French Onion Soup or: How I Learned to Stop Whining and Love my Crock Pot

When we travel, we often choose a restaurant based on whether it has french onion soup on the menu. And if the soup is good, we may have an extra round of it. That’s right – two bowls of soup. We live large, people.

This soup was good enough to warrant a second bowl.

This soup was good enough to require seconds.                                                                photo by Ruby

We have had some excellent french onion soups (some photos of which are included here for your enjoyment). But throughout all our sampling, my family insists that my french onion soup is the best. Sweet, right? They sure know how to get me to make more soup. Now that the weather has turned chilly (I am wearing a sweatshirt and a scarf today), my thoughts turn to soup. And so I am going to pass along my recipe for the very best french onion soup. It has been vigorously tested by me and mine.

oooh I simply looove Balthazar!

Benoit, NYC                                                                                                                                photo by Ruby

Step one: get out your crock-pot. If you don’t have one, you really should get one. I know. Snap to it. Get moving. Jump on it. Whatever. They are cheap, energy efficient and above all, sooo helpful. Stop whining and get one.

While we are on the subject of whining, there was a time when, even though I had a crock pot, I did not love it. There’s only so much stew you can have, right? And then, many recipes, in the interest of better flavor and texture, call for browning the meat ahead of time in another pot and then adding it to the crock pot. I hate those recipes. If I am already browning the meat, I am just going to go ahead and braise it in that pot in the oven or on the stove – and only have one dish to wash, thank you very much. Taking the time to brown the meat (all four sides!) and getting an extra pot dirty on top of it cancelled out the benefit of crock pot cooking for me. I’m not saying this is rational, I’m just speaking my truth.


Balthazar?                                                                                                      photo by Ruby, onion soup fan

Through french onion soup, I began to see the crock pot not just as a way of making stews with boneless, skinless chicken thighs (which don’t need advance browning); but as a hands-free way of making staple ingredients that can be used in many different ways. Nothing is better than cooking while you sleep, which can totally happen when your food cooks for 12 hours. And what’s more is that I love the staple ingredients that can be made with a crock pot, like caramelized onions, chicken stock, oatmeal, apple butter, herb-infused oils. All of these are helpful ingredients that can be used in tons of recipes. In a nutshell, caramelized onions in the crock pot changed my life.

The two main reasons why onions cooked in the crock pot are so amazing are: (1) you will never burn the onions – never; and (2) you get this amazing onion broth, which is an ingredient in itself, along with the brown onions. I use both the onion broth and the onions in my french onion soup. There’s also a secret third reason: a by-product of the recipe is this amazing onion-infused butter, which is very tasty to use to saute zucchini or toss with pasta.

just off the Rue de Rivoli

Just off Place Vendome                                                                                                           photo by Ruby

I can’t take credit for inventing this method of cooking onions. I got the idea from Slow Cooker Cooking, by Lora Brody. I love this book. I don’t cook any of her recipes that call for browning ingredients before putting them in the crock pot, mind you, but I love this book, for its very useful and easy recipes, especially the pantry section and the soup sections. And most especially her recipe for caramelized onions.

But time after time, as I was happily crock-potting onions, it nagged at me that the recipe was called “Caramelized Onions.” Experience taught me that caramelization involved high heat, sugar, and a dry cooking method. But none of those conditions are involved in crock pot onions. And really, these onions are way too juicy and thick to be caramelized, except they do change to a deep brown color and have a yummy rich, sweet flavor.  What gives?

Well, I’m going to nerd-out for a moment here. Contrary to what the awesome Lora Brody calls them, it turns out my suspicions were valid (listen to your gut, people!) these are not caramelized onions. They are rather “Maillardized” onions. Maillardized comes from the term “Maillard reactions,” which according to Harold McGee in his magnificent book, On Food and Cooking, were named for the scientist who discovered them, Louis Camille Maillard.

Both caramelization and Maillard reactions (or, as I say, “Maillardization”), writes Mr. McGee, are two different “browning reactions” (complex chemical reactions) that happen when foods are subjected to sufficient heat. These reactions produce the yummy flavors we associate with cooked food. Caramelization is the chemical decomposition of sugar at high heat (330F/165C) into different types of molecules, which have delicious flavors and fragrances and add much yumminess to candies and other sweets. On the other hand, the Maillard chemical reactions happen when one applies heat to foods that are not primarily sugar (like onions and butter in the crock pot onions recipe). It is a reaction between a carbohydrate and an amino acid. Just like with caramelization, the reaction causes a brown color and rich, intense flavor (think bread crusts, chocolate, roasted coffee beans, dark beers, condensed milk). But, Maillardization happens at much lower temperatures (about 220F/115C) and can happen with moist cooking methods. And, best of all, Maillard flavors are even more complex than caramelized flavors, making crock pot onions all the more delicious to use in french onion soup. So, thanks Mr. Maillard! Let’s go make soup.

IMG_6537First is the recipe for the crock-pot onions, which have many uses besides french onion soup. Then the grand finale, the french onion soup recipe.

Maillardized Onions
Adapted from Slow Cooker Cooking, by Lora Brody

3 pounds yellow onions, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch-thick slices
(if you have a  bigger slow cooker, go ahead and double the onions.)
1 stick unsalted butter (if you’re doubling onions, do not double butter)

1. Put the onions and butter in the insert of the slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 12-14 hours, until the onions are deep brown, mahogany color and very soft. Your times may be different because slow cookers are different, but don’t worry because you cannot  overcook these onions.

2. Drain the onions, pouring the juices into a bowl or large measuring cup. Then put the browned onions in a different container. Refrigerate both containers. When cool, strain the congealed butter from the surface of the cooled juices, and put in yet another container.

3. You now have three terrific ingredients: browned onions, onion broth and onion butter. Use them, or store them in your fridge or freezer. Enjoy.

French Onion Soup
also adapted from Slow Cooker Cooking, by Lora Brody

3-4 cups browned onions (see above)
onion broth (see above), plus enough chicken or veggie broth or stock to make 6 cups
6 slices bread, thickly sliced and toasted
1-2 cups grated Gruyere cheese
salt and pepper to taste

1. Preheat the broiler on high. Place ovenproof bowls on a heavy-duty rimmed baking sheet.

2. Combine the onions, cooking liquid and broth in a large pot (not a crock pot, we are moving on now). Set it over medium-high heat and bring to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper.

3. Ladle the hot soup into the prepared bowls, top each one with a slice of toast, and sprinkle generously with the cheese. Set the baking sheet under the broiler and broil until the cheese melts and begins to bubble. Serve immediately.

4. Take a picture. French onion soup is very photogenic.

Gray Morning

imageWhen I was an elementary school-aged kid, I had this occasional ritual where I would wrap myself up in a cozy sweater and hang around the house early in the morning before anyone got up. On warm spring mornings maybe I would stroll around outside, inspecting the yard: mock orange, lilac. Maybe one of our big, hairy dogs would join me. On mornings after my parents had guests for dinner, sometimes I would sip the coffee they had left in their fancy cups. Sometimes I would watch the WGN crop report – bundled up on our cozy couch – but mostly it was just my quiet time.

imageNow that I am occupying my adult self, I wish I could recall what was passing through my brain in those kid moments. But maybe I was not so different back then. Maybe then, just like now, I used those quiet mornings to look around my home and think to myself, “Isn’t this just great?”
imageToday I awoke to a lovely gray morning, a cup of tea, and a sleeping house. I had a quiet walk around the garden, where I snapped some pictures.
imageSee that bee (center left) coming in for a landing on those blackberry flowers? I don’t know who was more psyched, the bee about to dig in to some luscious pollen, or me, dreaming of blackberry juice dripping down my chin. Okay – I guess I was maybe more psyched. It was a very good morning.

And then, as always, my stomach clock went off. I thought to myself, “Self, what is the best way to celebrate this very good gray morning through food?” My answer to myself was green bean frittata. I’m just not even going to acknowledge that a reader might not see a green bean frittata as a celebration. When one has a pound of CSA green beans and a basket of backyard chicken eggs and a gray morning where a warm oven would make the kitchen even more cozy – it’s a total party.
imageFrittata with Green Beans
Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan (If you do not own this book, stop reading this blog and go buy it now. Really, I mean it – go.)

Marcella Hazan is The Man. This is for-sure one of my desert-island cookbooks. Among the many wonderful things about this book is the whole chapter on frittate. That’s the plural of frittata. I know – it’s like an Italian grammar lesson, too.

My version of the recipe adds a quarter pound more beans and loses a quarter cup of cheese. I figure it’s an easy and painless recipe tweak which minimizes calories and maximizes veggies. Sempre healthy.

In my house usually any leftover frittata just hangs out in the cast-iron pan and we nibble on it bit by bit throughout the afternoon (because I guess we only make these on weekends). Although this time I put the leftovers in the fridge and had a big wedge as a sandwich filling with a little arugula.

3/4 pound fresh green beans, rinsed, stem-ends trimmed
5 eggs
Black pepper, freshly ground
3/4 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
2 T butter

First prepare the green beans: Bring 3 quarts water to a full boil, add 1/2 tablespoon salt, and when the water returns to a boil, drop in the rinsed and trimmed green beans. Cook, uncovered, at a moderate but steady boil, until the beans are firm to the bite but still tender, about 5 minutes – but possibly longer if your beans are old and tough (like me). Drain immediately and chop into course pieces. Set aside on a cutting board to cool down.

Then prepare the frittata: Preheat your broiler. Crack the eggs into a bowl and beat them until the yolks and whites are evenly blended. Add the chopped beans, salt, a few grindings of pepper, and the grated cheese. Mix well. Melt the butter over medium heat in a cast-iron or other non-stick, oven-proof pan. After the butter starts to foam, but before it colors, add the egg mixture to the pan. Turn the heat down to low and cook until the eggs have set and thickened, and only the surface is runny. Then run the skillet under the broiler for a few seconds. Take it out as soon as the top of the frittata sets, before it becomes browned. Loosen the frittata with a spatula and slide it onto a platter, and cut it into pie wedges to serve. Yum.

Frugalicious Freezer Exploration

So – schwhateva on that $100/week for groceries not including the CSA box thing . . .

When my mother (who is a thrifty shopper) said it couldn’t be done, I should have listened. Listen to your mother! She said she spends over $100/week in groceries for just her and my Dad, so she doubted I could do it for us four – especially with two growing (and prosciutto-loving) teens/tweens.

Well she was right. There I’ve said it: It’s a little over halfway through February and I am over my $650 for the month. I have some stuff in my freezer, but not enough to feed us through the month, right? Okay, time for real-time freezer inventory. I’m at the freezer now (this could get embarrassing):

Bag of frozen peas
Bag of frozen corn (okay, I’m going to stop saying each thing is frozen)
Pint of vanilla ice cream
Container cranberry cocktail concentrate (I had an idea about margaritas – didn’t pan out)
Bag of leftover homemade latkes
2 bags leftover homemade pancakes
Miscellaneous Go-gurt tubes of undetermined vintage
Gallon bag pork barbeque (dated September 2011)
3 bags of 1.5 quarts homemade chicken stock (that’s money, baby)
Gallon bag of undetermined beige substance – here, you guess:
Post a reply if you have an idea – now back to the list:

2 1lb packages grass fed ground beef (on sale at $5.99/lb so I bought extra)
Another unidentified bag of something appearing to be of tomato-sauce origin
2 quart bags homemade veggie soup (made this last week, it’s really good)
2 qt leftover beef soup from January 2012
1 qt bag of undetermined – again tomato-ey in origin
Box Dr. Praeger’s California Veggie Burgers
1 pint bag of pomegranate seeds
1 whole pomegranate
1lb ground coffee
One-half loaf Ezekiel bread
and finally:
One lego dude frozen in a jar of water.

Oh my gosh – I feel so exposed. But I also feel heartened – I have some food I can use to keep my expenses down this month. I am taking the pork BBQ out for dinner tonight. We can have the frozen peas since we don’t get a new infusion of green until the CSA box tomorrow, and I’ll have to make some potato thing for a starch, since I don’t have buns (the potato latkes?). . . okay you all don’t need to hear me thinking aloud. You already know what it’s like cobbling a dinner together.

So, thanks for going on this impromptu adventure with me.  I doubt I can go the rest of the month without buying groceries – but I am going to use up stuff in the freezer.  After all, I froze it to use it. And of course I will keep freezing as I go. I’m not ready to give up on my $650/month goal just yet, and I will spend the rest of February keeping very close track of things. That way, I can have more information to decide whether or not it’s feasible for next month.

And maybe the extra expense for food could go into the “wants” category. . . . The food we eat isn’t just calories to fuel our bodies. Dinner is really our one regular family activity. Sure, we go on the occasional outing together (we call them RFT – random family trips), but on a regular daily basis, dinner is where we all come together. It’s not that we sit around discussing current events and Shakespeare every night – sometimes we play a card game or watch an episode of Chopped. Sometimes it’s a homework dinner and sometimes it’s reading night – be we are all together. And the food brings us there. Beyond the calories, vitamins and minerals we need to survive, I want the food experience to be as fun and tasty as possible. So it makes sense to put some of the extra expense into “wants.”

By the way, I will let you know what the undetermined stuff is. Hopefully it’s tasty!

P.S. I also realized that when I use my bank records to add up my grocery bills (I use a bank card for everything), I can’t distinguish between food and non-food items (dish soap, toothpaste, etc.) that I buy at the grocery store. I’m going to have to start saving receipts . . . just what I need, more paper around the house.


Frugalicious February

Everyone knows that the real New Year starts in February, right? January is just sort of a warm up. Maybe you brainstorm about various resolutions and plans. Maybe you just kinda get started and are working out the kinks. It’s practice. But February is for reals: you can’t say you just got back from vacation or you’re just getting over the holidays – that stuff is done. February is like 4:00 a.m. – nothing is going on.  It’s just you and your whirring brain, saying, “Are you going to make this year work – or what?”
And so it’s the perfect time to get started in earnest with the 30 Large Project. No more excuses. No monkeying around. But I’m not worried. It won’t be hard – like climbing Mount Everest or running for president. This is just being responsible. No biggie.
Throughout the month of February, we pledge to only spend money on “needs” (as defined by our guru Elizabeth Warren in her book, All Your Worth), such as food, gasoline, and things we are contractually required to pay, such as mortgage, cable, credit card balances, etc.  We will also keep track of every penny spent, so as to begin to get a crystal clear picture of where the money goes, even when we are really thinking about it and being on our best behavior.
When it comes to our (historically) monstrous food budget and my Whole Foods addiction, I expect to keep to my budget of $100 a week, not including our delicious weekly CSA box. This is going to be the tough part for me as I think a significant portion of our food – that is in excess of our $100 weekly limit – now comes from the “wants” column.  Expect to see lots of cheap recipes from Nerdhaven West in February!
We will report back on the blog each week with a summary, describing the ups and downs and what we have done and learned.  We will not publish a spreadsheet (although we have had requests to do that!) but we will try to get to the details as closely as possible so you can feel our pain . . . um, I mean responsibility . . . no – I mean our frugaliciousness.
P.S. Who says frugaliciousness isn’t all that photogenic? All the photos in this post are of free things around my house. And because you have made it this far in the post, I will reward you with a video of chickens arguing over string cheese. Click here: LoudMo