Instant Boost of Flavor: Onion Compote
Since I am always on the lookout for good recipes, I subscribe to the magazines, because there's always something to glean from them. One of the ones I like is called Femme Actuelle. It's a very popular magazine in France, targeted to working women. The recipes in this magazine are on level for beginner to established home cooks, and are often regional or focusing on a tradition in French home life, or an ingredient that is popular at the markets. I finally got around to picking up this week's magazine and on the cover, their Dossier Cuisine is entitled: Cooking for Women Who Don't Have Time.
There was some debate among my friends a few months ago, sparked by an editorial in the Atlantic. I read this piece as a skeptical calling-out of what some people consider to be the inherent one-upmanship in many recipe books being put out these days, citing exotic unavailable ingredients or long laborious prep tasks. I asked my friends what they thought. The piece made some people scoff, various devoted food enthusiasts claim that the author was whining or inexperienced, and others to raise their fist in indignant defense of the people of the world who can't cook. It got a little bit political. Toss in various on-the-fence type responses citing lack of energy or time for cooking in general in defense of the author, and the conversation fizzled out. I was a little bit sad about that, because I thought it was a good chance for a conversation. To talk about the whole idea of where we stand on nourishing our families and where we wished we could stand, and whether we're really devoted to it or not.
My work focuses on French food, history, and technique, and we practice this every day. I can say immediately that I witness people approaching cooking from a much different angle in this country. First of all, convenience foods are a relatively new thing here. There is no French industry-wide mission dating back 50 years to convince everyone that they are incapable of cooking. Incapable of baking, yes. (we'll talk about that later.) We're talking about general home cooking here. People in this country just don't consider the idea that there might not be time to cook. Let me give you a good example. During our visits to my in-laws, especially during the early years when my mother-in-law was still working at a full-time desk job, the cooking was done in the early hours in the morning. Brigitte was often parboiling and peeling tomatoes or doing prep work at 6:00 o'clock in the morning, and often dinner was done before we came down for breakfast. The smells and promise of what was coming later wafted into our dreams as the birds started singing. How many fabulous food dreams came true at Brigitte's table! She never puttered around in the kitchen during apero hour, but instead sat down with us, while the yellow sun streamed across the salon, and let potato chips melt on her tongue between sips of sparkling wine. She relaxed after her busy day at work. She served such beautiful meals every night, even with simple ingredients, seemingly without effort, with just enough decadence to satisfy, and always plenty of variety. I have never once ever heard Brigitte complain about not having time to cook.
When I turned to the Dossier: Cuisine in the Femme Actuelle, I was so happy to see this very French, in my experience, approach to cooking when you don't have time. But of course! Headline: "It's Better on the Second Day! (then in small letters underneath) Simmered, slow-cooked, baked… All of the lovely little casseroles and simmered dishes of winter are even better the next day. Reheat them gently, and APPRECIATE them." And the recipes are truly inspiring. Osso bucco. A simple but nourishing Indian inspired slow-simmered lentil dish. Slow simmered prunes and pork. 4-hour lamb shanks. Beouf aux carottes. Cassoulet. They are not pretending that this is going to be fast and easy, they're just saying, if you don't have time in the evenings, go ahead and cook something truly worth enjoying in advance, and nothing that cooks long and slow is going to be too difficult to put together.
So with this, I share with you my recipe for a simple onion compote, which is worth cooking for several hours, because what you get out of it becomes a building block for many other wonderful flavors in your home cooking. Slow-cooked onions and La Cuisine Lyonnaise go hand in hand. This onion compote requires very little surveillance, and having a batch of this on hand is a great way to boost the overall flavor of many dishes, as well as saving time.
Recipe: Onion Compote
Hands-on cooking time: 5 minutes
Time to simmer: 2 to 4 hours
4 medium sized onions, any kind, about a kilo or 2 lbs.
Butter 20 g. or 4 tsp.
Sea salt 4 g. or 3/4 tsp
Pepper 1 g. or 1/4 tsp
Nutmeg 1 g. or 1/4 tsp (optional)
Peel the onions, split them in half, and cut them into thin slices. Place them with the 20 grams of butter into a large sauté pan that has a fitting lid, and sprinkle them with 2 generous pinches of sea salt (4 grams). Turn the heat on high, and when the butter melts and the onions just begin to sizzle in the uncovered pan, immediately take the heat to low. Give them a good shake to distribute the butter, cover the pan with the lid, and leave them to steam slowly in their own juices for up to 4 hours, depending on how much time you have. If you are cooking on a gas burner, a diffuser is helpful to avoid having to stir the onions. If you are cooking on an electric or glass top burner, leave the heat on very low, and give it a stir from time to time. The longer you leave them to cook, the smoother, creamier and complex your confit d'oignon will be.
Check the onions periodically, stirring to keep them them from browning on the bottom, When the time comes near to finishing up, turn up the heat enough to evaporate the remaining liquid and allow them to turn a uniform light brown color. Taste and adjust seasoning with pepper and nutmeg at the end.
Notes: If you cook this recipe just to the point that the onions are completely soft in their generous liquid base but not beginning to brown in any way, you can purée the onions in their juice, resulting in a silky white sauce that is divine with poultry.
Here's a good secret: Long cooked onion compote is the key ingredient to the perfect hash-browns.
You can replace anything from the allium family to make a flavorful compote. Try freshly harvested garlic, shallots, grey shallots, onions of any kind, leeks, or a mixture of your own. Make this as often as you have to to keep a jar of it on hand at all times.
Often I substitute a nice dollop and a cup of water for any recipe that calls for a cup of stock. Whenever I see a requirement for the dreaded "bouillon granules" in a recipe, a generous spoonful of my deeply flavored compote d'oignon is a ready replacement.