Saturday, September 22, 2007

Meditative work

After having a pretty nasty, disappointing week in which I got precious little of value done, I'm playing hooky from real work today, and engaging in that most meditative of cooking tasks: caramelizing onions for soup. I'm using Thomas Keller's method, from his book Bouchon which takes about six hours from slicing to soup. (I may have to skip an hour of caramelizing just to get the soup done sometime before midnight.) Keller, as expected, gives very detailed instructions on everything, including the method of julienning the onions. It sounds slightly ridiculous, and having no guiding pictures to help me out, I butchered one onion completely before figuring out what he was getting at.

You cut off the top and bottom of the onion and slice in half lengthwise, and cut out the root and vertical core of the onion with a V wedge cut. Then you place the onion half flat on the board, and slice it from the lower edge toward the core, with the knife positioned at slight angle to the board, almost parallel. The resulting slices are beautiful, and just fall apart with almost no trimming. There's a certain amount of waste involved, but if you plan ahead, like I will next time, you can save the trimmings for stock. The caramelization process is longer than any I've ever heard of, five hours, but I'm putting my faith in the recipe. I'm keeping a photo diary of it, so I'll post pics of the results if they look remotely like food when I'm done with them. Cooking is what's going to get me through the fall, which promises to be a doozy this year, weather-wise.

Update: It turns out cutting the caramelization time isn't an option. You really do have to cook them to the end. I had the heat turned down too low for the first couple of hours because I was afraid of burning the onions, but the directions were for gas heat, which is disappointingly rare in Finland. Only the oldest buildings in downtown Helsinki have gas stoves, leaving my little suburban house with cast iron-like flat burners. It's like taking a sculptor's chisel away and giving him a sledge hammer instead.

Anyway, I couldn't get the onions to the dark brown color they should be, mostly because we had company and I wanted to feed our guests. Rather than add flour and broth to the onions to simmer for an hour and reduce, I just assembled the soup directly in the bowls and put them under the broiler to melt the cheese. I will never, ever caramelize onions any other way. I'll do it better next time, and maybe cut the croutons more carefully so they don't sink into the bowl as much, but even a few steps short of ideal, the soup was unbelievable: refined, rich, sweet, almost no seasoning needed, except for a little salt and a few drops of sherry vinegar. This is about to become a winter (weekend) standby in my kitchen. I served it with a '93 Rheingau riesling, and it was a perfect match. The off-dry, slightly sweet wine picked up the sweetness of the onions, and the its remaining acidity was a cleansing finish for the soup. The photo diary follows. It was 6 large spanish onions, 6-8 tbsp of butter, and 1 tbsp sea salt.

At 30 minutes:

90 minutes:

3 hours:

5 hours:

Finished soup:


Elaine Fine said...

I too have had a pretty nasty work week, and am looking forward to seeing pictures of those 5-hour onions.

Elaine Fine said...

Have you ever tried salting the onions from the start? Salt draws out moisture from the onions and helps them to get that caramel color we all crave.

The cut of the onions looks lovely. I'll have to try making this soup.

Matthew Whittall said...

I did salt them at the start, but I think because the heat was too low for the first little while the liquid didn't evaporate fast enough. Next time I'll try it at the setting I had the burner on toward the end. If I'd kept going for another hour, I think I might have gotten the right depth of caramelization.