Garniture, Random Thoughts, Science, Soup, Vegetables

Looking through a glass onion.

Sometimes dining is about pure familiarity. I think this is what people mean when they refer to “comfort food” – things we know well from long experience, possibly even childhood. “Comfort food” has always struck me as a ridiculous term – isn’t eating an inherently comforting experience? – but I have to admit that certain foods spread the warmth more than others. For me, it’s brown butter, runny yolk eggs, pretty much any potato dish, crispy sage, and puréed anything. Melted cheese, especially when it browns and crisps around the edges, roasted chicken about half an hour out of the oven, that peculiarly rich, tallowy taste of short rib, and the unctuous quality of pork belly and fresh ham … to me, these are the ultimate comfort foods. Great flavor, great texture, totally easy to eat, remind you of home.

One of the quintessential comfort tastes, in my opinion, is the caramel-sweet, savory taste of long-cooked onions. Confit onions – golden brown from slow poaching in butter or oil – are one of the great additions to flatbreads (as in pissaladière), and make a rich jam that pairs well with fruit, foie, and roasted meats alike. And they’re a component of the rustic French classic onion soup, which relies on few ingredients – deeply caramelized onions, beef stock, a little wine, and Gruyère croutons – for its complex savor. It’s a brilliant dish, because every aspect of the soup leads to that culinary ideal, umami. The so-called fifth taste, umami signifies depth of flavor, savoriness. Chemically, it represents the taste imparted by the amino acid L-glutamate and 5’-ribonucleotides such as guanosine monophosphate (GMP) and inosine monophosphate (IMP). Glutamates are present in onions, wine, cheese, and beef – when they unite for classic onion soup, they form a virtual umami bomb.

Here’s the thing about onion soup, though. No one I know eats it all that often, and you know why? Because onion soup is a pain in the ass. In practice, it’s often the opposite of comfort food. I’m not talking about the cooking process – the best “comfort foods” are not easy to turn out well unless the cook invests some care and attention to detail – but the eating. What could be more discomfiting than fighting your way through a tough raft of toasted bread crust, choking on a tough string of poorly-caramelized onion, or trying to get that long strand of Gruyère into your mouth without alienating your dining companions or getting soup all over your shirt? Bad texture equals discomfort. And that’s why no one makes it anymore, not even all those people who received those stupid handled soup bowls as wedding gifts back in the Seventies.

I modernized the old onion soup by turning its stringy onion component into a transparent, glassy onion chip and a quenelle of onion confit, and by turning the giant raft of cheese bread into crispy Gruyère croutons. Pour in a rich beef consommé and enjoy as the onion transparency – which tastes like a caramelized onion chip – and the sweet onion confit melt into the soup, and you get a cheesy, soup-soaked crouton or two in every bite. It’s kind of a labor-intensive dish, I’m not going to lie, but it’s really good onion soup, and as a bonus you won’t have to figure out how to scrape burned cheese off the edges of your wedding registry soup tureens.

Modern onion soup

If you are intimidated or otherwise put out by the idea of making consommé, skip the clarification step. Just make sure your stock is well-defatted and as clear as you can get it – strain it through a cheesecloth-lined chinois (or if you don’t have a chinois, through a strainer lined with a triple thickness of cheesecloth, or a paper towel). Season the stock well with salt and a little soy sauce (for umami). I encourage you to make the consommé, though. The simmering with the meat and vegetables in the raft imparts additional flavor even as the egg white clarifies the soup.

For the onion confit:

Four large red onions (about 4 lbs), peeled and sliced thinly pole to pole
grapeseed oil or beef tallow from making stock, above
1 tsp sherry vinegar

Place a large sauté pan over medium low heat and, when hot, add about 2 tbsp oil (better yet, use beef tallow skimmed from making stock). Add the onions and about 1 tsp salt and toss well in the oil to coat. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and let the onions cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until deep purplish-brown, sticky, reduced, and jam-like, about 3 hours or more. About an hour before finishing, add the sherry vinegar.

You can hold this in the refrigerator for a week.

For the beef stock:

5 lbs oxtail
2 lbs beef bones, preferably knuckle
1 1/2 lb lean beef, preferably the round and the flank, diced
2 medium carrots, scraped and diced
one large onion, quartered
one celery stalk, peeled and diced
bouquet garni of leek, parsley, bay, thyme
1/2 tbsp black peppercorns
4 whole cloves
1 small star anise
2 c dry white wine
3 tbsp tomato paste

Oven 400F/205C.

Roast the beef bones on a sheet pan until they begin to brown. Turn over. Add the vegetables to the pan and toss in the beef fat. Return to the oven and brown.

Remove everything to a stockpot and add the herbs, spices, tomato paste, white wine, and cold filtered water to cover. Bring to a simmer slowly, skimming to remove impurities. Simmer for about four hours. Strain through a chinois. Remove as much fat as possible by skimming (or chilling and removing the solid fat). If you are making consommé, proceed to the next step. Otherwise, scroll down past the consommé step.

To make consommé:

10 egg whites
1 lb very lean and flavorful beef (such as flank), ground – do not use a fatty cut
1 each, diced: leek (white and light green only), carrot, celery
2 tomatoes, diced (flesh only)

Beat the egg whites with a whisk until foamy (not an aerated foam, just foamy). Combine with the ground meat, vegetables, and tomato.

Stir the mixture into four quarts of the defatted stock. Bring to a simmer, stirring gently but fairly frequently. As the mixture heats, the egg white will coagulate, trapping the solids and other impurities in the stock. This happens over around 165F/74C. Once the raft begins to form, stop stirring. Let the raft collect on top of the stock. Once the mixture comes to a simmer, maintain a low simmer. Do not let it boil. Using a ladle, push a hole through the raft. Periodically ladle a small amount of stock over the raft to baste it. Otherwise, do not touch the raft, and do not stir the stock. The raft, true to its name, should remain afloat.

Even though you don’t touch the stock during this time, don’t walk away. After about an hour to 90 minutes, the raft will begin to sink slightly. This is your sign that the consommé is done – if you keep cooking, it will fall apart and ruin your beautiful clear soup.

If you have a spigot-type pot, drain the consommé from the bottom of the pot, being careful not to drain any portion of the raft. The first cup of consommé from the spigot may be sediment; drain off first and discard before proceeding. If you do not have a spigot-type pot, remove the consommé by pouring off very carefully so you do not break the raft. Strain the consommé through a chinois lined with two layers of cheesecloth.

1/4 dry sherry
bay leaf (optional)
4-5 thyme branches (optional)
soy sauce (optional)

Flavor the consommé or the stock with sherry and salt. If using just stock, you may want to bring it back to a simmer with bay and thyme for 30 minutes for additional flavor, and season with a little soy sauce as well as salt, for additional umami.

For the croutons:

1 loaf pain de campagne, crust removed, cut into 1/4″ cubes (1/2″ is fine if you can’t manage smaller)
8 oz Gruyère
olive oil

Oven 375F/190C.

Toss the bread cubes very lightly in olive oil and place on a sheet pan lined with silpat. Bake until light golden.

Grate the cheese amply using a Microplane over the croutons. Return to the oven until just melted.

To assemble the soup:

Ladle consommé or soup into individual serving vessels (I use gravy boats or sake bottles, depending on the mood). Heat your soup bowls. Place cheesy croutons in the bottom of soup bowls with a quenelle of onion confit.

Gruyère frico, onion confit, crouton. Oxtail consommé on the side.

Place an onion transparency over the top and serve with consommé in a small vessel.

Onion transparency, consommé.

Tap the transparency lightly with a spoon to break it into the bowl.

Break the glass.

Pour the consommé over all.

Pour the consommé.

Onion transparency

I owe Aki Kamozawa and Alex Talbot of Ideas in Food for the glass onion idea; I read about it on their excellent blog three or four years ago and have used the method ever since to produce other fruit and vegetable transparencies. Apple, greengage plum, sweet pickle, and carrot are favorites; kimchi is swell too.

Liquid glucose is available through a baking supply (Michael’s Crafts carries it in small tubs in the cake decorating section).

750g yellow onions (about 2 extra large or four medium), peeled and sliced thinly
150g liquid glucose, about 1/3 c
75g water, about ¼ c
50g agave syrup (about 2 tbsp)
5g salt (about 1 tsp)

Combine all the ingredients in a saucepot. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat, stirring to dissolve all the sugars. The mixture will become more liquid as the onions give up water. Reduce heat to the lowest setting.

The mixture will become golden as the sugar cooks. Reduce until the liquid volume is about 1/3 of the peak volume (after onions give up their water initially). Don’t overreduce or you will have problems puréeing. Transfer to a vitaprep or blender and purée until very smooth. If you have one, push the mixture through a tamis (drum sieve) to remove any fine fibers. Cool in the refrigerator for about an hour.

Oven 200F/95C convection.

Perform this step in batches. Place a silpat on a baking sheet and spread the onion purée thinly on the silpat in the desired shape and size. Bake until the onion bubbles up from the silpat and becomes more golden, about 30 mins to 2 hours depending on the thickness of the transparency. Working quickly, remove transparencies using a fish spatula or offset spatula and place on a clean flat surface – they should lift easily from the silpat. The transparencies will be somewhat flexible while on the hot pan but should become crisp immediately on cooling. If not, or if they seem fruit-leathery, they are not completely dry; return them to the oven. If you work quickly while they are hot, you may be able to form tuile shapes.

Store tightly sealed (with a dessicant packet if you have it). Serve with meat or grilled vegetable dishes.

Short rib, beech + maitake, oxtail consommé, onion transparency.

Garniture, Pork Products, Quick Meals, Vegetables

Under pressure.

When I was a kid, my mom had a pressure cooker. If you were born before 1975, your mom probably used one as well. Beans that normally take hours on the stove were tender in less than half an hour; tough, inexpensive cuts of meat could be shredded with a fork in an equally short time. Convenient, right? And economical. So why did pressure cookers disappear from the scene?

Truthfully, they never did. Pressure cookers developed an unfortunate reputation for riskiness, as tales of exploding vessels and steam injuries found their way to cooks’ ears. The construction of early pressure cookers was to blame – although most never failed, they did rely on a single valve and a metal weight – usually called the rocker or jiggler – to relieve excess steam pressure, and lacked redundant safety features like locking lids and additional valves. Even when used correctly, they tended to be noisy – the steam whistled through the valve as the rocker’s weight clanked against the cooker lid.

Pressure cooking is back, though, and manufacturers have improved the safety features, significantly reducing the likelihood of an explosion. My pressure cooker, manufactured by All American, features two vents, as well as a lid that clamps shut at six points, and also locks by twisting. The pressure and temperature indicator permits relatively accurate pressure monitoring. How does it work? Water vapor pressure buildup. With the lid firmly clamped in place and sealed with a gasket or other mechanism, the vessel – filled with the food to be cooked and a sufficient quantity of liquid – is heated. Because the lid is clamped shut and sealed with a gasket against the vessel, steam cannot escape through the margin between the lid and the vessel, and builds up inside as the liquid boils. As the pressure increases within the vessel, so does the boiling point (the temperature at which water passes from the liquid to the gaseous phase). At sea level, at the maximum recommended safe pressure for most pressure cookers – 15 psi – water boils at 122C (252F). Collagen breakdown for tough cuts of meat takes place quickly at this temperature, as does carbohydrate and fiber breakdown for hard items such as beans.

The time savings?About 70% from conventional cooking times. Pressure cooking makes weekday braised possible. The braised pork shank with buttery celeriac purée below took an hour and fifteen minutes, including prep time; a stew would have taken about 30-45.

While pressure cooking the shanks, make the purée. Then quick pickle some red onions to add crunch and bite to the dish. Using a vacuum sealer, you can pickle the onions in minutes. The vacuum process removes air from the onion cells – when the vacuum is released, the brine rushes in to fill those spaces.

Braised shanks

2 pork shanks or lower arm cuts from just above the joint
2 carrots, sliced on the diagonal (1/2″)
2 celery stalks, peeled and diced
1 small onion, peeled and diced (1/2″)
Bay leaf
Several sprigs of thyme
1 1/2 c dry white wine
4 c chicken stock (unsalted broth is ok)
olive oil

Place pressure cooker over medium heat; when hot, add olive oil to film pan. Season shanks on meaty ends with salt and brown on both meaty sides. Remove and hold; add mirepoix to the pan and sauté until vegetables take on a little golden brown color; season with salt and add wine. Reduce by 2/3 and add stock and herbs.

Place rack in pressure cooker and set shanks on top. Secure the lid, bring to 15 psi, and cook 45 minutes. Turn off heat and when fully depressurized, remove lid. Remove shanks and set aside. Strain braising liquid through chinois into a smaller pan and defat. Reduce to the consistency of a thin sauce.

[Note: if you are not using a pressure cooker, set the oven to 250F and use a large, deep vessel with a lid to perform all steps up to the point of placing the rack in a pressure cooker. Bring the stock/mirepoix mixture to a simmer, return the shanks to the vessel, cover with a lid or a parchment lid, and place in the oven to braise for about 4 hours. Then continue with straining and reducing the liquid.]

Meanwhile, separate meat from skin/fat (reserve for another use) and divide into large chunks.

Buttery celeriac purée

Keeping the celeriac in acidulated water as soon as you cut it keeps the purée snow white.

2 medium celeriac
1 lemon, juiced (reserve halves)
2 tsp white wine vinegar, plus more if necessary
3 oz butter or so (depending on celeriac size), divided
salt and white pepper (use both kosher salt and celery salt)

Add the lemon juice to 3 quarts of water. Peel the celeriac and rub with lemon halves – dice 1″ and immediately drop dice into acidulated water. Bring to a simmer and cook until tender. Drain.

Combine the celeriac, half the butter, and the vinegar in a Vitaprep or blender. Blitz until the celeriac is smooth, scraping down the sides if necessary, and add more butter by bits to improve the texture. Pass through a tamis if necessary (although the puree should be smooth enough and very light if you use the vitaprep and this step should be unnecessary). Season with salt and blitz to combine; taste and adjust with additional vinegar if necessary.

Onion pickle

Because this is a flash pickle, I used a stronger brine than is usual, reversing the water to acid ratio. This pickle is meant to be consumed fresh, not held for storage.

Red onion, peeled and sliced thinly, pole to pole
3 tbsp distilled white vinegar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp coriander seeds, cracked

Combine salt, sugar, and coriander seeds with 1 tbsp water and heat to dissolve salt and sugar. Off heat, add to remaining vinegar. Place onions in a foodsafe plastic bag (eg as for Foodsaver) and add half the vinegar mixture and coriander.

Vacuum the onions in a chamber vacuum sealer (or using a home vacuum sealer on the “liquid” setting, if available). If you see bubbles emerging from the onions (unlikely using the home sealer), wait until the bubbles stop; otherwise, wait several minutes before cutting open the bag.

To assemble

Place a large spoonful of celeriac puree in the center of a plate or shallow bowl. Arrange several chunks of pork shank, garnish with onion pickle and some bitter greens (watercress or arugula), or celery salad.

Garniture, Vegetables

Duck fat frites.

So last night, I was thinking about what to eat with the 36 hour, 63C moose shoulder roast that had been in the water bath since Monday night after the deliciously successful trial run of the Sous Vide Supreme. This is where I disclose that I hate throwing anything away. If I roast meat, the bones go in the freezer for roasted-bone stock. If I roast beef ribs, the tallow goes into a plastic tub in the freezer for future potato roasting and oil poaching. If I make duck confit – and when I do, I tend to make it by the dozen – I save the duck fat because – it’s duck fat. It’s a great frying medium.

Anyway, it occurred to me that I should use some of the fat for frites to accompany the moose shoulder. I was thinking about a root vegetable and potato puree, but the moose was bound to be tender and I was looking for a textural contrast. I wanted to serve the moose with an herbed compound butter and shaved celery salad, and frites seemed simple enough to let those herby flavors shine.

This frying method comes from Robuchon and involves bringing the potatoes to cooking temperature from a cold oil start, and frying them only once. As a committed twice-fryer, I was skeptical of this cooking method until I tried it and was amazed. You should use it with medium-starch potatoes, like Yellow Finns, because russets or other high-starch potatoes can break (not always, but they’re more likely). It produces a perfectly crispy fry with a fluffy interior. It also eliminates a step, and yields a less greasy fry.

If you don’t have duck fat, or beef tallow, or another similar delicious fat, or you don’t enjoy the animal fats, use peanut oil. It lends a subtly nutty flavor to the frites.

Moose shoulder (36h @ 63C), garlic-herb butter, celery salad, duck fat frites


4 large yellow (medium starch) potatoes, allumettes (3/8″)
6 cups grapeseed or canola oil (peanut is good also and yields an interesting taste)
2 cups duck fat or beef tallow
fine salt

Place potatoes and both fats in heavy pan deep enough for oil to cover potatoes and leave at least 4″ at top. Bring to a full boil and cook, moving potatoes so they do not stick, from time to time, until deep golden and crisp. About 20-25 mins. Remove to towel-lined rack over a pan to drain. Season and serve immediately (or hold in 250F oven up to 20 mins for service).

Another note: with grilled or roasted beef, sometimes I find that compound butter makes the nicest sauce of all – it delivers a hit of creamy fat and bold flavor. As a bonus, you can keep what you don’t use in the refrigerator (or freezer, if you make more than you can use in a week), and slice off what you need at service. And if you have excess herbs – thyme, parsley, chives – this is a perfect use. Rosemary can be overwhelming and I don’t recommend using more than a little, if you use it at all.

Garlic-herb butter

1/2 lb (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
6 cloves garlic confit, stem ends removed, mashed to a paste
1 small bunch chives, minced
leaves from 6 sprigs thyme, minced
large pinch espelette pepper
salt to taste

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl with a fork until well incorporated; season to taste with salt.

Form into a log in waxed paper and then roll tightly. Refrigerate until service. Serve a slice with roasted or grilled meat.