Sunday, March 27, 2011

Onion Soup Revealed

I've never been a big fan of French onion soup. The layer of cheese was always too viscous and the onion pieces too thick and the taste too raw oniony.

A few weeks ago, friends served us a homemade version. Wow. What a revelation. The onions were beautifully rendered so that they were sweet but retained a subtle onion flavor. Instead of a brick of cheese, they topped the soup with toasted bread with a thin layer of Swiss cheese. The toast was placed in the bowl and soup ladled onto it, melting the cheese. A spectacular dish.

We asked for the recipe and for the third Sunday in a row, I'm making it for lunch.

Here is the recipe with some tweaks by me.

6 to 8 onions sliced thin

3 tablespoons butter, 2 tablespoons olive oil (the original called for 4 tablespoons of butter. I'm trying steadily less butter to see how much difference it makes).

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup of all purpose flour

4 cups homemade or low sodium chicken broth

4 cups homemade or low sodium beef broth

Rustic bread such as ciabatta

Slices of Swiss cheese

Melt the butter and heat the olive oil in a large pot over a low-medium heat. Once hot, add the sliced onions. It looks like a lot, but hold the phone. They will reduce by three-quarters or more.

Cover and saute the onions over a low-medium heat (I did a little over 3 on my electric stove. Keep in mind every stove and very pot is different) for 30 minutes, stirring frequently. Do not allow to brown or burn.

Remove the cover, stir in salt and sugar and set temperature to low (A little over 1 on my stove). Saute without the lid for 90 minutes to 2 hours. As you near the end of the saute time, heat the broths in a separate pot.

When the 90 minutes to 2 hours are up, add 1/4 cup flour and stir continuously for 5 minutes. Then add the broths and simmer 45 minutes.

Toast bread, top with a slice of Swiss cheese, place in a bowl and pour in soup.

A fantastic dish and easy, easy, easy to make. It's just as good the second and third days, and it's a great use for old, good quality bread. This is a superb example of making something really fantastic with very simple ingedients.

A huge winner.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Kicking Butz

Earl Butz, Richard Nixon's secretary of Agriculture, more than any one individual sparked creation of our current corporate-dominated food system.

Food prices spiked in the early 1970s, making them a political issue. I still remember the meat boycott of the early 1970s. Someone organized a nationwide meatless week to protest soaring prices. I remember my family eagerly signing up -- until we actually had to forgo meat for a week. We stuck to it, but it was a pretty bland and joyless week of eating.

In response, Butz introduced policies encouraging farmers to "get big or get out," undermining the family farm and encouraging the planting of commodity crops like corn fence row to fence row. That created the artificial corn and soybean surpluses which fed the explosion of agribusiness and processed food that in turn degraded our diet and jump-started our obesity epidemic.

All in day's work.

That said, like Dr. Frankenstein, Butz probably thought he was doing the right thing only to see his creation turn into a monster.

Fixing what Earl messed up is the goal of young Oregon farmers profiled in a fascinating New York Times article today. There's so much here to unpack. I will try:

YOUNG IDEALISTIC FARMERS: These young people are looking to farm the old fashioned way in rebellion against Butz's Get Huge-commodity crop philosophy, which at least theoretically ought to be the future. Our agricultural system has become so big farm-orientated, they can't find the equipment. They have to buy antique tractors because new ones are too large.

Can we really go back to this? Probably not completely. But any movement in this direction, anything that fights processed food and agribusiness is a good thing.

Even better, here are young people defining success and personal satisfaction in terms other material goods or money. That is a great thing.

LOST KNOWLEDGE: The article talks about how older farmers have forgotten basic skills and techniques. The youngsters have to search out and revive farming methods and knowledge plowed under by agribusiness.

You see the same thing in cooking. Families have forgotten how to cook basic things like mashed potatoes, cookies and pies.

I hate to be cynical, but whether Big Food did it on purpose or not, this serves their interests. If farmers don't know to farm, they are more dependent on agribusiness. If people don't how to cook, they buy mashed potatoes in a bag.

THE GRANGE: This group of young farmers has breathed new life into the local Grange as part of their effort to re-energize and reform farming.

The Grange was founded in the 19th century by small farmers fighting railroad and other monopolists who were threatening their way of life. It was key cog in the Populist Movement that helped lead the fight against moneyed power during the first Gilded Age.

How appropriate that these farmers are reviving the Grange as we try to fight our way of the second Gilded Age.

CORVALIS, OREGON: The farmers are near this town. I've never been there, but one of my friends when I lived in Reno almost 30 years ago had gone to college there and never tired of talking about what a special place it was. I'm happy to see it still is.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Hot Toddy in the Old Town

What is a hot toddy anyway? The words conjure up southern gentlemen in seersucker sipping drinks on a veranda with Spanish moss-bedecked trees in the background. Or an elderly tippler assuring all that her ample intake is "strictly for medicinal purposes."

That medicinal purposes, it turns out, isn't bunk after all. My wife is suffering through a cold and having entered the coughing stage needed cough medicine. She sent me into the night for something with honey. I returned Robitussin. No good she said. Plus, I read the label. Your standard corporate witch's brew.

On the advice of Facebook friends, she decided try a home remedy, the fabled hot toddy. I returned the Robitussin and bought the key ingredient, honey. After reading several online recipes, she settled on on this one:

Heat 1 cup hot water and mix in 1 shot (she used brandy) with 1 tablespoon honey. Cut a slice of lemon and squeeze the rest into the mixture. Drop the lemon slice into the liquid. Cool a little, but be sure to drink hot.

It worked. She barely coughed all night. And I must say, having taken a nip, it was mighty tasty as well.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Apple of My Eye

I love apples. They've been one of my favorite foods since I was a kid. I used to eat an apple-cut-up-and-peeled each night before going to sleep. Part of my ritual was to drop the plastic bowl on the floor, producing a loud bang. With that, my parents knew I was going to sleep.

But apples -- like so much in our society -- have been commodified down to a few varieties chosen not for taste, but storage life and ease of production and transportation. As a result, one of the most diverse foods on earth has been reduced to only a dozen or fewer commonly available varieties.

The taste of even those has deteriorated over time. I remember the Red Delicious from the 1970s. They were outstanding, sweet and tasty. Over time, their appearance became ever more uniform and appealing -- bright red skin, perfectly proportioned shape -- but their taste all but vanished. Today, I find them inedible. They are a metaphor for so much in America today: Looks beautiful, but lacks substance and integrity.

So it was with immense interest and pleasure that I read an article in yesterday's New York Times about Creighton Lee Calhoun Jr. who has dedicated his life to saving and reviving antique apple varieties. It's fascinating and I strongly recommend apple lovers read it.

I recently read a book my father gave me called "Cornered" about the stealth monopolization of most of our economy by a few big corporations. The author questions the fetish of "efficiency," arguing that the most "efficient" approach often leads to job destruction, dangerous over- dependence on one or two sources and loss of variety and choice.

Apples are an excellent example of the perils of "efficiency.". According to the Times article, there were 16,000 varieties of apples in the late 19th century in the United States. Today, there are 3,000 only a handful of which are widely available. Are we better off?

Obviously, we're not going back to 1895, nor would we want to. And de-centralizing apple production would mean higher costs. But it would also mean more variety, better taste and more jobs, especially the type that have real meaning and worth for those doing them and society at large.