Experiments in the kitchen don't have to be complicated. Sometimes a combination of very simple ingredients result in a fascinating dish. This is not the only thing the five recipes I chose for December Challenge have in common – each of them is also typical for a country or region and quite famous. So please join me on a culinary trip to France, Austria, Cuba, Italy and, of course, my native Russia.
The first dish, one that I've long wanted to cook, is French Onion Soup.
It is not difficult to make, but preparing it properly is time-consuming because it takes quite a long time to caramelise the onions, at least 45 minutes, and some recipes even recommend several hours. The other important component is stock, which also requires time to prepare. On the other hand, the stock and the onions don't need constant supervision – it's enough to check on them once in a while, so I worked on this recipe while making preparations for my second experiment. I checked The Guardian and Serious Eats for extensive tips and techniques on making a great onion soup.
Here's my recipe in a nutshell.
1. Cook the stock. I used beef, because I needed boiled meat for another recipe, but chicken or vegetable stock would work just as well here.
2. Caramelise the onions. I sliced some shallots and cooked them in oil on low heat, stirring every twenty minutes or so. Or actually, whenever I remembered about them. I had cooked caramelised onions before (they are great in a sandwich or as a garnish for meat), but usually I do it quickly: sautéing the onions until soft, then adding sugar and wine and cooking until the alcohol evaporates. For French onion soup though it's important to let the onions caramelise naturally so that they reveal their own sweetness.
4. When the onions turn gooey, you add alcohol. This is optional, but highly recommended, as it influences the process of caramelisation. I added a splash of dry Norman cider to give the dish a more 'French' taste. This type of cider is prepared in the same way that sparkling wine is: after the initial fermentation in vats it is poured into champagne bottles, corked and left to carbonate naturally. The resulting drink is similar to sparkling wine but has gentle apple flavour.
5. After the alcohol evaporates, add the stock and let it simmer a few minutes, seasoning to taste.
Of course, French onion soup is incomplete without cheese croutons.
6. Toast the bread in a pan, rub it with garlic and top with grated cheese. You could simply put the croutons in a bowl and pour the soup on top but I opted for a slightly longer, more 'authentic' way: transferring the soup to a ceramic pot, topping with the croutons and putting it in the oven until the cheese melts and turns golden.
Here is the soup in all it's glory, accompanied with a glass of the same cider.
The second dish was Medianoche – a hearty Cuban sandwich.
I got interested in Cuban food when I was reading Jeff Lindsay's 'Dexter' series and found the recipe on a wonderful website dedicated to Cuban cuisine: Three Guys from Miami. The ingredients are simple: bread, cheese, pickles, ham and roast pork. Seeing as I couldn't get Cuban bread or ham in Moscow, I decided to use ordinary bread and ham but at least make the roast pork according to the Cuban recipe.
Here is the marinade (the main ingredients are oil, garlic, onions and orange juice).
And several hours later, once the meat was roasted and cooled: here are the prepared ingredients for the sandwich!
That slice of bread looks big – until it's pressed, which is a crucial element in the preparation of Medianoche. This allows the juices from the meat and the pickles to moisten the bread, and the cheese holds the ingredients together as it melts. I used a heavy pan (the bottom washed thoroughly, of course) to press down my sandwich when cooking.
And here is my “localised” version of medianoche – not 100% Cuban, but 100% tasty!
Now back to Europe for my next experiment, Viennese Potato Salad.
The secret here is the dressing: rich and creamy yet tangy. The restaurants in Vienna where I tasted it only listed a few obvious ingredients like potatoes, onions, oil and mustard, but I expected there to be something more to it. At last, I found a good recipe in this fascinating blog. The missing ingredient? Beef stock.
It's good I already had some prepared. I usually cook a full pot of stock and then freeze it in small portions: thawed and reheated, it retains all its qualities, so I can make a bowl of soup or whip up a risotto whenever I feel like it.
To make the Viennese Potato Salad:
1. Boil the potatoes in their jackets.
2. Let them cool before peeling (they have to be a bit warm).
3. Slice them and put in a salad bowl.
4. Pour some hot beef stock on them – it interacts with the natural starch of the potatoes, resulting in that delightful creamy texture.
5. Add the dressing (it consists of oil, vinegar, mustard and seasoning).
6. Mix in finely chopped red onions and chives – they add some flavour and tang to the salad.
7. Let it stand covered at room temperature for half an hour, so all the tastes and textures balance.
Here it is, almost like in Vienna.
The fourth recipe shouldn't have been new to me, as it is a Russian dish.
However, I had never tried making it before. It's “navy-style macaroni” (“макароны по-флотски” in Russian), so called because the recipe is believed to have originated in the navy galleys, being easy to make in large quantities and requiring only basic ingredients: pasta and salted or canned preserved meat.
For the same reason it is also a staple dish for camping trips, since it can be cooked quickly in a pot over an open fire. The home version uses boiled meat instead - I used what I had left from making the stock for the onion soup. Here is a version of the recipe from a Russian cooking website. It's in Russian, but I hope my explanations will make it clear anyway!
Despite the name, any kind of pasta can be prepared “navy-style”, but long macaroni with a hole indeed works best.
1. While the pasta is cooking, chop some onion (and garlic if you wish) and sautee it in butter.
2. Mince the boiled meat (I used a kitchen processor) and add it to the pan.
3. Mix thoroughly, add chopped herbs and a ladleful of stock or pasta water – since the meat is already cooked, it may become very dry.
4. When the pasta is ready, drain it and mix with the sauce. Serve with a slice of butter and ground black pepper on top.
5. Cheese is optional; I find that the dish is better without.
And here it is, a nostalgic taste for anyone born in Russia.
Finally, to add to the variety of the experiment, I decided to make a famous Italian dessert – panna cotta.
The recipe for it came with my set of silicone moulds, but I had misplaced the booklet, so I looked up the instructions online and found this marvellous food blog.
The recipe is indeed simple:
1. Heat heavy cream (double cream) with sugar.
2. Add vanilla (I used a vanilla bean, but vanilla sugar can be substituted).
3. Let it stand for half an hour.
4. Mix thoroughly with prepared gelatine and pour in the molds.
5. Leave for several hours in the fridge, and the dessert is ready.
Here it is with my mom's homemade cherry jam.
A great finish to any meal and to my December experiment! Hope you enjoyed this little tour! Happy New Year everyone!