and then add the sugar, corn syrup, vanilla bean pulp, and salt. Bring this mixture to a boil.

Add the evaporated milk a small amount at a time over the course of 10 minutes. The mixture will hiss and bubble up a little bit every time you add some, so it’s important to go slowly.

After you’ve added all of the evaporated milk, attach the candy thermometer and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture reaches 238 degrees F.

Remove the pan from the heat and pour the caramel into the prepared 8×8 pan.

Let cool for at least two hours. I like to move the pan to the refrigerator after an hour to make the caramels easier to cut.

Generally, I cut the cooled caramel into an 8×8 grid, but you can make these any size you like. The easiest way I have found to cut them without getting a knife stuck is to use a pizza wheel.


I buy small squares of wax paper to wrap them up, but you can use little pieces of parchment paper too.

These are wonderful for sharing. Super soft, creamy, with just a little bit of saltiness to balance out the sugar. Every time I make a batch, I throw a bunch of them in a plastic freezer bag and have them on-hand to give to anyone whose day could use brightening. I’ve given them out to Lyft drivers, yoga teachers, classmates, doctors…you’d be surprised at how delighted you can make someone with just a few pieces of homemade candy. Sure, some people might think it’s odd, but even if you give one person a smile, it’ll make you both feel really great. The taste of these is beautiful, but the real joy is in the happiness they carry in those little wrappers.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Turning Leaves: Cheddar Fougasse

9 Sep

Well, I guess it’s about time for me to admit that it’s almost autumn. I’m a summer person if there ever was one. I crave heat and the bright, light flavors of summer. Farmers markets attract me like a moth to flame, and I’ll eat pounds of berries if left to my own devices.

Autumn has its merits too. Warm, sweet, spices, crisp apples, creamy pumpkin and sweet potato pies, and perhaps the most delicious holiday, Thanksgiving. BUT for now, we’re in the early moments of the pre-season, with leaves just beginning to turn golden. And for me, those warm colored waifs falling gently from the trees remind me of one of my favorite simple breads, a French flatbread that is a wonderful addition to any bread basket, the fougasse.

Fougasse is generally associated with the Provence region, but originated in Rome as Panis focacius, Roman flat bread baked in the ashes of a hearth called a focus. If these words sound familiar, you’ve probably heard of the Italian version, focaccia (which we have made and you can find right here). And like focaccia, fougasse is a blank canvas for all sorts of fillings and flavors, including nuts, olives, cheese and herbs. What makes it different is its unique shape, cut like a big, beautiful leaf or sheaf of wheat.

To make our golden, not-quite-yet-autumn leaf, I chose a simple cheddar fougasse, but you can amp this up with rosemary, oregano, basil, or whatever herbs suit you. You can also swap out the cheeses, just be careful of balancing the salt in the dough with saltier cheeses like romano. You may just need to use slightly less.

Cheddar Fougasse

Sponge:

  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/8 tsp. instant yeast

Dough:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. instant yeast

Filling:

  • 1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, cut into ¼ in. cubes

Combine all of the ingredients for the sponge and allow it to rest overnight, or for as much as a full 24 hours.

After the resting period, stir in the remaining ingredients. The mixture will look rough.

Bring the dough together and knead for 8-10 minutes, until a soft, smooth dough is formed.

Roll the dough into a ball, place in a lightly oiled bowl, and cover the bowl with a clean towel or plastic wrap. Allow the dough to rise until it has doubled, anywhere from 75-90 minutes.

Turn the dough out on to a lightly greased surface, sprinkle on the cheese, and knead a few times to incorporate. Don’t worry if you lose a few cubes of cheese here and there, you can stick them on after shaping the bread.

Form the dough into a leaf shape or a large oval about ¾ in. thick and then place it on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush it lightly with olive oil.

Using a sharp knife, make decorative slits. I did two down the middle and six on either side, but it’s your leaf, make it to suit you! After slicing, gently pull the cuts apart so there is some space between them.

Cover the bread with a tea towel or plastic wrap and let it rest for another 30 minutes. While the dough rests, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Uncover the bread and bake for 16-18 minutes or until golden brown and hollow-sounding when tapped. Move to a wire rack to cool.


With each changing season we invite in new culinary treasures, and this is a simple, yet beautiful one to put on your table and enjoy. No matter what your favorite time of year may be, these fragrant, crisp, golden leaves are sure to please.

Ciao for now,

Neen