FOOD: A Four Letter Word for LOVE
In my youth I loved nothing more than sitting down with my mother and soaking up Masterpiece Theatre, Mystery and Upstairs Downstairs (the original); a variety of tasty British morsels. But, there was nothing more exciting than when Julia Child would light up the screen with her meat tenderizer held high and a voice like a Shakespearean herald, delighting us with the art of French cooking and entertaining. My mother would listen and mentally take notes, absorbing the inadvertent cooking love Julia shared with millions every week. Usually after watching a few episodes of Julia, this meant a dinner party!
Subsequently, the planning would commence at our house. My parents were and still are consummate cooks and entertainers. They were an accommodating team of sorts; my father would greet and host while tending the cocktail hour. Oh, and he vacuumed. He would want me to tell you he vacuumed. The next day he would rise early to do the dishes so his better half could slumber and not wake up to half-empty glasses and dirty dishes. I always admired that small gesture and appreciation he took for the team. Most great marriages are built on those small gestures of love and appreciation.
My mother, on the other hand, began her preparation weeks in advance. She would start out by sending an invitation. Yes, that lovely piece of paper that is addressed to you and invites you to share a meal in one’s home (it comes in the mail). Rarely do my husband and I get a beautiful hand-written dinner invitation in the mail other than yet another invite to the quintessential “rubber chicken” fundraiser. Now, the invites arrive by email or text. Understandable, I suppose. We all are trying to be as efficient as possible in this hectic world we maneuver in.
Back in the day I would marvel as my mother carefully arranged everything down to the smallest detail. I would observe like a good student as she chose the china, stem-ware and what dessert to serve. She pored over cookbooks and ironed countless linen while snipping herbs from her garden and researching the perfect wine. Each piece of silverware was polished to perfection and every corner of the house was spotless. The rooms magically filled with flowers and candles popped up like mushrooms. Now, I look back and I am amazed. There was no housekeeper, no grounds-person, no caterer and no personal assistant. They simply desired to create an intimate special experience so they could bring their family and friends together.
After all, it’s about creating a beginning, middle and happy ending for the people you care about. With the hope they leave your table feeling nourished, delighted and cherished. With the hope they feel loved.
(Onion Soup Gratinéed with Cheese)
Soupe à l’oignon, a large bowl of it bubbling under a brown crust of cheese, is practically a meal in itself. Serve it after a football game, at a Sunday night supper, or as a midnight snack. Its rich aroma, wonderful flavor and savor, have made French onion soup a word favorite. –Julia Child
(Adaptation from The French Chef Cookbook by Julia Child. Copyright 1961 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.)
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 5-6 cups thinly sliced yellow onions (1 1/2 lbs.)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 2 quarts hot beef bouillon (if using canned bouillon, dilute with 2 cups of water)
- 1 cup red or white wine
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 teaspoon sage
- Salt and pepper to taste
For Croûtes and Cheese Topping:
- 1 sweet baguette
- Olive oil or melted butter
- 1/4 cup cognac, optional
- 1 small (2-inch) onion or shallot, peeled
- A 2-ounce piece Swiss cheese
- 1 1/2 cups grated Swiss and Parmesan cheese, mixed
- Melt the butter and oil in a large, deep saucepan; add the onions and stir to coat with the butter. Cover the pan and cook over moderately low heat for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onions are tender and translucent.
- Uncover the pan, raise heat to medium-high, and stir in the salt and sugar. (Sugar, by caramelizing, helps onions to brown.) Cook for about 30 minutes, stirring frequently, until onions have turned an even, deep- golden brown.
- Lower heat to medium, stir in flour, and add a bit more butter if flour does not absorb into a paste with the onions. Cook, stirring continually, for about 2 minutes to brown flour lightly.
- In a separate pot, heat bouillon. Pour about a cup of hot bouillon into onion mixture, whisking to combine. Add the rest of the bouillon and the wine, bay and sage, and bring to a simmer. Simmer slowly for 30-40 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- While soup is simmering, make the croûtes. Preheat oven to 325°F. Cut bread into slices 1 inch thick, paint lightly with oil or butter and arrange in one layer on a baking sheet. Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until beginning to brown lightly; turn slices and brown lightly for 15-20 minutes on the other side. Remove croûtes from oven. Turn oven up to 350°F.
- Add the optional cognac and grate in the onion. Pour the hot soup into a serving casserole, baking dish, or into individual oven-proof bowls. Shave the 2-ounce piece of cheese into fine slivers and strew over the soup.
- Place a closely packed layer of croûtes over the top of the soup and spread on the grated cheese, covering the croûtes completely. (If using individual bowls, top each bowl with one or two croutes as needed to cover the top of soup. Divide the cheese between the bowls.) Sprinkle a tablespoon of oil or butter over the cheese, and set soup on the middle rack of the oven. (If using individual bowls, place bowls on a baking sheet.) Bake for about 30 minutes, until soup is bubbling slowly and cheese has melted.
- Meanwhile, preheat your broiler. Just before serving, place the soup under the broiler for a moment to brown the cheese lightly. Pass the remaining croûtes in a bread tray along with the soup.