French(ish) onion soup, no tears, some lies, some remedies.

If it´s cold and blustery and you have lots of onions to use, and the only other things in the house are a rather old hunk of Manchego cheese and a slightly passé mollete(bread), what do you do? French onion soup. Of course.
The problem is that a proper onion soup takes forever, what with the slicing and the browning and the many hours that go into good beef stock.
Then I remembered a Nigel Slater recipe I´d read in his Kitchen Diaries: onion soup without tears. Nigel chirpily halves some onions, dots them with butter, roasts them to goldeness and in they go into the pot. A gloriously dark comforting soup is achieved in less than no time, and with vegetable stock. Wow.
Can such things be? I don´t think so, my friend.
Well, maybe I´m just incompetent. Or maybe Nigel was bending the truth a little. Or lying in his teeth, even.
Whichever it was, my onions, after double the time N said, and even though I´d shaken them about a few times, were black on one side, white on the other. Cooked through, sure, and the house smelt like a French bistro (which it still does, by the way) but they didn´t look even remotely like the sort of brown limp mess you expect to begin a soup with.
Since my stock options were half a litre of great home made chicken stock, and a litre of Aneto low salt chicken stock, which is a tad on the bland side, and interestingly pale, I´d clearly need something else in the way of kick and colour.
Gallina Blanca has the nerve to sell an ersatz beef stock that contains 0,1% beef extract, water, 0,1% beef, caramel and flavourings, and yet tastes slightly beefy. So Bovril and caramel seemed like a good idea, as long as I upped the percentages.
I cut up the big onion wedges with a pair of scissors, which certainly beats the tearful chopping. Then I started with the cheater´s ingredients.
First, the wine. If the wine is dark, all the better. Red is a possibility, but I opted for Pedro Ximénez, because I wanted to finish off a bottle and because I decided I´d give the whole thing a Spanish twist.
A glug of sherry brandy seemed like an excellent idea, and while the alcohol burnt off, J and I had a tug of war with the caramel bottle. By the time we had it open, it was time for the stocks, a good spoonful of dark caramel and a teaspoonful of Bovril.
Twenty minutes of brisk simmering and, magic, the thing really resembled a good old onion soup.
The mollete was toasted, the manchego was grated, the bowls went under the grill and the whole thing was perfectly beautiful.
The next time I´ll cook my onions on the stove, or I might even, if really really lazy, use a couple of tins of Hida cooked onions. With that, and the doctoring of the stock, we´re talking some seriously decadent practically instant comfort food.
Now that´s a real soup without tears, and it works, too.


Cooking lessons for the holidays

It´s a holiday in Spain. A very long weekend to spend frying torrijas and squinting at processions through clouds of incense. Or flopped on the beach. Or being lazy in Madrid and enjoying the empty city.

We´re having a tad more activity than that, however. My sister María has decided to learn to cook, and so we´re having a Karate Kid Holy Week, with myself in the role of Mr. Miyagi and she as Daniel San.

I´m a very stern pedagogue and have insisted from the first that she learn to hold a big knife properly, keep it sharp, and chop all the onions. So far we´ve done tomato sauce, both normal and Thermomix-cheat; chicken curry; sauteéd greens; beef stew; and a salmon escabeche for tomorrow.
Today we´re onto the rice for the curry, more vegetable stuff and roti. We´ll also cover buttermilk biscuits and possibly some form of cookie or cake as the week progresses, if my pupil´s patience holds.

How does that sound? I think it´s all stuff that isn´t hard to do, or complicated, and the skills involved are pretty similar, so confidence grows.
It´s not the usual Spanish canon, and I bet I will get many a raised eyebrow for not starting out with bechamel sauce for croquetas, with albóndigas (meatballs) or with cocido. I love all these dishes, but I find them too fiddly to be sprung on a novice.
Tomato sauce will always be the true test of a beginner, not the proverbial fried egg. From tomato sauce you can jump to curry, or to baby squid in ink, to pisto or to a quick cheat´s potaje. Fried eggs will only lead you to cholesterol, and besides, I don´t know how to do them, so there.

I´ll be back next week, all rested from not having touched the computer in days. Have fun.

And if anyone has a suggestion for something that´s an absolute must for a beginner, please let me know; I´m all ears.


Tricking out leftover beef stew

The beauty of stew is that it keeps getting better and better until it´s over. But you might get a little bit bored. Or you might need to make it go further for unexpected guests. Or maybe you were planning to have a springy lunch, but the weather suddenly turned from Barefoot in the park to Doctor Zhivago, like this week in Madrid, and you want something hot and warming.
Whatever the case, it´s where your pantry comes into play. Lydia has been showing us the contents of her Perfect Pantry for a while, but now there´s a new feature of sneak peeks into other pantries, and you can have a look at mine. It´s far from perfect, but provided you have the basics, like onions and oil and such, a few odds and ends will make all the difference to leftovers. You´ll be able to cook up huge batches of the easy beef stew, with no fear of boredom.
Just shake off any notions of cooking for real ethnic authenticity and enjoy the ride with any of these clever stew makeovers.
1-Patatas con carne. Put your stew, potatoes cut into chunks, and stock to cover in a pan (of course by stock you know I mean water and a cube. Viva el MSG, I feel ever so vindicated by the New York Times!). When the potatoes are done, it should be a thick warming soup. If you take the time to start with a sofrito and add a dash of pimentón, so much the better.
2- Ragù. Put whatever meat and gravy you have, well shredded, in a pan with a jar of good bottled tomato sauce and some sugar (or ketchup). Leave to bubble down furiously while you cook the pasta. Don´t forget to add a couple of spoonfuls of the pasta cooking water to the sauce.
3- Curry. This can be as basic as frying some spice paste from a jar, adding the meat, and waiting for it to heat trhough; or as elaborate as you care to make it, with a good vegetable base and your own whole spices. I usually sautee onions and garlic and ginger and cumin and chili, add some curry powder, the meat and maybe some coconut milk or yogurt, maybe some tomato sauce, maybe both, and simmer it a bit while the rice cooks. I might throw in some frozen peas, too. They make a pretty contrast with the dark sauce.
4- Chili. Do the onion-garlic-pepper thing, add cumin and whatever source of heat you like, a dash of barbecue sauce, then the stew and a can of beans. Very lovely stuff.
5-Pie. Put the meat in a dish and cover with puff pastry. If you make a bottom layer of shortcrust, then it will be the stuff of legend. Serve with minted peas.
6- Go Middle Eastern by making a spiced sautee of onions and garlic (with cumin and ginger and maybe cinammon, whatever you like), add dried apricots and prunes, leave to soften a bit, then add the meat and simmer for a few minutes. Scatter some toasted almonds on top and serve with cous cous and you´re in business.