Unless you live in some eco-friendly urban area with paradisical market enclaves, you’ll most likely find only four kinds of onions for sale: red, yellow, white, and green. I almost never cook red onions, reserving them for salads and toppings, but you’ll find me using all others liberally in damn near anything I cook.
A word about yellow onions, however; nowadays they are almost always sweet. Not all of them are as cloyingly sweet as the Vidalia, which has been beatified by zealous regional journalists who equate eating a Vidalia onion sandwich at the office for lunch with that of hunkering down around the `fahr’ with a mason ‘jahr’ of `shahn’ listening to the dawgs tree a coon, an experience just rife with Southern machismo, derring-do, and chauvinism, but these onions smother the flavor of an honest onion soup, which should have a mellow savoriness that comes only from time and care.
Mince six medium-size white onions. In a large skillet, melt 1/2 cup of butter. Heat to medium and add two cloves minced garlic to brown. Add onions, cook down, then add about six cups of beef stock and a cup of dried onions. Reduce heat to simmer and cook uncovered (what a wonderful smell this makes, too) until the onions are soft and clear. Add salt, pepper and thyme to taste; some like rosemary. A slash of sherry at the last minute is a nice touch. Serve piping hot with well-buttered, crusty bread.
For six generous servings, sear until soft one large white onion and a big poblano chopped with a couple of cloves of minced garlic. Add about a pound of cubed boneless chicken or turkey breast, cook until done through. Mix with one 15 oz. can of great northern, navy, or cannellini beans, one of pinto, a cup of chicken broth, and a can of Rotel.
Season with cumin, oregano, and white pepper to taste. Some people add basil, but don’t. Cook on low heat, stirring occasionally, until you get a heavy consistency. Crema is a nice touch.
Older recipes for this king of summer soups include bread melded early on with oil, salt and garlic into sort of a cold roux for body. This recipe doesn’t include bread at that juncture, but I like crumbling dry cornbread over the bowl at table.
Mince two or three cloves of garlic very, very finely and mash in the bottom of a glass or enamel bowl with a teaspoon of salt and about a half a cup of olive oil. Add in fine dice one yellow onion, three very ripe summer tomatoes, two peeled cucumbers, two ribs celery (with leaves), and a sweet banana pepper.
I don’t recommend hot peppers; this is a cooling dish, and should be refreshing, not pungent nor heavy; starchy vegetables such as corn or peas seem out of place as well.
Add a teaspoon of powdered cumin, a quarter cup each of chopped fresh basil and parsley, and a teaspoon of ground black pepper. Mix with two cups V8. Refrigerate overnight. An hour before serving, add more V8 to consistency, adjust the salt and pepper, and top with a slosh of olive oil.
Heat a quarter cup of corn oil in a deep skillet. Add a large, finely chopped onion, 3 minced cloves of garlic, 2 diced poblanos, and a four ounce can of diced green chilies. Stir until onions and peppers are soft, then pour into a saucepan on low heat along with a can of diced tomatoes and liquid.
Drain and add reserve liquid from (15-oz.) cans of red kidney, pinto, and black beans to simmering vegetables. Season with 2 tablespoons each of ground cumin, smoked paprika, chili powder, and a teaspoon of black pepper.
Keep on heat to meld, maybe 5 minutes, then add drained beans along with a teaspoon of oregano. Salt to taste, and stir gently to blend. Let this sit on low heat before serving with warm corn chips, pico de gallo, chopped cilantro, fresh avocado, onion, and jalapenos.
Cream soups add a warm touch to any cool-weather occasion. These soups involve many of the same procedures and ingredients as others: aromatics, broth, vegetables, or seafood, but with an enrichment of cream.
In my experience, a bisque (“twice cooked”) usually refers to a cream soup containing seafood such as shrimp, crawfish, or lobster, though some tomato cream soups fall into the category.
If you happen to be a domestic deity and have homemade stock on hand, then by all means use it; if not, use a quart of store-bought. Add a cup of diced onion, celery, and carrot along with a few pinches of thyme and parsley. Let it sweat on a low heat for about an hour or so. Strain and set aside.
Make a light roux with a ½ stick of butter and a quarter cup of plain flour. Drizzle into the stock and mix with a whip until it begins to thicken. Add a cup of whole cream and about two cups of your choice of prepared meats or vegetables.
Let soup rest off heat before serving with a little swirl of butter. This recipe makes about about six 12-oz. servings.
Stocks are to cooking what Hank Williams is to country music: a source of basic, soulful satisfaction.
Back when people actually cooked as opposed to simply heating products as they do now, stock played an important role in the kitchen. Stockpots provided a sumptuous basis for an endless variety of dishes; sauces and gravies, soups, stews, and as a cooking medium for beans and grains. A good stock is a pillar upon which great meals are made. Sad to say, nowadays most people use canned broth or bouillon cubes instead, which is like listening to Reba because you have no Patsy.
If you really care about the quality of your cooking, you’ll want to make your own stock instead of having to resort to miserably bland and over-salted alternatives. Chicken stock is perhaps the easiest and cheapest to make and is good for general use. I use leg quarters, which make a very rich stock, and can be found in five-pound bags at a very low price in most supermarkets. If it’s during the holidays with company coming, you can of course use a whole stewing hen, since you can use the meat for any number of holiday dishes.
Put the chicken in your designated stockpot; whatever you use should be non-reactive, preferably stainless steel. Add enough water to cover by half, a couple of stalks of celery, at least six carrots, two onions with skin, all coarsely chopped, two bay leaves, a clove or so of garlic (smashed) and about a handful of roughly chopped parsley, stems and all. Cover, vent, and simmer this mixture until the liquid is reduced by at least a third, skimming the scruff off the top as it cooks.
In the meantime, have a beer or two, listen to some Jimmie Rodgers, and write Reba a fan letter. I’m sure she’d appreciate it.
After about an hour, remove chicken, cool, and debone. Return bones to pot, and save the meat for dressing or salad. Simmer the stock until it’s a rich color, strain, and cool before refrigerating. Once the stock chills, you’ll end up with a bottom layer of sediment and a layer of jellied stock covered by a layer of yellowish fat. Scrape off the fat with a spoon and save it to make matzos. Then carefully spoon out the gel, being careful to avoid as much as the sediment (which should be discarded) as you can, especially if you plan to clarify the stock for consommé or clear soups.
Stock keeps well in the refrigerator for a week or so, but its best just to go ahead and freeze it. Use whatever size container you find appropriate for storing your stock; I’ve heard that some people freeze stock in ice trays and store the cubes in plastic bags, but I suspect people who do this are annoyingly obsessive, since this is a troublesome endeavor, and besides, what if in a moment of absent-mindedness you happen to pop a cube of frozen stock out of the tray and into your scotch and soda? (You might hear the voice of experience speaking here.) Me, I store stock in whatever containers I’ve saved from supermarket products like yogurt and sour cream, pliable ones about pint size with a lid that seals well.
Use stock in soups and sauces, or to flavor beans or rice. You’ll notice a big difference.
This light soup is good cool on a warm afternoon or warm on a cool evening. Add three cups chopped fresh or two cups well-drained frozen spinach and two small jars quartered artichoke hearts to about a quart of broth seasoned with thyme, parsley, chives, and a minced clove of garlic. Simmer for about half an hour. Add a half quart of drained oysters dusted with pepper. Bring to a boil, and reduce heat immediately. Hold on heat for another half hour. Top with finely chopped shallots.
One day as a boy, a friend and I dared to enter his father’s tool shed, where among implements such as hammers, saws, screwdrivers, and girly magazines, we found a cabinet stocked with canned potato soup. When I asked why his daddy kept potato soup next to his chop saw, he said, “Momma won’t let him have it in the house.”
I was puzzled at the time, but now I understand. You see, a man’s house may be his castle, but his tool shed is his home, a sanctuary for the masculine spirit and as inviolate to intrusion as a nunnery. A man may keep things there which have no place in the house, even something as seemingly innocuous as potato soup.
Potato soup is neither good nor bad in itself; like Prince Hal, it is poor only in the company it keeps, and as is the case for so many of our foods, its company is often poverty itself. Memories of hard times survived among the men and women of my parents’ generation; after the hard years had ended and victory in the Good War made them members of the most affluent society on earth, they found themselves living in a world that stretched far beyond the dirt roads many grew up on, and they were obliged to learn the difficult lessons a newly-acquired middle-class life required of them.
For many, that meant ridding themselves of aspects of their lives that in this new world were not quite picture-perfect. Potato soup, to my friend’s mother, was not part of her perfect picture; it was Depression food, something people ate when they were poor and down on their luck. Now that they lived in town in a new brick house, had two cars in the garage, and she was secretary of the Twentieth-Century Club, potato soup —so simple, so basic, so very good—had been banished.
Others hearkened back, as my friend’s father did, to those days when a family’s existence was dependent upon making do. They also remembered—even as they trod the carpeted floors of the air-conditioned homes where their difficult children were growing into strangers in their midst—the foods they knew and loved, even if it were biscuits folded over a piece of fried streak-`o-lean they took to school, red-rind cheese and saltines from the store down the road, or chicken and dumplings made to stretch an old hen between ten people.
The foods you love best are often those of your childhood, and my friend’s father found the warmth of potato soup irresistible. I can still conjure up an image of this man sitting out in his shed and opening a can of soup, heating it on a little electric eye, eating it and thinking about his own momma standing at her wood stove in a pair of old slippers, her hair limp with sweat and tied up with a penny piece of ribbon, cooking the only thing she had to cook—potatoes—into a soup for her family. I can also imagine this man reminiscing upon this while his wife teetered around the kitchen in high heels, her hair lacquered into a $5 hair-do she had redone twice a week cooking store-bought stuff on an electric range.
She probably remembered her Momma in much the same way as her husband did his, but for my friend’s mother it was a bitter memory, and her efforts to obliterate that—to her mind painful—image of poverty extended to those around her. Bound and determined to eradicate whatever she felt was coarse or common about her and others, she sacrificed upon the altar of her misguided pride the very foods that she secretly loved and likely learned to make at her mother’s side.