30 January 2014

AUNTIE PASTA: Viva la French Cuisine

CHIAVARI, Italy – In the past couple of years, something has happened to French food in Paris, at least it seemed that way in the restaurants I ate in last week. The food in Paris used to be good. It used to be one of the reasons I looked forward to going to there. But I’m afraid those days are gone, never to return.  
 Le Consulat,  A Quintessential French Restaurant in Paris
And it wasn’t as if we just picked bad restaurants. My friend and I went back to some of the same bistros and brasserie that we’ve been to in the past and where we enjoyed great meals, but this time the results were down right disappointing.

While the French cooks may still be working off of their reputation as the creators of haute cuisine, I hope enough people complain about the food being served today that the restaurateurs will pay attention and make an effort to improve it. Locals may already be protesting as the restaurants were far from crowded, a fact I had put off as a sign of the economic problems in Europe and the fact that it was mid-January. Now I’m starting to think it really was all about the food.

 Catherine de Medici
As an Italian I have a vested interest in French food since it was an Italian, Catherine de Medici, a noblewoman from Florence, who introduced cuisine and the art of cooking to the French. Back in the early 1500’s when Catherine married Henry duc d’Orleans and moved to Paris, she brought her Italian chefs with her. Her chefs stunned the French court with incredibly delicious dishes that included ingredients   like truffles, garlic and mushrooms all heretofore unheard of and totally unknown to the French royals.

The Italians were light years ahead of the French culinary experts and even what we would not consider haute cuisine, dishes like lasagna and manicotti that every Italian housewife could make with her eyes closed, became a marvel of creativity and deliciousness to the Royal Court.

It took the French Revolution to loosen the restraints on French chefs. They began to experiment with different types of ingredients and from this experimentation Chef Marie-Antoine Carême created what he called his “mother sauces”. He created hundreds of them, many of which are still being used today in French cuisine.

And that was when and why the French and the Italian cuisines parted ways. The French continued down the sauce path and Italians, being purists, wanted to taste what they were eating and not have the flavors confused by the addition of a jumble of other ingredients. It could also have been that the quality of the food was better Italy, but that’s pure conjecture on my part.

In a conversation with Chef Stefano Visini, owner of Ristorante Visini in Como, Italy, he said “the less you do to a food in taking it from the market to the table, the better.” I whole heartedly agree. He said other interesting things too and if you are interested, you can see that interview at http://thisitalianlife.blogspot.it/2010_04_01_archive.html

But to get back to the business of French food, the recipe I’m posting today is going to set some people’s hair on fire, not the recipe but some of the words I’m going to use to describe it. The recipe is one of France’s signature dishes, soupe à l'oignon aka onion soup and is from Julia Child’s The French Chef’s Cookbook, one of the best cookbooks ever written in my estimation.
Traditional French Onion Soup
It is a traditional French soup made of onions and beef stock, and is usually served with croutons and cheese on top. The soup gets its robust taste from the caramelized onions and the simple trick of adding a bay leaf to the broth. And what’s the hair on fire part? Well it seems the origins of French onion soup can be traced back to the Romans There, I said it. French onion soup is actually Italian. 

Soupe a’l’oignon alla Julia Child

Serves 6-8

5 -6 cups yellow onions, thinly sliced (about 1 1/2 to 2 lbs)
1 tablespoon cooking oil
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons flour
6 cups beef stock (preferably homemade)
1 cup wine (dry red or white)
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon ground sage
salt and pepper
12 ounces swiss cheese, grated
4 ounces parmesan cheese, grated
1/2 raw yellow onion
2 -3 tablespoons cognac (optional)
8 slices French bread (about 1 inch thick)
4 tablespoons olive oil, for drizzling


1. Place heavy bottom stock pot or dutch oven over medium-low heat.
2. Add 1 Tbs cooking oil, 2Tbs butter to pot.
3. Add sliced onions and stir until they are evenly coated with the oil.
4. Cover and cook for about 20 minutes until they are very tender and translucent.
5. To brown or caramelize the onions turn heat under pot to medium or medium high heat.
6. Sprinkle 1/2 tsp sugar and 1 tsp salt over the onions and continue to cook uncovered, stirring frequently until the onions have browned and reduced significantly.
7. Once caramelized, reduce heat to medium-low and add 3 Tbs flour to the onions.
8. Brown the flour for about 2-3 minutes trying not to scorch it. (If the flour does not form a thick paste, you can add a bit more butter here).
9 .Stir in about 1 cup of warm stock, scraping the bottom of the pan to get up all of the cooked-on bits.
10. Add the rest of the stock, wine, sage, and bay leaf to the soup.
11. Simmer for 30 minutes.
12. To make the "croutes" (toasted bread), heat oven to 325 degrees F.
13. Drizzle each side of the bread slices with a bit of olive oil and place on baking sheet.
14. Cook the “croutes” for 15 minutes in oven on each side (30 minutes total). Or you can toast them in a toaster and drizzle the olive oil on afterwards.
15. Check the soup for seasoning and add salt and pepper if needed.
16. Remove the bay leaf (if you can find it).
17. Transfer to a casserole dish.
18. At this point you can add the 2-3 Tbs cognac and grate the 1/2 raw onion into the soup. (I don’t do this, but you can if you want).
19. Add a few more ounces of Swiss cheese directly into the soup and stir.
20. Place the toasted bread in a single layer on top of the soup.
21. Sprinkle the rest of the cheese in a thick layer on top of the bread making sure to cover the edges of the toast to prevent burning.
22. Drizzle with a little more oil or melted butter.
23. Place in a 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes.
24. Turn on broiler and brown cheese well.
25. Let cool for a few minutes.
 Buon Apetito!

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