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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Something Worth Crying About

“An honest laborious Country-man, with good Bread, Salt and a little Parsley, will make a contented Meal with a roasted Onion.”

—John Evelyn (17th Century English diarist)

©2014 Chris Terrell
One of the best uses for onions:
French onion soup
I have a large basket in my kitchen where I keep produce and bread. This basket invariably contains one or two onions, a few garlic cloves or shallots, and perhaps occasionally some leeks. And while the fridge and panty may be a bit low on provisions, these few items are enough to make a contented meal indeed. 

Onions, garlic, shallots, and leeks are all part of the allium genus and have been on our plates and in our bowls for a long time. The onion originated in northern Asia and Palestine and has been cultivated for more than five thousand years.

Onions range in flavor from sweet to pungent, but in either form they enhance the flavor of almost any dish. The same is no less true about garlic. Without it, Italian and French food would not be the same. Shallots’ sweetness and subtle flavor gives food an onion flavor without the harshness of an onion. Thus, they can be served raw and diced in a mustard vinaigrette. But . . .  leeks? Where to begin! With their full and rich flavor, they stand on their own as a dish, such as the iconic French dish, poireaux vinaigrette (more on that below).

Unless you’ve been using your microwave to eat Hot Pockets your entire life and have never even owned another piece of kitchen equipment, then you have probably experienced burning tears when cutting an onion or even a shallot. What’s that all about? It’s basic chemistry. 

When you cut an onion, you break millions of tiny cells, which causes an enzyme to freely mix with sulfenic acids to produce some crazy thing called propanethiol S-oxide, a volatile sulfuric gas that wafts up into your eyes. (Yes, I know this sounds like some kind of 1950s horror movie!) The gas then reacts with the water in your tears and forms sulfuric acid. The sulfuric acid burns, stimulating your eyes to release more tears to wash the irritant away. Thankfully, cooking onions inactivates the enzyme. Otherwise, we wouldn’t eat them! 

Unless you want to wear safety goggles, there’s not much you can do to prevent the tears. I have actually tried swimming googles but then couldn’t see what I was doing. I decided that I would gladly trade a few tears for a few stitches on my index finger! I’ve also read that running a fan or cutting the onions under running water works. Again, sharp knife, wet slippery onions—not a good plan. And here’s the strangest one of all: take a match, light it, then blow it out, and then hold said smoldering match between your teeth as you cut the onion. This one doesn’t  work either—I’ve tried it too!  But all those tears are worth the price—a culinary road to Canossa if you will—whose reward is the sweet smell of onions slowly caramelizing into a rich golden brown on the stove.

Here are two of my favorite recipes involving the genus allium, one from Julia Child and her classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and one from David Lebovitz’s, My French Kitchen. Bon appetite and feel free to cry!

Julia Child’s Onion Soup

The onions for an onion soup need a long, slow cooking in butter and oil, then a long, slow simmering in stock for them to develop the deep, rich flavor which characterizes a perfect brew. You should therefore count on 2 1/2 hours at least from start to finish. Though the preliminary cooking in butter requires some watching, the actual simmering can proceed almost unattended.

For 6 to 8 servings


1 1/2 lbs. or about 5 cups of thinly sliced yellow onions
3 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon oil
A heavy-bottomed, 4 quart covered saucepan
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar (helps the onions to brown)
2 quarts of boiling brown stock, canned beef bouillon, or 1 quart of boiling water and 1 quart of stock or bouillon
1/2 cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth
3 tablespoon cognac [In my opinion, optional]
Rounds of hard-toasted French bread [You can also use stale, day-old French bread]
1 to 2 cups grated Swiss or Parmesan cheese [I always use Gruyere!]
Salt and pepper to taste


Cook the onions slowly with the butter and oil in the covered saucepan for 15 mins.

Uncover, raise heat to moderate, and stir in the salt and sugar. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes stirring frequently, until the onions have turned an even, deep, golden brown.

Sprinkle in the flour and stir for 3 minutes.

Off heat, blend in the boiling liquid. Add the wine, and season to taste. Simmer partially covered for 30 to 40 minutes or more, skimming occasionally. Correct seasoning. Set aside uncovered until ready to serve. Then reheat to the simmer.

Just before serving, stir in the cognac. Pour into a soup tureen or soup cups over the rounds of and pass the cheese separately. [Now this is where I part ways with Ms. Child, I slice the Gruyere and heap it on top of the individual soup bowls and place under the broiler until melted and browned.]

David Lebovitz’s Poireaux Vinaigrette À La Moutarde et Aux Lardons
(Leeks with mustard-bacon vinaigrette)

Traditionally the leeks were cooked in a big pot of boiling water. However, it’s better to steam them, which prevents them from getting waterlogged. Smaller leeks, which appear in the springtime…are preferable for this dish because they’re quite tender, although larger leeks are just fine, too. Just make sure that you clean the leeks very well…, and cook them until they’re completely soft all the way through.

[According to Mr. Leibovitz, it is imperative that, if you are serving these to any Parisian friends you may have, the leeks be arranged tête a queue (head to tail).]

Serves 4-6


Bacon Vinaigrette 

2 cups (200g) thick-cut smoked bacon cut into lardons 
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
1 tablspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
3 tablespoons neutral-tasting vegetable oil [I prefer Canola.]
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

5 large or 10 small leeks, well cleaned
2 hard-cooked eggs 


To make the vinaigrette, cook the bacon over medium heat in a skillet until nearly crisp. Transfer the bacon to a paper towel to drain. When cool, chop the bacon into pieces about the size of tine peas.

Whisk together the vinegar, mustard, and salt. Whisk in the oils, 1 tablespoon at a time (the sauce may emulsify, which is fine), then stir in 1 tablespoon of the parsley and two-thirds of the bacon. Set aside.

To prepare the leeks, fill a large pot fitted with a steamer with a couple of inches of water. Bring it to a boil over high heat and add the leeks. Cook the leeks until tender; when you poke them with a sharp paring knife, it should meet no resistance at the root ends. (Smaller leeks willtake about 15 minutes, and larger ones will take about 30 minutes.)

Remove the leeks and let drain and cool on a plate lined with paper towels. Cut the leeks in half crosswise, and arrange on a serving platter, alternating them head to tail.

Peel and dice the hard-cooked eggs and scatter them over the leeks. Pour the vinaigrette over the leeks and toss them and the pieces of egg in the dressing so they’re thoroughly coated, then  scatter over the remaining bacon pieces and parsley.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Meals on Wheels

Recently, I watched the movie Chef, and while I don’t expect this movie to win an Academy Award, much less be nominated, it was nonetheless a pleasant diversion. The movie stars Jon Favreau, who plays Carl Caspar, a once-hailed chef. After a scathing review by a renowned critic and blogger, Caspar discovers that he’s not cooking what he wants to cook. Rather, he is forced to sling the tired old staples that the uncreative owner (played by Dustin Hoffman), thinks people really want. This tension between the comfortable and the new is a never-ending battle in the culinary world that will never be won: 

Riva: Look, if you bought Stones tickets and Jagger didn't play Satisfaction, how would you feel? Would you be happy?

Carl Casper: No.

Riva: No! You'd burn the place to the f___king ground.

Carl's solution is to buy a food truck so he can make the food that's his passion. In this case, Cuban sandwiches.

This  movie got me thinking about my latest pipe dream (the previous one being a Bourdain-esque culinary-travel TV show): gourmet hot dog food truck! Like the Cubanos Carl makes in Chef, hot dogs are the ultimate street food. (And next to pizza, my favorite.)

The genius of the food truck is its accessibility, both for the owner and the patron. A food truck costs about $250,000 to get up and running. And while this is not exactly chump change, it is certainly a lot less than a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Food trucks can also be found in places where good food is usually hard to find. 

Of course, food trucks are having their Über moment—opposition from established restaurants who obviously have more political clout and don’t like the competition. This leads to—you guessed—ridiculous, anti-consumer, anti-competitive regulation. Yet, despite all these hurdles, there seems to be a new food truck rolling out every week. 

So, what would the menu be for my gourmet hot dog food truck? Here’s my first run at it:

Fat Louie

All beef dog with caramelized onions, melted gruyere cheese and sauce of mayo, Dijon mustard and diced cornichons, all served on a baguette

Big Sur

Turkey sausage, diced avocado, tomatoes, and cilantro


Pork sausage with Manchego and smoked Spanish paprika aioli

Spicy Kahuna

Pork dog with roasted pineapple and jalapeño salsa 


Pork dog with slaw and Carolina style BBQ sauce


Beef dog with chimichurri sauce and diced red onion

The Big Easy

Pork dog with olive salad and remoulade sauce 

The Bandito

Beef dog with chipotle ketchup and banana peppers.

The next step is to test these recipes to find out if they taste as good as they sound on paper. I did that with two of them this past weekend: the Fat Louie and the Spicy Kahuna. The most important thing I learned is that one should wash one’s hands THOROUGHLY after cutting jalapeño peppers and before placing said hands anywhere near one’s eyes! Thank God for Benadryl! The other lesson I learned is that caramelizing onions is not easy to do while watching a ridiculously close Alabama-Arkansas football game. 

But, at the end of the day, these two dogs turned out pretty good.

Maybe, just maybe, I’ve got a future in the food truck business! And if one of my readers out there happens to have a spare $250,000 laying around and thinks a gourmet hot dog food truck sounds like a good investment, then give me a call!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Making the Cut

Recently, I had dinner at an upscale steak house in Scottsdale, Arizona, and their menu had a interesting addition. On the back was a chart showing all the various cuts of beef. Talk about knowing where your food comes from! If I were some kind of über-foodie-bureaucrat, I would require that all steak houses include such a chart on their menus. I would do this for several reasons. First, if you are going to be a serious consumer of steak, you need to know how the flavor and texture profiles of steak are influenced by how it's cut. Second, if you are going to be serious about cooking steak, then you need to know which cuts work best with the cooking technique involved—e.g. braising, roasting, or grilling. 

In order to understand steak, you first need to know the “primal” cuts. This is not a reference to our stone-age ancestors or what you may see in the supermarket labeled as “prime cut.” Rather, primal cuts are the large, portions of meat cut during the initial butchering. In other words, think of “primal cuts” (e.g.,  chuck, flank, or short loin) as states and the steaks that come these primal cuts (e.g., pot roast, skirt steak, or Porterhouse) as cities. 

Not all cuts of beef are the same, and this has a lot to do with biology. Don’t forget that you are consuming something that was once alive—it moved around, or at least it should have. Because an animal's legs and neck muscles do the most work in terms of walking and eating, they are the strongest and, consequently, the toughest. And the farthest one gets from the “horn” and “hoof,” the more tender the meat gets. This is where how one cooks beef starts to make sense.

Less tender cuts of meat—e.g, brisket, chuck pot roast, rump roast, or flank steak—produce the best results when cooked slowly, either braising or roasting. Personally, I think braising is an underrated way to cook meat.

The more tender cuts—e.g., sirloin, filet, rib eye—are better cooked quickly, either on the grill, pan fried or pan roasted. Of these, everyone considers the filet (a/k/a “Filet Mignon”) to be the creme-de-la-creme of steaks because of its tenderness and melt-in-your-mouth quality. But at the end of the day, the filet doesn’t pack a lot of flavor. This is why it should be marinated (more on that later) or served with a sauce, such as Béarnaise. But if you want real “steak” flavor, you can’t go wrong with the New York strip. (It was the steak my Dad got for grilling every Saturday night.) All you need is a hot grill or cast iron skillet, some salt and pepper, maybe some butter if you are using the skillet, and you’re done. The steak’s flavor does the rest. No need for a fancy sauce.

But why is it called “New York Strip”? In 1837, Delmonico's Restaurant, which proclaimed itself “America’s first fine dining restaurant,” had as one of its signature dishes, a cut from the short loin, called—you guessed it—a Delmonico steak. Because the Delmonico steak became associated with the City from whence it came, it has been referred to as a New York strip ever since.

A few paragraphs back, I talked about filets and how they need a marinade or sauce to really make it work. The best marinade for a filet is, in my humble opinion, Dale’s Steak Seasoning. Dale’s was the “house” steak sauce for an old restaurant in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, called Dale’s Cellar Restaurant, so named because it was located in the cellar of a multi-story apartment building. It was also air-conditioned, something prominently advertised, and something that was no small amenity in 1949! This marinade works with any kind of meat, but steak especially. I take a nice fillet, put it in a Ziploc bag with some Dale’s and let it marinade for at least 30 minutes; throw it on a hot grill; and instant nirvana!

Just goes to show you: you don’t need a fancy steakhouse to enjoy a good steak!