The Budget-Friendly Recipe Book: French Onion Soup

I love cooking and baking at home, and I also love it when I can do them at home in a budget-friendly manner.  Eating at home is always cheaper than eating out to begin with, but there is a certain rush that I get when I can get something on the table that tastes amazing, was pretty low-effort, and only cost pocket change to make.

A few posts ago I talked about how we’re trimming down financial waste in the kitchen, and I figured why not share some recipes once in a while that fit in nicely with that theme?  So here’s a new series for you all — The Budget-Friendly Recipe Book.

And we’ll start with one of our favourites around here:  French onion soup.

 

The Owls’ Nest French Onion Soup

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If you’ve ever bought a giant bag of onions because it was so cheap but then have no idea what to do with them, look no farther than French onion soup.  Also, the method below calls for a fresh loaf of bread that you toast up in the oven, but if you happen to have some bread going stale in your kitchen, this recipe is a perfect way to use it so that you don’t waste it and don’t break your teeth trying to eat it.

It deviates a little from the traditional preparation of French onion soup, but trust me — it doesn’t stray too far from what you’d normally expect and it’s totally worth it.  It’s honestly my favourite soup because it’s simple to make, friendly on the household budget, and so delicious any time of year (but especially yummy on a rainy day).

Have a bowl of it on its own for a meal that’s light but terrifically satisfying, or for something more filling, fry up a Toulouse sausage and make a simple mesclun salad tossed lightly with lemon juice and olive oil.  The recipe below makes enough for 4  or 5 generous meal-sized servings but you can dish up smaller bowls if you’re having it as one part of a larger meal.

Ingredients:

  • 12-14 white onions (small to medium in size, depending on what’s in your giant bag of onions)
  • Olive oil
  • 250g diced pancetta or sliced bacon
  • Bay leaves
  • Herbes de provence
  • Cayenne pepper
  • 6 to 8 cups of stock (beef or vegetable)
  • Bread (such as a baguette)
  • Butter
  • Minced garlic (a few cloves of fresh garlic or 1 to 2 tbsp of pre-minced garlic from a jar)
  • Cheese (Gruyère is traditional, but you can try any cheese that melts down nicely such as Swiss, Jarlsberg, or sharp white cheddar)

Method:

  1.  Preheat oven to 375F/190C.
  2.  Peel, trim, and slice 12-14 white onions into thick wedges. Put onions in an oven-proof pot (such as an enamelled Lodge cast-iron dutch oven), toss them with a drizzle of olive oil to separate them and coat them evenly, and put in the oven.
  3. Check on onions every 15-20 minutes or so and stir.  They will caramelize and soften over the course of 1 to 2 hours.  The speed of this process depends largely on your oven (since every oven is slightly different) but the depth of browning is up to you.  Just remember, you’re going for rich caramel brown onions, not blackened ones!
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    If you’re wondering why on earth I’m telling you to bother with doing the onions this way instead of on the stovetop, there are a three main reasons why. First, onions can get really smoky in a pan on the stove, especially when trying to cook a large amount of them at once. Second, to make sure they don’t burn in the pan you have to keep stirring them around, meaning you’re standing over a smoky pan of onions trying not to ruin them. Third, when you have so many onions in one container it can actually be a little hard to make sure they’re all sufficiently cooked and caramelized — meaning you might end up biting into an undercooked onion which is just not what you want to be tasting in a soup like this. By cooking them in the oven in a big pot or dutch oven, you’re cooking them low and slow to allow for optimal caramelization, and doing so in a vessel that is incredibly good at getting everything inside it cooked.  You can also leave it in the oven on its own while you’re working on other parts of the dish or if you just want to go sit down for a while. With this method, the only way you’re going to end up with burned onions is if you literally forget you’ve got them in the oven.  You can also do this step ahead of time if you know you won’t have two hours on the day you want to have the soup; just keep them in the pot until you’re ready to make the rest of it.

     

  4. While onions are cooking, brown 250g of diced pancetta or sliced bacon in a nonstick pan until crisp.  Drain off fat and set aside.
  5. Spread butter and minced garlic on to several slices of bread. Toast them until they are crisp and set them aside to cool.  (Whatever type of bread you’ve chosen, you’ll need at least enough to be able to cover at the top of your soup in the bowls you have available.)
  6. Once onions are caramelized, remove them from the oven and add to the pot 1 or 2 bay leaves, 2 tsp of herbes de provence, a pinch of cayenne pepper, the cooked pancetta/bacon, and 6 to 8 cups of beef or vegetable stock. 
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    If you’re looking closely you might notice that there are little purple specks in my herbes de provence.  The blend I use is from The Silk Road Spice Merchant and contains lavender — another slight twist on traditional ingredients that adds a little something special to this soup.  Don’t worry if your herbes de provence doesn’t have anything extra in it, though, because your soup will still taste amazing! In regards to the pinch of cayenne pepper, how big or small that pinch is you put in is entirely up to you.  If you don’t want any cayenne pepper in your soup then don’t add any — as it usually goes with home cooked food, it’s all up to your own personal taste!

     
  7.  Simmer the entire pot over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 10-15 minutes.  If there are any browned bits (fond) stuck to the sides of your pot, scrape them down as you stir, because the fond adds a nice dimension of flavour to the finished soup.  This soup won’t reduce very much in 10 to 15 minutes, but you can definitely let it simmer for much longer if you want a thicker consistency and a more concentrated flavour.
  8. Taste your soup and see if it needs any salt and/or pepper.  Depending on your pancetta/bacon and your soup stock you might not need any extra salt, so be sure to taste your soup before you season it!  Also, when you taste it don’t forget to try and get a little bit of everything — a piece or two of pancetta or bacon, a few of those soft caramelized onions, and a good spoonful of broth — so that you’re getting as full a flavour profile as possible from your tasting spoon.
  9.  To serve, remove the bay leaves from the soup and ladle the soup into your bowls.  Place your garlic butter toast on the surface of the soup and top it off with sliced cheese.
  10. Put your bowls on a baking sheet/cookie tray and broil for 5 minutes in the oven until the cheese is melted and golden-brown.  Keep an eye on it and do not leave the kitchen — unattended food under the broiler has a knack for charring to a blackened mess very quickly!
  11. Enjoy!

 

A taste of cardamom

It’s been a while, hasn’t it…  Last time I posted, it was one week after I arrived home from my two-week jaunt overseas to Sweden and Ireland with one of my best friends.

And then, suddenly…all quiet on the northern front. 

It’s not that I haven’t tried to write.  I really have.  Feverish scribbles in many notebooks record my efforts.  And it’s not that I haven’t had anything to write about, either.  Indeed, I returned home to the love of my life; I left my second job where I worked en electronics retail; I met my love’s family over Canadian Thanksgiving…oh, and I got engaged just before Christmas!  Personal life events aside, there was always the soapbox of some big current issue:  a Canadian perspective on the US elections; another voice in the protest against the patriarchy; more insights on feminine self-perception and the issues women have with their bodies… You name it, I could have written about it.

But I lost my voice after coming back home in September.  It was as if Angela the Writer was struck speechless by that journey and just felt as if there was nothing to write about on the home front that could hold a candle to the wonders of Sweden and Ireland.  (It certainly didn’t help that before  I left my second job in mid-November, I kept having mini-breakdowns everywhere because of how stressed out, anxious, and over-tired I was.)  And so, as I wound myself into a tighter ball of stress and anxiety and fatigue, the Montreal Autumn waltzed by mostly unnoticed.

And then the Montreal Winter arrived.  Cold and dark as it was, the snow didn’t start coming in earnest until just a few weeks ago.  The past two weeks in particular have been bone-chillingly cold with blustery winds and near-white-out snowfalls.

Memory Lane, or as it’s called in Swedish, Nostalgitripp, beckoned to me and called me back to Sweden in particular when the snow finally hit in earnest.  In the midst of this winter I found myself cocooned in memories of blue skies shining over Stockholm, birch-lined paths through Falun, sun-splashed cobblestones in Gamla Stan, exuberant winds coming off the Baltic…and cardamom buns and coffee enjoyed next to window-baskets full of bright flowers whenever it was time for a fika break.

My fiancé recently let me loose with gift money in the cooking section of Indigo as part of my Valentine’s Day present, and in that particular haul is a book called How To Hygge:  The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life, by Norwegian food writer and chef Signe Johansen.  While it’s more of a lifestyle book than one of cookery, Johansen includes many Nordic recipes in it…and in the chapter on fika, there is a recipe for cardamom buns.

If I ever have to summarize my time in Sweden in terms of food, kardemummabullar from Fabrique Stenugnsbageri is always the first thing I mention.  Kanelbullar, or cinnamon buns, are commonplace enough in North America, and while the kind we get here in abundance is made in the typical American fashion (gigantic, stodgy, and made with too much sugar), their cardamom counterparts are rare treats even in the fanciest boulangeries of my city.  I absolutely love cardamom (many of my favorite tea blends from DavidsTea involve the dried, fragrant green pods) and get noticeably excited when I see it listed on a menu.

Now, hygge (pronounced hoo-ga) is a lifestyle that’s all about cosiness, comfort, companionship, and all the little things in like that bring them to life, and I encountered this concept right in the middle of the time of year that tends to make me feel lethargic, uncomfortable, and lonely.  But as I read the chapter on fika and looked over that recipe for cardamom buns, I remembered not how the Fabrique kardemummabullar tasted but rather how I felt while eating them for the first time.  I’d chosen a rich double espresso to go with it, and as I tucked into this modest little feast I felt all the stiffness, tiredness, and stress of long travel hours melting away.  As I ate I felt ready to take Stockholm head-on like the proper adventurer I wanted to be.

If a cardamom roll could do that once, maybe it could do it again, I thought as I read Johansen’s recipe, curled up on the couch with our British Shorthair purring next to my head while snow fell down outside the window.  We even do have cardamom in the spice cupboard…

I had time this weekend to take on the challenge of home-made bread, and this morning we had a batch of kardemummabullar waiting for us to enjoy in our breakfast.  As I gently tore apart a golden-brown spiral and looked out at the snow that’s piled up on the porch and in the alley below, I felt this long winter brighten a bit with my first taste of the hygge life.

And just as it had done on a side street in Gamla Stan, the taste of fragrant cardamom, fresh bread, and coffee helped me get back on my feet.

‘Round the Salthill Prom

Once again, the only time I’ve found to write real posts is in transit — there’s not much else to do after a while when you’re only an hour in on a three-hour journey between one Irish city and the next.  We’re on our way to Dublin now, the last of five stops on our two-week journey through Sweden and Ireland.  I can’t believe how wonderful everything has been so far, and am excited to finally be in Dublin at the end of this adventure.

We’re leaving Galway today, and it was our longest stop in Ireland:  arriving on Friday afternoon, we then spent two full days in the small coastal city before boarding a bus this Monday morning at 10:30 to head onwards to the Republic’s capital. And what a lovely weekend it was, indeed.  Though we left Donegal in utterly miserable weather, it did clear up quite nicely by the time we got into Galway City on Friday afternoon and it lasted well into Saturday before the wind blew the clouds back in.  Sunday was full of blustery winds and clouds, although the rain didn’t come back until late last night.  So, weather-wise for the West Coast of Ireland, Galway was rather kind to us.

 

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Low tide below the Spanish Arches looking out onto Galway Bay.

If the Salthill looked anything like it did a couple of days ago when the girl from the song met the boy, I don’t blame him for falling madly in love with her right then and there.  I mean, look at it on a beautiful sunny morning:

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I do love Galway and am glad we took two full days in this small city.  Our B&B this time around did, naturally, include an Irish fry-up with black and white pudding — both of which proved that when done right, a breakfast pud can be quite tasty and highly enjoyable to eat. At any rate, we were always well-fed first thing in the morning and made ready for long hours of exploring.  And, for a city so small, there’s still lots to see and do.

This region is home to the world-famous Claddagh Ring — the heart, crown, and hands symbolizing love, loyalty, and friendship — and, as such, Galway City is full of souvenir shops selling this particular ware as well as numerous family-owned jewellery shops where the rings are still hand-crafted in small batches of each family’s distinct designs.  My travel partner got hers up at Thomas Dillon’s Claddagh Gold  and I found mine down at Claddagh & Celtic.  Wherever you do decide to get yours, one of these is probably your best bet for a fair price for hand-crafted silver and gold; other stores ranging from tourist shops to high-end jewellers didn’t seem to have quite the same caliber of quality for the prices listed, and either shop we went to you’ll be treated to the more intimate experience of meeting the crafters who make it their business, literally, to keep a strong Galway tradition alive and authentic.

If bookshops of the world are your thing, Charlie Byrne’s is your best bet.  With stock ranging from antique (World Book 1865, full set) to hot bestsellers from last week’s New York Times, and covering every topic, genre, and area of interest you can imagine, Charlie Byrne’s offers bookworms from all over a haven from tourist traps and large crowds.  Floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall shelves groan with knowledge and wonder and endless hours of potential.  This is where I found a beautiful green leather-bound edition of the works of Tennyson for the princely sum of €4.  Given more time, money, and room in my luggage I would have bought more. Way more.

As with any tourist stop in Ireland, Galway is full of pubs and restaurants. We took two dinners at The Daíl Bar for our Ireland pub-grub-and-pint fix, and one dinner at Eastern Tandoori to break up Isles meat-and-stodge with the aromatic spices and tender meats of Indian cuisine.  Both are equally enjoyable (the seafood chowder at the Daíl is amazing and chock-full of sea-fresh fare, while classic dishes like balti and patala at Eastern Tandoori are flavourful masterpieces that serve as a lovely departure from pub f00d).  On a longer trip with a deeper pocketbook, there are many other places dubbed “foodie stops” for you to try, and so if you do go to Galway City I’d highly encourage you to look up the restaurants online and try a few new ones for yourself as well.

On Sunday after Mass at the Galway Cathedral I had “alone time” in the city, and I had vague romantic notions of going down to the Salthill and finding a large rock on the beach upon which to perch and write some postcards and more entries in my travel journal.  However, the wind literally blew all those fancies out of my head as soon as I hit the Salthill, and I made a valiant effort indeed in walking as far as I did on the beach before making a hasty retreat back into town towards hot tea — and, because bracing oneself against gales off the sea actually does use up a lot of energy, a nice lunch.

My travel companion has been to Galway before and already knew some of its delicious secrets — in the case of Cupán Tae, quite literally – and I’m happy that she was eager to share them with me. In the case of this cosy, shabby-chic tea house facing the bay, I was so enamoured after one round of hot tea and fruit scones that after coming back form the Salthill on Sunday afternoon I beelined straight for the shop to enjoy another full pot of tea, a scone sandwich, and a slice of carrot cake during a long, leisurely lunch. Heaven on Earth does exist if you look hard enough, and I’m rather convinced that a corner of it is to be found at Cupán Tae.

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A pot of Emerald Isle brew (black tea with notes of whiskey and cocoa, followed by a creamy vanilla finish) and fruit scones for round one at Cupán Tae.

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Ham-and-cheese sandwich served with greens, red onion, and tomato on a savoury rosemary scone — perfect for lunch with a pot of Dreamy Creamy Galway bend (black tea with roasted coffee beans and jasmine flowers, with a creamy-smooth and aromatic finish).

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What else do you do when you’ve finished your lunch but still have half a pot of tea left?  Indulging in a slice of homemade carrot cake was a perfect way to finish my solo experience at Cupán Tae.  It came highly recommended by one of the serves who hailed it as her favourite slice in the whole shop, and I’m inclined to agree with her.  www.cupantae.eu for more info and to order online, if you can’t wait to get there in person, and @cupantaegalway for social media.

All in all, Galway was good to us — so good, in fact, that it will definitely be a permanent stop on all future tours of the Emerald Isle I’ll be taking in the future.  As we head into Dublin for the final stretch of our journey, I’m leaving Galway with many fond memories and the added bonus of seeing this small city in the September sunshine.

 

The Food of Love

Most of my defining moments happened around the family dinner table, mainly because my parents raised my siblings and me on a steady diet of hearty home-cooked meals eaten as a single family unit every night of the week.  The family dinner table was where I learned life skills like the art of conversation, proper mealtime etiquette, and how to appreciate every morsel of food put in front of me — especially when I did not like it.  It was also where I learned how to value the time and effort of others, and how to give back to them in kind.

The dinner table of my childhood still stands in my mother’s home today and is a stately piece carved from narra wood, the national tree of the Philippines, that my parents shipped over from the Philippines to Canada when we emigrated in 1992.  I find it rather poignant and highly suitable that a Filipino family gathered daily around a table made from our homeland’s national tree, especially considering that everyone who’s taken a seat around it has helped build and strengthen the bridge between the old world and the new.

No matter where they started, family discussions always ended around the dinner table.  Get-togethers with friends and extended family also inevitably ended there, particularly during the summer months when the conversations of day-long barbecues outlasted the last encore of crickets.  Holidays never really saw us leaving it, except of course to clear away empty serving dishes and dirty plates only to return with more food and clean flatware. We ate around it as a family in both immediate and extended forms, adding not one but two leaves on countless occasions to accommodate more guests.  As a baby my nephew crawled on it in between mealtimes, we older folks standing on all sides to keep him from zooming off its polished top; as a toddler, he crawled and then ran under it before whacking his head one day on the edge.  Our dogs sat beneath it as we ate, often indulging in morsels that fell (or were surreptitiously held) under it.  We presented new friends and partners to one another around it, the “others” sizing “us” up against the yardsticks which we ourselves had measured our own progress as sociable human beings.  ((And, when not in use for its original function, my mother used it to sew clothes and curtains and sheets while we put together school projects.))

Nowadays, eating out is a slightly more frequent occurrence than it used to be during my youth and I don’t get many chances to join my mother and BigSis (and now, her boyfriend) around any table, but the family dinner is still integral to our relationship.  More recently than my BigSis, I too have started bringing my own new boyfriend along to dinner, and seeing his face around our table along with the faces of those who know me and love me best warms my heart immensely.

Last week we all went out to Junior, a Filipino restaurant on Rue Notre-Dame .  It was a grand occasion, mostly because MiddleSis and Nephew are in town as well.  As a kid I grew up desperately wanting to eat the North American fare that my classmates and neighbour-kids always tucked into instead of the dishes of islands I couldn’t even remember, but these days my more matured palate can’t get enough of the flavours and textures packed into Filipino food. I love the crisp saltiness of lechon kawali mixing with the tangy sweetness of Mang Tomas sauce; the heat and crunch of a sizzling sisig tempered only slightly by mayo and white rice; the limey zing of a fried bangus served whole, minus the needle-sharp bones of course.  Even the alarmingly sweetness and chewiness of sticky suman dipped into matamis na bao or the cold crunch of shaved ice mixed with ice cream, evaporated milk, sweet beans, young coconut flesh, fruit jellies, and jackfruit – in other words, halo-halo – seem to hit the spot on my cravings so much more accurately than North American desserts these days.

What  I loved most about this latest outing to Junior was that my new boyfriend – an Xth generation Quebecois from Sherbrooke whose Irish, French, and German roots stretch back a few centuries – is a good eater who thoroughly enjoyed the best of my homeland’s cuisine.  Of course it helps immensely that Junior is hands-down the best Filipino food you can get in the city, but even the greatest  and tastiest dishes can be lost on an unappreciative palate. I’ve witnessed it before with past boyfriends:  the polite smile with a barely-discernible trace of apprehension or even dismay at what’s on the Filipino table; the thinly-veiled suspicion of any meat that isn’t instantly recognizable as beef, pork, chicken, or fish; the staunch refusal to even try one mouthful of something new.  That is definitely not the case with this one, which in my book makes him a true keeper.

My family is somewhat leery of picky eaters, and not without good reason. Clearly, since I’ve just spent a few hundred words on the subject, our family dinner is a sacred and precious ritual, and those we invite to partake in food, drink, and company are not only invited to witness them but are indeed being welcomed into our family’s most intimate and telling moments.

But for me, having grown up with one foot in Canada and one occasionally still on the boat back to the Philippines, it means the world to have a non-Filipino partner with whom I can share my cultural roots on every level – especially when it comes to the weird food I have grown to love and re-adopt as “my own.”

The story of my family was written around that narra table; the story of the Philippines, by Spain’s use of the islands as a gateway to the New World.  In both cases food played a huge role in the shaping of such narratives, the exploration and development of which appeal to me as both an amateur writer and as an enthusiastic food-lover.  I can’t help but feel incredibly lucky and rather blessed to have grown up at a table that always had homemade meals upon it, especially from a cuisine that like the table itself was brought over from the home islands to the True North, Strong and Free more than twenty years ago.  And I certainly can’t help but feel extremely proud to share that table now, in all its laden groaning glory, with a person who will add his own words – his own chapter of the story – to that warm and loving narrative.

Shakespeare called music the food of love, but in this family the food of love is the food itself as well as the company we keep when we partake of it around our narra table.