Saturday, 12 October 2013

A dish like your favourite cardigan

Pyracantha berries – nearly ready for the birds
We studied a number of the poems of Keats during my schooling, but with the exception of this first stanza of Ode to Autumn, from 1819, they made me gurn at the mawkishness of them.

This, on the other hand, had something sensual about it; something of the voluptuousness of the season.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mos’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

The third of the stanzas in that Keats ode deals with the dying of the year.

Looking back on it, I can see why I didn’t appreciate that bit of the work as much: for a teenager growing up in a family that was far too absorbed with death and guilt and sin, it was almost impossible to comprehend death as an integral part of life, and to see that the cycle of life and death and life again was what Keats was noting.

Actually, the whole poem is a beautifully evocative description of England at this time of year. Yes – there are even hints of such sights and sounds to be found and experienced in The Smoke.

The weather changed two days ago, with temperatures falling by such noticeable degrees that a scarf was suddenly in order for the mornings.

With the nights having already drawn in, we’ve arrived at the days when the cardi and slippers call.

The cardigan of the food world – the ultimate comfort food – is soup. And this weekend offered the perfect opportunity to get busy creating warming bowls of comfort.

Chopped onions and garlic, softening
Given that La Bouche has Roscoff onions in, it was an obvious leap to opt for the first French onion soup of the season.

You can certainly use other onions (depending on what you can find), but the point is to make sure hat you’re decent. It’s the point of the dish, after all, so you want some quality flavour.

But perhaps most vital of all, this soup needs time: it’s not the business of 20 minutes.

For two people, I took four of the Roscoff onions, peeled and chopped them.

Now Raymond Blanc suggests slicing, but since The Other Half grouches and says he prefers chopped, this is one occasion on which I will ignore the great chef.

I use a Le Creuset shallow casserole dish to cook this – it allows a far better ratio of cooking surface to onion than any other pan I possess and, of course, its heat-retaining qualities work wonders with such a dish.

So, chop your onions, plus some garlic (four cloves for the two of us).

Over a gentle heat, melt a generous amount of butter – and I do mean generous: 50g won’t go amiss.

When the last of the solids have disappeared into a pool of yellow, pop in your onion and garlic and spread it evenly over the base of the pan. And then let everything start to do its magic.

Slowly does it, remember: this is a marathon of love, not a sprint of convenience.

More colours of autumn
It can take a long time to start browning, but don’t be tempted to turn up the temperature beyond what allows the liquid butter to just – and only just! – produce the odd bubble. Quite apart from anything else, you don’t want to burn either the butter or the garlic.

Don’t be tempted to stir it too much either or it won’t brown.

Now if you really want, you can try a bit of a cheat here, although I’m not convinced of its efficacy. A sprinkle of sugar is claimed by some to speed up the caramelisation process. As I said: I’m unconvinced – and it adds a sort of sweetness to the dish that you don’t want. Given the time it needs, this will sweeten up gorgeously all on its own.

Fast forward and the onion has turned golden. Sprinkle a little plain flour over it and stir in gently. Let it cook through for a minute or so, and then start adding some white wine.

To be honest, I don’t have developed enough taste buds to be able to really notice what I use in such a situation, but I stuck with M Blanc’s golden rule and spent less than a fiver on a bottle, the rest of which was destined for further culinary deployment.

Once you’ve got the got the pan deglazed, add a little stock too (chicken or vegetable; fresh or a cube*), then a sprig of thyme and a couple of bay leaves, cover and leave to simmer oh so gently for a good 40 minutes.

And that’s pretty much that. Check the seasoning – if you used a stock cube, you’re unlikely to need to add any further salt, but a grind or three of pepper will hardly go amiss.

French onion soup with gruyere croutons
To serve in the traditional way, you need a ‘crouton’ or two – no, not little cubes, but, to be strictly accurate, slices of toasted baguette.

Dish up the soup, place a crouton on top of each bowl and scatter coarsely grated gruyere cheese on top, before popping it briefly under the grill so that the cheese starts melting all the way off the bread and into the soup.

It goes without saying that theres nothing wrong with using something like Cheddar if you cant get gruyere, but the latter does have a nutty taste that matches superbly with the onion in this dish.

Of course, if – like The Other Half – you don’t like cheese, you do without this added treat or have a crouton spread with mustard.

Now sit and wrap yourself in the warm comfort of this wonderful classic.

It’s worth every moment.

* If you use stock cubes, I recommend Kallo’s Just Bouillon. Unlike most other stock cubes, it doesn’t use palm oil in the ingredients, and the production of this oil is doing grave damage to the habitat of orangutans, so it's a good one to avoid.

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