Receipt: French Onion Soup

The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you've got to have a “What the hell?” attitude.
~ Julia Child

It was my Saturday afternoon ritual. Make a sandwich. Grab a cold drink. Go to my room. Shut the door. Turn on the TV -- a little black and while model. Change the channel to our local PBS station. Settle back into my black bean bag chair. And wait for that jaunty theme music.

I was twelve years old.

And Julia Child was my idol.

It was French Chef time.

Life itself is the proper binge.
~ Julia Child

I don’t know where I got my intense, passionate, almost obsessive love of cooking. My paternal Grandma was a damn good cook; my maternal Nana wasn’t bad. My mom cooked, but it wasn't her passion.

But me -- I not only inherited the cooking gene from my ancestors, I got bit by the culinary bug as well. My earliest memory is of my four-year-old self being lifted up to take a look at the Thanksgiving turkey roasting in the oven.

And I did time with a couple of kids cookbooks -- pouring over the Betty Crocker Cookbook for Boys and Girls like it was the Magna Carta, devising menus and mentally tinkering with recipes.

For some reason, my mother had a subscription to Bon Appétit magazine. Every month when the latest issue arrived in the mailbox, it spent about two days on the family room coffee table, then disappeared into my room. I cut recipes out like a girl possessed, treating them as lovingly as I did my pin-up poster boys from Tiger Beat. I’m not sure what I was thinking, as at that point in my life (and my family’s taste buds), there was no way I would be making 40 Cloves of Garlic Chicken, but I had the recipe. Just in case.

I don’t remember what brought me to my Saturday afternoons with Julia. Chances are I read about the programming lineup in TV Guide and just tuned in one day. Instantly hooked.

I watched Julia, with her non-intimidating style and deceptive skill, move ‘round her TV kitchen and create dishes the likes of which I’d never seen before in my home kitchen. Salade niçoise. Chocolate Mousse. Veal Prince Orloff. Which, of course, I knew about, thanks to a favorite episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Never use water unless you have to! I'm going to use vermouth!
~ Julia Child

So imagine my delight when under the Christmas tree in December ‘77, I found this.

Between that and the other fab book I received that year (Scarlett Fever - The Ultimate Pictorial Treasury of Gone With the Wind) I spent all of the 25th and most of the 26th reading until my eyes grew heavy with exhaustion.

As I read though my new treasure, my mind pondered all the possibilities. What would be the first thing I would make under Julia’s guidance and following her directions... which recipe would be the one that I would use as my jumping off point into the world of serious cooking.

The answer soon became apparent: French onion soup.

Onion soup sustains. The process of making it is somewhat like the process of learning to love. It requires commitment, extraordinary effort, time, and will make you cry.
~ Ronni Lundy

The recipe looked simple enough. Not many ingredients to bog down a new cook. Nothing too unusual to intimidate. And it was something that everyone in my immediate family might dig.

And so I began a ritual that I would continue to this day. I’ve been making Julia’s French onion soup for thirty years. Happily. When I was single and living on my own, it was my family’s traditional Christmas Eve dinner -- everyone would come to whatever hovel I was living in at the time for soup, salad, wine and conversation after the Christmas Eve church service. These days, I make it when the air turns cool and the palette craves a bit of familiar sophistication.

My cooking technique has improved over the years, as have the tools of my trade. And I think the soup I make now reflects the maturity of its creator. But honestly, there was something so perfectly delicious about those first batches of soup my idealistic teenage hands made. I infused the hearty melange with my youthful enthusiasm and zest. It in turn gave me confidence and a sense of self not known before. I wooed men with my soup. I cared for ailing friends with my soup. I helped to ease the grieving process of loved ones with my soup.

I've done a bit of reading over the years about Julia and her life and accomplishments. The most interesting tidbit -- and the one I shall remember always -- was what she had for her last meal the night before she passed away.

French onion soup.

Bon Appétit!


Julia’s Soupe à l'oignon, pretty much as is, The French Chef Cookbook
3 Tb. butter
1 Tb. olive oil
1 1/2 lbs. or about 6 cups thinly sliced yellow onions
1 t. salt
1/2 t. sugar
3 Tb. flour
6 cups organic beef broth
1 c. red wine
1 bay leaf
1/2 t. rubbed sage
salt & pepper

Melt the butter with the oil in a dutch oven and add the sliced onions and stir up to coat. Cover pan and cook over moderately low heat until translucent, about 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Uncover pan, turn up heat to medium-high and add salt and sugar. Sugar, by caramelizing, helps onions to brown. Stirring frequently, cook for another 20-30 minutes until the onions are deep brown and jam-like. Meanwhile, heat broth to a simmer in a separate pan.

Lower heat to moderate and add flour to onions. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring continuously, to brown the flour. Remove from heat and whisk in one cup of the hot broth. Add the rest of the broth, wine, bay leaf and sage, and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 30-40 minutes, seasoning to taste with salt and pepper.

Soupe à l'oignon gratinée (which really is the only way to eat it)
The soup!
1 baguette
olive oil
1 1/2 c. grated Gruyère/Emmentaler/Baby Swiss and Parmesan cheese, mixed

Cut bread into slices about 1 inch thick, paint lightly with olive oil and arrange in one layer on baking sheet. Place in middle of preheated 325-degree oven for 15-20 minutes until beginning to brown lightly; turn and brown lightly on other side for 15-20 minutes. These are called croûtes.

Ladle soup into heat-proof bowls and top with a couple of the croûtes and grated cheese. Broil until bubbly on top. Serve.

Warning: hot melted cheese is akin to culinary napalm -- if not careful, you could burn the hell out of the inside of your mouth and render your taste buds helpless for a short period of time. Eat wisely. It’s worth it.

Dining with one's friends and beloved family is certainly one of life's primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal.
~ Julia Child


Pimp: Penzey’s Spices

I’m one of those folks who like sharing the joy when I know about a product or service or company or, well, anything that I like and respect. As such things come to mind or are discovered, I’ll take a moment or seven (these posts don’t witty-up and write themselves, you know…) to tell you about them. Just look for my blingy chalice for one of these Pimp-ed out posts.

In the pile of j-u-n-q-u-e the postie brought today was my quarterly catalog from Penzey’s Spices. I did a little happy dance in my front foyer. Penzey’s! Spice nirvana! Essences and enhancements as far as the eye can see.

It’s a bit of well-seasoned heaven for those of us who like to cook.

Do y'all know about Penzey's? Let me enlighten you...

Penzey’s Spices carries over 250 herbs, spices and seasoning blends from literally around the world. Eight different curry combinations. Chili peppers, with heat unit classifications to help you decide what level of thermonuclear kaboom you want in your dish. Salad dressing combos. Highest quality vanilla. Spices for baking. Barbequing. Extracts. Salts. Spices you’ve heard of – and spices you haven’t.

Yeah. I’m a fan.

I’ve given their cocoa mix as part of holiday gift baskets and sent guests home with salad dressing mix. My kitchen spice cabinet looks like a Penzey’s showcase.

The company is big-time, with an increasing number of retail outlets in addition to a booming mail order business, but still has a very customer-friendly feel. Each catalog is filled with recipes that showcase the spices. Each item has a very comprehensive description, which is very helpful for trying that new-to-you spice or seasoning.

Have I sold you yet?

You might think that being such a niche kind of business, Penzey’s might be uber-expensive. They’re not cheap –but they’re not over-priced either. For the quality and variety, it’s coin well spent. In that same vein, they offer spices in different amounts/sizes. I recommend ordering the smallest amount (usually ¼ cup) to see if you like it and to see how often/ how much you’ll be using. Once you figure that out, there are larger quantity options to meet whatever need you probably have.

My final suggestion: go visit the website (penzeys.com) and sign up to receive a hard copy catalog. You’ll not only get a welcome piece of mail from the postie, but this is one instance that the catalog is a better “sell” for the company than the no-frills but easy-to-access website.

And when you do place your order (how’s that for positive thinking!) drop me a line and let me know what you bought. We can compare notes. And you might give me an idea for something to add to my next order. Mwha ha ha.

FYI: I’m not a Penzey’s employee/compensated shill. I just really dig the company and wanted to share.


WFD: Chicken Tortellini Florentine Soup

As you might imagine, I'm an aficionado serio of any cooking programming on the telly. Bourdain (who I'm going to see and meet & greet in November. Yeah. I'm excited.) Any food thing on Bravo. The new and fab Cooking Channel. And of course, the granddaddy of them all -- Food Network.

True confession: I usually reserve my FN viewing for the true, pure cooking shows -- I'm not much for the specials and such, save for Chopped -- and that's mostly because i adore Ted Allen and Alex Guarnaschelli (with whom I sometimes chat on Twitter. But I digress. Again.) And The Collection is full of books from those who host shows on the network...

...Ina Garten. Alton Brown. Ina Garten. Mario Batali. Ina Garten. Emeril (does he even need a last name?). Did I mention Ina Garten?

However, there's one personality (note the word choice) I cannot stand, nay abide. That Sandra Lee. She bugs. And while I could rant on and on about her, I won't. I will say that I don't consider her a chef -- she's an assembler. She usually puts things together using a plethora of prepackaged stuff. Much of which isn't healthy or good-for-you. But...

OK. Stopping now.

That being said... every once in a while, on a busy night, I turn into an assembler, albeit one with a conscience. This soup is my favorite go-to when I need something for dinner and don't have a grocery list put together. I can remember all the elements on the fly. It goes together quickly and actually uses some fresh ingredients. I've adapted it a bit from the original recipe, which I found in a copy of Better Homes & Gardens on a trip to the in-laws. As with most chicken soups, it's always good for what ails you. Even if you're a temporary assembler.


Chicken Tortellini Florentine Soup
(adapted from a Better Homes & Gardens recipe)

1-20oz. pkg. refrigerated 3-cheese tortellini
1 qt + 1 cup organic chicken broth
2-10oz. containers refrigerated light alfredo pasta sauce
1 whole rotisserie chicken, shredded
1 jar oil-packed dried tomato strips,drained
1 pkg. lightly packed packaged fresh baby spinach
juice of one lemon
parmesan cheese, shaved or shredded

In a 4 qt. pot, cook tortellini according to package directions. Drain; set aside.

In a dutch oven, combine broth and alfredo sauce. Stir in chicken, spinach and tomato strips. Heat till just boiling; reduce heat. Simmer, uncovered about 5 minutes.

Add cooked tortellini to soup. Cook 1 to 2 mins. to heat through. Squeeze lemon juice into soup; stir.

To serve, sprinkle with parmesan cheese.


Receipt: Sun Dried Tomato Pesto Torta

Too often in cooking people fail to make the distinction between time consuming and difficult. There is a difference.
~ Nigella Lawson

Call it potluck. Call it covered dish. Call it a BYOD (Bring Your Own Dish.) We’ve all been involved with or invited to an event where everyone is asked to bring a little something-something for others to nosh on.

My go-to dish on these occasions -- Sun Dried Tomato Pesto Torta. Been making it for nearly a decade, thanks to seeing it in Bon Appétit when on a hunt for something to take to a Christmas party.

Oh Em Gee, is it good. And others agree with this, she says modestly. It really is yummy. Don't think about the fat content, though, while you're enjoying it. It kills the garlic buzz.

My galpal in Georiga loves this so much that I don’t even think about going on our annual three-family week-long vacation to Captiva without making this. She might disown me if I didn't. She’s even eaten this for breakfast. I've seen her do it. Seriously.

Periodically, someone will ask me for the recipe. Which I’m more than happy to share -- I’m not one to bogart stuff like this.

However, once the askee has the recipe in her hot little hands (not being sexist -- it’s always women that have this reaction) and has a chance to look it over, invariably I get one of the two following responses:

“Wow. This looks complicated.”


“Wow. I don’t make anything that has this many ingredients.”

Please. Just because a recipe has more than five ingredients does not a challenge make. Frankly, the most difficult thing for me in culinary land has just four ingredients: flour, shortening, water and salt. The elusive pie crust. Can't make a decent one to save my life. But that's another tale for another day.

Now, I will admit that I enjoy spending time in the kitchen (cooking, not cleaning... ugh) more than the average bear. But I’ve been making this dish since my culinary skills were in their embryonic stage. It’s not that tough. It's basically all about the assembly. Seriously.

And the payoff. So worth it. Guaranteed.


Not-That-Hard-I-Promise Sun Dried Tomato Pesto Torta
(adapted just a bit from Bon Appétit's orignal recipe)

• 4 cloves garlic
• 1-1/2 cups basil leaves, packed
• 1/2 cup pine nuts
• 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
• 1 teaspoon lemon juice
• 4 cups cream cheese, room temperature
• 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
• 1-1/3 cups sun-dried tomatoes, oil packed & drained
• 1/3 cup tomato paste
• 3/4 cup butter, room temperature
• non-stick vegetable oil spray
• fresh basil sprigs, garnish
• toasted pine nuts, garnish
• crackers or toasted baguette slices

Finely chop garlic in food processor. Add basil, 1/4 cup pine nuts, oil and lemon juice. Process until well blended. Add 1 cup (8 oz) cream cheese and 1/4 cup Parmesean cheese. Using on/off turns, process until just blended. Transfer pesto to medium bowl.

Coarsely chop sun-dried tomatoes in processor. Add tomato paste and process until mixture is almost smooth. Add 1 cup (8 oz) cup cream cheese and blend well.

Using electric mixer, beat 2 cups cream cheese and butter in large bowl until fluffy. Season with salt and pepper.

Spray 6-cup souffle dish with non-stick spray. Line with plastic wrap, extending plastic over sides. Spread 3/4 cream cheese butter mixture evenly over bottom of prepared dish. Top with half of tomato mixture, then 1/2 cup cream cheese-butter mixture, then half of pesto mixture. Repeat layering with 1/2 cup cream cheese-butter mixture, remaining tomato mixture, 1/2 cup cream cheese-butter mixture and remaining pesto. Top with remaining cream cheese-butter mixture. Cover and chill at least 8 hours.

Invert torta onto serving platter. Peel off plastic. Garnish with basil leaves and toasted pine nuts. Serve with crackers or baguette slices.

Sound Bites

A quick Q&A about me and food...

What is your first memory of baking/cooking on your own?
I was eight years old. Armed with my brand new Betty Crocker Boys & Girls Cookbook purchased with my own money from Haslems’ Book Store, (which I still have, by the way) I announced one day that I would like to make dinner for the family. The menu was Jell-O, macaroni and cheese and for dessert, a cake from the Easy Bake Oven Santa had brought the Christmas before. From what I remember, I did most of the cooking myself – Daddy helped with the macaroni prep (back in those days, macaroni was just that – no fancy terms like ‘pasta’ were thrown around), but other than that, it was all me. Even set the table too – even at that age, I knew my way around a place setting. And a passion was born.

Who had the most influence on your cooking?
It starts and ends with Julia Child. No joke. Any Saturday in the mid-70s, I could be found sitting in my bean bag chair on the floor of the bedroom, watching “The French Chef” in glorious black and white on our PBS station. My first grown-up cookbook was the companion to this series – and I still cook out of it often. Her technique was fascinating – but it was her sheer joy of the craft -- no, the art -- that made the biggest impression on me. Even to this day.

Do you have an old photo as "evidence" of an early exposure to the culinary world?
Somewhere, in the iPhotos file on my other computer that I can’t access at the moment (don’t ask) I do indeed. But in lieu of that, I offer a photo of me, circa 1982 or ’83, in my childhood kitchen. And yes, that’s a bottle of tonic water I’m opening – the bottle of vodka was just out of camera range.

Mageiricophobia - do you suffer from any cooking phobia, a dish that makes your palms sweat?
Pie crust from scratch. Can’t do it. No matter how hard I try. I think I have a mental block about this particular item, as I have friends who are much less accomplished cooks than I (yeah, I know that sounds uppity, but if the apron fits…) who can make a great crust. Maybe someday…

What would be your most valued or used kitchen gadgets and/or what was the biggest letdown?
Most valued: My Wüsthof knives. The Cuisinart. The Kitchen-Aid mixer. And my first Le Cruset dutch oven.
Biggest letdown: any garlic prep gadget other than a mincer – all a big waste of coin and time. Pfffft.

Name some funny or weird food combinations/dishes you really like - and probably no one else!
One of my favorite salads: cottage cheese, cantaloupe, grapes and bananas, poppy seed salad dressing and raisin bran.
Shut up. It’s delish.

I also love to dip potato chips into ketchup, but have come to learn that this isn't all that unusual. So much for me being a trendsetter. Pffffffft.

What are the three eatables or dishes you simply don't want to live without?
High quality parmesan-reggiano; high quality balsamic vinegar; milk (I LOVE milk and drink at least a gallon of skim a week.)

Three quickies:
Your favorite ice-cream...
Pistachio, pralines and cream, cinnamon, Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby

You will probably never eat...

Your own signature dish(es)...
French Onion Soup; BBQ (pork, please) and all the accompaniments; Sun-dried Tomato & Pesto Torta


Ah Food.

My beloved.

My nemesis.

We have been together a long, long time, haven’t we? My first memory involves you – Daddy lifting me up to look in the oven to see the Thanksgiving turkey roasting. And that was a looooong time ago, as we haven’t roasted a bird since the Nixon administration. It’s all about smoking that gobbler for us anymore.

You are my longest, most complicated non-family relationship. The phrase “there’s a thin line between love and hate” was written just for us. Nothing ambivalent about our connection.

I love what makes you tick. How you are composed. How you are so much more than nutrition and sustenance. What you do for people. How you can alternately be simple and complicated and succeed on both counts.

There are things about you I’m not so crazy about – why you refuse to leave my hips and tuchus alone, no matter how I try to shake you. Why, in my deepest darkest moments, we become horribly and self-destructively co-dependent. Olives. Gin. (Yes, gin counts. I’m cranking this pasta maker, so my rules.)

This project is about us – you and me. I want to broaden our relationship. Enhance it. Fine tune it. Separate the wheat from the chaff.

(OK. Enough with the food clichés. I hear you. Party pooper.)

It’s about our past. Our present. Our future.

Bon appétit, y'all!