Twist your own salty pretzels

Quarts of local blueberries, ears of Hudson Valley sweet corn and a mess of fresh greens boasted just-picked prominence at the Beacon Farmer’s Market last weekend, but crusty-on-the-outside, delicate-on-the-inside pretzels added to the market’s choice. These weren’t the stadium-style commercial fare thawed at the riverside and warmed up in assembly-line fashion, but individually prepared pretzels made with locally milled flour and pulled recently from the oven.

To describe the pretzels as “adequate” in size would be unforgivable. Twisted and baked by Beacon’s All You Knead Artisan Bakers, the day’s offerings ranged from generous to gigantic, so good and perfectly satiating for hungry market shoppers. My son (who worked up an appetite while playing Pokémon GO around town) promptly polished off one of the crispy golden purchases — hand-rolled, boiled, baked and finished with sea salt and butter — and we each saved another for later … but not much later. We shared them at home that afternoon and made plans to test our own old-fashioned recipe.Minimized salty soft pretzels

A couple of years ago, friends took my family on a tour of one of the country’s oldest bakeries, the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery in Pennsylvania’s Amish country. Tucked into an historic stone house in the town of Lititz, the bakery’s owners still turn out soft pretzels on site, in their building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Before tasting their boiled and baked specialty, we learned how to hand-roll our own baking rope using a premeasured piece of dough to shape it into a traditional design with three open loops. We didn’t actually pop our own rope twists into the oven, but while we practiced the rolling and shaping technique, our docent shared a lengthy backstory of the pretzel and its early beginnings as a noble treat of baked dough twisted into a semblance reflecting crossed arms held in prayer. I hadn’t really made much of a connection between prayer and pretzels prior to that but lately I’ll admit to a quiet reflection with my pretzel indulgence, in hopes that I can polish off the salted symbol without seeing an immediate body bulge along with unwelcome pounds.

That’s the thing with just-baked bread and other wheat-based foods. Their richness packs a few calories but appreciating the taste of a warm slice of sourdough or a buttery garlic knot once in a while can be too much to resist. And freshly baked bread or just-twisted pretzels don’t have to fall into the luxury goods shopping cart. Homemade and bakery-fresh bread puts loaves with a long shelf life to shame and preparing yeast breads at home costs little — for ingredients or baking tools. For this pretzel recipe, the dough also works well in loaf form. Instead of breaking pieces into pretzel-sized portions, divide the batch of dough into four parts and shape into mini loaves. Follow all other directions for boiling and baking. When ready to eat the loaf, slice it down the middle but only half way through the loaf and stuff with a spoonful of egg salad or grilled vegetables. Or thinly slice your pretzel loaf and drizzle it with honey.

Working with a few ingredients turns basic dough into a shared pleasure and letting friends and family roll their own ropes into a range of custom shapes from twists to knots makes the real work easy. The end result: a pretzel far better than any stadium-bought substitute.

Salty Soft Pretzels

Yield: 1 dozen pretzels

1 package active dry yeast

1¼ cups water (85 degrees)

1 teaspoon granulated maple sugar

4 cups flour

2 tablespoons kosher salt

For pretzel boil

3 cups water

¼ cup baking soda

In a large bowl, combine yeast and sugar in warmed water, (not exceeding temperature guidelines). Without stirring, yeast should activate in 5 to 10 minutes. Once activated, gradually add flour to bowl. Mix thoroughly until all flour is absorbed. Remove ball of dough and place on lightly floured surface. Knead dough firmly for a few minutes and cover dough mound with a moistened towel. Let rise 20 minutes. Uncover and pinch dough off into desired number of pieces for pretzels.

Individually roll dough pieces on lightly floured surface into rope forms, about 15 inches in length. Twist the dough into any shape you like or go traditional starting with an upside-down U, crossing ends twice and dropping the large loop down to fold over onto the ends of the rope. Tuck ends under or over large loop.

In a medium saucepan, bring water and baking soda to a low boil. With a slotted metal spatula, lower pretzels one at a time into boiling water and allow to float in boiling solution 30 seconds. Remove and place onto parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle immediately with kosher salt or sesame seeds or your custom spice blend. Bake about 20 minutes at 400 degrees until golden brown. Remove from oven and serve warm or add your favorite dip … hummus, mustard or salted caramel.Minimized Pretzel twistMinimized pretzel twist two

By Mary Ann Ebner, first published by The Highlands Current

Fish Taco Fill-Up

Summer may not always live up to its lazy reputation, but when the season arrives, meals come together with a little less prep and a lot less urgency. With July’s warmth and a more relaxed pace, salads and raw food medleys stand in as main dishes. And with minimal time at the grill while the rice cooker steams up a batch of long grain, anyone can pull together a platter of fish tacos to lighten up mealtime.

Old friends know that I share a fish taco romance with my husband. He deserves credit for making taco night part of the ritual during our courtship when we lived along California’s Central Coast. After evening runs from Monterey to Pacific Grove, dinner called and the caller was typically a plate of savory fish tacos somewhere on the peninsula, usually in town or the next town over. Fish tacos had long replaced sardines in this coastal community — once a canning capital — but even transplants like us could appreciate the town’s fishy history. We ate our share of fish tacos and even enjoyed a few sardines.

Corn tortilla fish tacos minimizedAfter we left California and moved five or six more times before landing in New York’s Hudson Valley, we realized that we’d let our favorite fish dish slip away. When we became parents on a tighter budget and splurged on fish, we occasionally broiled salmon with dill weed. We turned out perfectly fine meals but they didn’t remind us much of earlier fish taco endeavors. We’d drifted a little too far from beer-battered and fried whitefish topped with crunchy salsa and finished with zesty lime juice all tucked into fresh corn tortillas.

But as life seems to go, things often have a way of repeating themselves, even if reinvented with just a hint of resemblance. It was our 2014 trip to Costa Rica that took us back not only to our own vows to each other but to fish tacos (though our personal vows run far deeper than those to any food devotion). Definitely not a California Baja fish-fried classic taco, but the ones we sampled near Arenal and Manuel Antonio rekindled our affinity for this lost symbol of our courtship and set our sons’ hearts ablaze with a great taste they could appreciate. Served primarily with fresh corn tortillas slathered with a creamy curry sauce, our favorite taco tasting in Costa Rica was anchored with flaky grilled white fish, smothered with tomatoes and bright green cilantro.

Making them at home is now a family affair. Everybody helps out, from whipping up a curry sauce to grilling the fish. It’s hard to pass on a Baja-style fried fish filet perched in a fresh tortilla, but for a slightly healthier plate, we lean more closely to a quick-cooking fish prepared in minutes on the grill. From Foodtown or the farmers’ market, almost any fish will do. Try halibut, tilapia, mahi mahi or even tuna. Personally, I think the whiter fish are better in tacos. With a fork, flake cooked fish into bite-sized pieces and layer the fish with rice and beans into tortillas. If someone around your table doesn’t eat seafood, fill tortillas with the rice and beans and generously spoon on the cilantro, tomato and onion salsa or your favorite fresh fruit salsa. To finish a proper fish taco, add a generous squeeze of lime juice to your creation. The tarty juice of the lime enhances the flavor of the fish and everything else along with it, even complementing steamed rice.Lime wedges minimized

Fish Tacos make a fast and fresh option for hopeless romantics of the heart or the discriminating palate. For a summer meal that offers simplicity and a little fun, skip the utensils and roll out the fish taco bar.

Fish Tacos

Yield: Makes 8 generous servings.

1 to 1 ½ pounds flaky whitefish or your preferred fish

salt

freshly ground black pepper

pinch of cayenne pepper

2 large whole tomatoes (diced)

1 sweet onion (chopped)

¼ cup olive oil

1 bunch fresh cilantro (chopped)

1 tablespoon curry powder

1 cup mayonnaise (plus 2 tablespoons olive oil if using commercial mayonnaise)

2 fresh limes (1 for juicing and 1 sliced in wedges)

1 avocado (pitted, peeled and thinly sliced)

16 small corn tortillas or (8 medium flour tortillas)

  1. Fold together diced fresh tomatoes, chopped onion and cilantro in mixing bowl. Add a splash of olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
  2. Mix curry powder with mayonnaise and freshly squeezed juice of 1 lime. If using basic bottled mayo, beat in two tablespoons of quality olive oil. Set aside.
  3. Brush fish with remaining olive oil and dust with salt, a twist of black pepper and cayenne pepper. Grill (or pan-sear) over medium heat until cooked just through.
  4. Warm tortillas on stove top or in microwave and make your own fish tacos immediately by slathering tortillas with curry sauce and filling with flaky fish and salsa. Rice and beans are also perfect options to fold into the tortillas. Serve with avocado slices and lime wedges. Try fresh pineapple and mango chunks as a side.

By Mary Ann Ebner, First published by The Highlands Current

 

Share Shopska Summertime Salad

A savory aroma met me at my front door and led the way to our kitchen as a spicy blend of sweet and sour promised the evening’s menu included no regular fare. But before any tasting, a cross-cultural lesson was in order. My personal chef-for-a-day, working away, wanted to adjust the temperature on an oven that looked completely foreign to her. She opened the oven to reveal a stout clay pot filled with a hearty mix of ingredients smothered in paprika. Sound more like fiction than fact?

Far from illusion — a Bulgarian houseguest, Elena — surprised my family with Bulgarian home cooking. She traveled to New York, her first trip across an ocean, to see her son receive his undergraduate degree in computer science. Elena’s family called our place home for a week while they toured the region and attended graduation activities. We encourage guests to make themselves at home, and visitors who take over the cooking receive an open invitation to return.

As for the Bulgarians, a group of five, they thanked us with the evening meal prepared by Elena who hails from the southern part of the country. We learned that any self-respecting Bulgarian begins a proper dinner with the hard stuff — shots — and they procured a bottle of kicky Bulgarian plum brandy from who knows where … the airport, Manhattan, their luggage? Sometimes, it’s best not to ask. It was an “our house is your house” kind of week.

Once we polished off the shots — not quite the full bottle — eating commenced with a tossing-at-the-table of the classic Bulgarian starter, the shopska salad. Elena had gathered the freshest tomatoes, cucumbers and red peppers in the Hudson Valley, and she must have smuggled in a few pounds of Bulgarian white cheese, a briny feta-type that arguably makes the salad. Dressed with a little sunflower oil, this Eastern European mix of fresh raw vegetables and cheese may be a starter back in Bulgaria, but it could have easily headlined here as a satiable dinner on its own.Shopska Salad minimized

Along with the shopska salad, the large clay pot, the guvech, doing real work in the oven throughout the afternoon, made its way to the table. This slow-roasting casserole of sorts contained a dish called kapama, a traditional meal of meats, rice and sauerkraut prepared in layers. As if that weren’t enough to experience the flavors of the Balkans, we sampled a puffy serving of phyllo dough stuffed with more Bulgarian cheese. Elena’s family calls the dish banica (ba–neet-za), a typical Bulgarian pastry, cut in squares, triangles, or shaped in a spiral. Again, Bulgarian white cheese represented the cornerstone ingredient.

Beacon Pantry, a purveyor of specialty foods and fine cheese as well as a resource in helping the community learn about cheese through its classes and events, classifies Bulgarian white cheese in the fresh category. These cheeses, including chevre, mozzarella, paneer, feta, and ricotta, are fresh milk cheeses to be enjoyed soon after purchase and once opened.

“Feta is a fresh cheese,” Beacon Pantry owner Stacey Penlon said. “The milk is cooked but it’s not then aged and pressed and the cheeses have a shorter shelf life. With Greek and Bulgarian feta made with sheep’s or goat’s milk, it tends to be quite expensive. Sheep’s milk is the fattiest of the common milk types but its cheeses are rich and luscious and it goes a long way.”Guvech clay cooking pot minimized

The creamy texture of feta makes a lush addition to mealtime. If you’re up for an Eastern European change of pace with cheese, ask an expert to help track it down.

“We buy cheese shipped from cheesemakers all the time,” Penlon said. “As long as it’s a reputable cheese store, they should handle it properly.”

For those who want to try making their own cheese, Beacon Pantry (beaconpantry.com) will offer a class in making fresh cheese (mozzarella and ricotta) in August. Finding tangy, salty Bulgarian white cheese (also called sirene cheese), tastes worth the trouble of searching. Similar brined white cheese made with sheep’s, goat’s or cow’s milk will work in the recipes shared here as fine substitutions.

Shopska Salad

Serves 8

4 -5 medium tomatoes, largely diced

2 cucumbers, peeled, and diced

2 sweet red peppers, chopped

1 medium red onion, diced

1 bunch green onions, diced

1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped

½ cup sunflower or olive oil

2 cups Bulgarian white cheese or feta, grated

(optional: green peppers, roasted red peppers, kalamata olives)

  1. Mix prepared vegetables in large bowl. Add sunflower or olive oil and coat thoroughly. Fold in parsley. Layer salad mixture onto platter or serving bowl.
  1. Before serving, pile a mound of grated white cheese over vegetables. Mix at the table.

Banica

Serves 8

15 sheets phyllo dough

3 cups Bulgarian white cheese or feta, grated or crumbled

3/4 cups butter

1 cup carbonated water

(optional: beaten egg, spinach, green onions to stack in cheese layer)

  1. Butter bottom and sides of 9×13-inch baking dish. Melt butter.
  1. Layer 3 dough sheets in dish. Drizzle with butter. Repeat layering and drizzling twice. Cover top layer with cheese. Add 3 more dough sheets and drizzle with butter. Repeat layering and drizzling. Pour carbonated water evenly over top layer.
  1. Bake at 375 degrees 20 minutes or until golden.

Fresh from Bulgaria by Mary Ann Ebner

First published by The Highlands Current

 

 

 

Upgrade the pickle platter

A friend refers to pickles as menu stretchers, but they’re so much more when we upgrade the pickle platter with a selection of small-batch pickled vegetables. minimized crispy dill picklesWelcome the season of holiday cookouts and relish the pickles.

Mix up crisp cauliflower and apricot

Ideas for putting a new meal together crop up around fine dining tables, farmers’ markets and food trucks. There’s no shortage of inspiration whether from a bunch of baby carrots waving their green tops to an endless stream of tempting digital food photos just a swipe away on the phone.

Though traditional cookbooks may seem stodgy compared to a perfect post of pasta primavera on an Instagram feed, printed and bound works of cooking devotion share much more than how-to instructions. Story-driven cookbooks can introduce a world beyond the recipes and ingredients that they present.

Lately, cooking prompts arrive by text from a friend who shares an interest in sampling good eating at hole-in-the-wall restaurants while a host of menus and meal propositions finds a way to my email inbox from food news subscriptions. Some draw a quick look while others move to a list of saved recipes to consider. But even with constant access to a vast selection of online food pages, menus and quick-tip videos, I still linger over traditional cookbooks, not only for cooking’s sake but to soak up an author’s connections to farming, gardening or composing a repertoire of ethnic family favorites. It’s not instructional guides that I love, but tapestries of recipes woven together with scenes of life and illustrated with artful design and photography presented on paper.Storied Cooking

One of my prized treasures weighs several pounds and claims a generous space on the pantry bookshelf. Written by John Besh, My New Orleans: The Cookbook piles on pleasure with cooking, culture, history and a dash of food tourism.

When we sold our family home in Austin several years ago, the buyers were making their relocation from New Orleans. Shortly after the sale’s closing, the cookbook arrived at our new home with a note from the buyers about their appreciation of Besh and the chef’s respectful nod to New Orleans tradition and progressive invention of contemporary tastes. It’s a beautifully written book paying tribute to friends, family and the freshest finds in food. I may never make his crawfish agnolotti with morels or dewberry streusel pie, but Besh won me over with descriptive narrative (“waist deep in a cypress swamp”) from his crawfishing adventures. Two years ago my family hosted a Mardi Gras dinner using Besh’s big book, breaking in the pages with a few smudges of buttermilk and corn meal. Cooking together ended up becoming a cultural awakening of Louisiana cuisine thanks to Besh. We honored the recipes but had a little fun making them our own. If a copy of Besh’s cookbook that includes 200 of his favorite recipes and stories from his hometown presents itself, make room for it in your collection.

I try to limit new cookbook acquisitions in my own collection to one or two a year simply due to space restrictions. But when there’s a chance to borrow or browse a new publication, it’s a joy to find more than something to eat in a cookbook. One recent rainy evening, I found a shelf of cookbooks at the Desmond-Fish Library in Garrison. The selection kept me out of the rain and engaged with a range of good reading. Some featured step-by-step instructions while others centered more on food travel and finding the choicest raw ingredients. In Pure & Special: Gourmet Indian Vegetarian Cuisine by Vidhu Mittal, a tangy lettuce wrap presented a possibility to include the nuances of Indian vegetarian cooking in spring’s rotation. I stumbled on a few pages of brilliance with Diana Henry’s “healthy meets delicious” cookbook, A Change of Appetite. A great read because the images and layout help tell the story, but Henry’s work suggests a year of feasting on inventive healthy food, organized by seasons and showcasing dishes like yogurt with honeyed saffron syrup, almonds and apricot compote. Not too intimidating and who doesn’t love apricots?

Minimized crispy cauliflower with apricotThe combination inspired me to put apricots on my shopping list and I’ve been testing salads in my home kitchen. The recipe shared here combines crispy cauliflower and tangy toasted sesame seeds to create a somewhat nutty flavored medley. Try sharing a small portion as a side salad or just a tasting to welcome hungry guests before breaking out more substantial fare. For this simple combination, dip in to your premium extra-virgin olive oil and the best sea salt on hand. The ingredients are all everyday finds and inexpensive, but together they’ll please on any plate.

Crisp Cauliflower with Apricots

1 head cauliflower

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

1 cup dried apricots, chopped

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 scallions, chopped

1 teaspoon sea salt flakes, crushed

Cut cauliflower into small florets and set aside. In preheated oven, bake sesame seeds on flat ungreased baking sheet at 400 degrees Fahrenheit about 5 minutes or until lightly golden. Remove seeds from oven and place baking sheet of cauliflower florets on top rack. Bake 20 minutes until florets begin to brown. Toss cauliflower, apricot pieces and chopped onion in mixing bowl. Mix sesame seeds with olive oil and add to mixing bowl ingredients. Stir mixture and sprinkle generously with salt. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Text and photos by Mary Ann Ebner

First published at The Highlands Current

Big on Beans

With his standard limit of one daily cup, Charles Day would rather skip coffee than drink it stale. The Cold Spring resident has tasted his way to faultless flavor not simply by sipping through a procession of espressos or lattes but by perfecting beans before the first pour.

Day started home-roasting coffee beans soon after he and his wife, Susan Wallach, relocated from his native England to Brooklyn.

“Susan’s sister’s husband got me interested in roasting 15 years ago,” Day said. “He presented us a roaster as a gift.”

The gift served them well but met its retirement. Now on his third roaster, Day, who moved to Cold Spring 11 years ago, uses a Gene Café CBR Model 101, made in Korea.

minimized beans before and afterBefore and after — green coffee beans and freshly roasted beans

“It’s been very impressive,” Day said as he prepared to roast a batch of Sumatra Wahana Rasuna Honey beans. “You can get one for a few hundred dollars but this one was a little over 500 bucks.”

The roasting area doesn’t require much space. The roaster sits close to a basement wall with a window used for ventilation. Before Day begins the process, which is a full-on sensory engagement, he scans the raw beans and runs his hands through the tray to check texture and look for imperfections.

“Broken beans can lodge themselves into the little holes in the roaster and can burn,” Day said. “Then you get a bad batch.”

minimized quality controlCharles Day of Cold Spring inspects a tray of green beans in his home roasting process.

He experiments with beans of various origins to make a balanced cup, purchasing from green coffee suppliers, including Roastmasters.com in Connecticut and Sweet Maria’s in Oakland, California. Even the slightest change in roasting time can alter the profile of a batch as the process transforms the green coffee into powerfully aromatic brown beans.

Susan appreciates his darker range of coffees as well as an often-present warm aroma — roasty and earthy — wafting through the house. “He and I like different coffees,” she explains, so the aroma is constantly changing.

Anyone who has savored a custom cup of the family’s coffee (full disclosure: I enjoyed every drop) will never willingly return to mass-produced beans.

minimized heat controlCold Spring’s Charles Day fires up his home coffee bean roaster.

Day says coffee’s distinct smoky scent takes him back to his youth in Rochester, Kent. Though tea was rather important, the smell of fragrant coffee reminds him of his teen years. “I used to change buses for school and where I changed buses there was a little store, a coffee and tea store, with a roaster,” he said. “That’s where I used to smell it.”

Tea still matters to Day but since moving to the U.S., he drinks more coffee. He’s been mostly vegan for three years, but emphasizes that “mostly” keeps him eligible for an occasional diversion with his coffee. “Susan makes a coffee icing on a chocolate cake,” he said. “So sometimes, yes, I’m mostly vegan.”

Day recently conducted a roasting demonstration at Wave Hill, a public garden and cultural center in the Bronx, where he works as the Ruth Rea Howell horticultural interpreter. As a member of Cold Spring’s Tree Advisory Board, he pays precise attention to details in professional and personal endeavors.

minimized cooling the beansCharles Day — cooling the beans— engages all of the senses in home roasting.

In his roasting log, Day keeps a record of procedures, including dates, temperatures, roasting time, stages of the roast and overall taste. The roaster combines heat with an agitation method as well as a collection process to retrieve the chaff, the light husks that come off beans as they expand during the roast. When the roasting begins, an audible crack sounds, similar to the sound of popcorn popping.

“One of the most important points of having the log is it tells me details of cracks,” he said. “Until that first crack, the coffee is not roasted. Immediately after that first crack is finished, the coffee can be withdrawn as a very light roast. You can continue to the second crack for a darker roast and beyond that, it can be roasted to black and very dark.”

With this particular batch, Day estimated he would roast for 17 minutes with a peak temperature of 482 degrees Fahrenheit. As the first crack sounded, he dropped the temperature to 460 degrees and checked the remaining time for roasting: 6.5 minutes. Once the batch reached the desired stage, he recorded the time, temperature and crack notations and transferred the beans from the rotating chamber to the cooling tray.

After cooling, Day stores his roasts in airtight jars and labels them. Within a week, he fires up his roaster to replenish the family supply for grinding, brewing and relishing, favoring the freshness over store-bought beans, which may age for months.

“The general recommendation is not to use the beans for 24 to 48 hours,” he said. “It’s best after 48 and we tend to make it by the cup with a filter throughout the week. After a week it’s still perfectly drinkable but it’s not quite as flavorful.”

If you’re not a home-roasting candidate, search for a respected roaster. Day enjoys the beans roasted in small batches by Coffee Labs Roasters in Tarrytown and sold at Bank Square Coffeehouse in Beacon. “When I roast it, I guarantee that it’s fresh,” he says, “but there’s a good reason why there are professional roasters.”

Minimized coffee breakCoffee Cake

½ pound (two sticks) salted butter

3 cups flour

2¼ cups sugar

2¼ teaspoons baking soda

3 tablespoons ground cinnamon

3 tablespoons freshly ground coffee (medium grind)

1½ cups buttermilk

2 eggs, lightly beaten

Mix flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon and ground coffee. Add butter. Blend gently two minutes until crumbly texture forms. Reserve ¾ cup of dry mixture and set aside. Add buttermilk and mix thoroughly. Gently fold in beaten eggs.

Pour into a greased and floured 8-inch springform pan. Sprinkle reserved dry mixture over top of batter. Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes. Cool, remove from pan and serve with coffee.

Text and photographs by Mary Ann Ebner, first published by Philipstown.info

Playing Favorites

Certain foods have a way of bringing back memories that haven’t been stirred for a while. It’s far more appetizing to relive a feast rather than a painful potluck (scorched gravy from summer camp, anyone?). Sometimes sentimentality works up a longing for that favorite food and these epicurean moments usually deserve the credit — or blame — for an appetite. When it comes to French onion soup, nostalgia takes over and I trail back to one of those happier meals.

On a recent chilly evening, four of us ventured out and ended up at 12 Grapes in Peekskill. The cold weather called for something warm and we all settled on French onion soup. The dish, simple yet perfected with a bit of precision, made the ideal wintery supper. We finished off every sliver of onion, crumble of toasty bread and dripping of cheese.

Minimized French onion soupIt may have been the wine talking but nostalgia warmed us further as we recalled our early introductions to French onion soup. My husband described his first bowl as we savored our piping-hot restaurant helpings. He remembered feeling like a big deal leaning over a bowl of broth and delicate onions, and even detailed what he wore on the occasion: an off-white tuxedo fit for a six-year-old. Too tall to help as the ring bearer, he ushered at a wedding where reception guests celebrated with French onion soup. Onion soup still pleases crowds of all ages and it doesn’t break the budget.

My own onion soup inspiration, served for decades at Famous-Barr, a St. Louis shopping landmark since retired into merchandising history by latest-owners Macy’s, looked more tempting than anything on a plate. As a kid visiting the department store on rare occasions, one trip included a lunch date. My best friend’s dad brought me along on one of their Saturday excursions not to shop but to see Santa and check out the festive window decorations. We were probably second graders, far too mature to really believe in the jolly old elf, but we played the part well. Finally, it was time to sit down to lunch. I would have typically gone for a kids’ club sandwich and raspberry Jello served in a parfait cup, of course, but when I saw another diner eating a steaming bowl of the onion soup, I graduated to new tastes. It was a bowl full of softened lacey onions and gooey cheese goodness.

Many years and servings later, I no longer remember much about the store’s club sandwiches, but I can still smell the soup. The department store dish may not have been artful or elaborate cuisine but it saw little competition and enjoyed a loyal customer base. Famous-Barr even sold the soup’s ingredients as if they were specialty supplies unavailable elsewhere. The effort exemplified clever marketing, but the product lived up to its reputation. Thin strips of golden onions hid beneath a thick slice of bread that floated in steamy broth and served as the base for a blanket of toasty Swiss cheese.

With some foods, taste arguably keeps us returning for more, though often the experience plays the larger part in preserving a memory. When we can’t come close to replicating a restaurant menu or a branded product, the craving can be hard to overcome.

Fortunately, anyone can recreate onion soup at home with a few modest ingredients. Many restaurant variations also appear around the Hudson Valley as French onion soup, onion soup gratinée and even potage d’oignon. They all pay tribute to the onion, the indispensable ingredient that’s affordable enough to keep on hand in large quantities. Order a bowl out or cook it yourself. The version here suggests a lighter vegetable stock rather than the traditional brown beef stock generally found in the soup. I’ve tried both stocks and the vegetable brings the basic elements together with fine results. My attempt replicates a soup once famous for drawing shoppers into a retail outlet. The taste gave the soup its allure, but the experience made it a memorable meal.

 French Onion Soup

4 to 6 servings

6 medium sweet onions

6 tablespoons butter

sea salt flakes

freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon flour

2 teaspoons fresh thyme

8 cups vegetable stock

12 slices crusty bread (day-old bread recommended)

3 cups grated cheese (Swiss or gruyère)

  1. Cut peeled onions in half and thinly slice. In heavy pan, heat butter and add sliced onions. Season with salt and pepper. Cook and stir onions over medium heat 25 to 30 minutes until softened and just golden brown.
  1. Sprinkle in thyme and flour and cook over low heat 5 minutes. Add vegetable stock, stir, cover and simmer for 45 minutes.
  1. Preheat oven broiler to 400 degrees. Ladle soup into individual ovenproof bowls. Place bread slices on top of broth. Sprinkle generously with grated cheese and place in oven. Broil 3 to 5 minutes until cheese browns and bubbles. Serve immediately.

By Mary Ann Ebner

First published at Philipstown.info