A Breath of Fresh Air (And French Onion Soup: 3 ways)

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February is hard.  It has been consistently difficult for the last few years, but the month still manages to sideswipe my January-fogged brain and trample me into the ground.  After we settle from the holiday cheer that lights up the winter through the New Year, we are only left with cold, gray January and February stretching out endlessly before us.  In recent years, just to make this worse, our area gotten all of our snowstorms in February and March, prolonging this dark, plodding winter.  This year was no exception.  In February, I brood and mope and slowly descend into that dark stasis that is only relieved by the warmth breath of spring sunshine.  I lose all ability to handle stress and instead, I find myself stuck swinging from panic to apathy, endlessly.  February is a hard time for me.  This year, I made it even harder.  I was hunkered down, as usual, prepared to doze away the month in mild depression, but, instead, I added more projects.  In addition to starting our Saturday rehearsals, I also spent February applying to grad school and moving into a new apartment (roommate-free!) with M.  Both are things that I truly want to do, but I will readily admit that both events were poorly timed.  Shortly afterward, I was finally forced to assess my mindset and its affect on my behavior, and, after a lot of ugly crying and a spoonful of resentment, I made myself come up with a plan to help me.  My plan to de-stress was all about self-care.  (That label makes me cringe at the cheesiness, even if the intent is so important).  Making time for me, treating myself well, engaging in activities that would make me happy and make me better.  To my surprise, when I finally settled on a list of activities, they were things like watching tv shows without multi-tasking and napping intentionally, without a guilt-trip.  Reading books.  Journaling.  Taking care of my hair.  Planning a garden.  Big things and little things to get back in touch with myself.  And, most crucially, a plan to continue all of these activities regularly.

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Fortunately, this quest for self-care coincided with the ground slowly beginning to thaw.  Our first sunny day was about a week into my new routine, and it has stayed either not-cold or sunny since then.  (There have been some warmish rainy days or cold, sunny ones, but spring is definitely on the way!) I’d like to think that my first forays into de-stressing have been exceptionally successful, but I think most of the credit has to go to the promise of Spring sunshine and warmth.  While Daylight Savings Time is still kicking my butt when I try to get out of bed each morning, the fact that it is just starting to grow dusky at 7:00pm is a huge relief.  I am so, so ready for Spring.  As part of my more conscious self-care, I am trying to return to more nutrient dense foods.  We re starting to figure out those little things that really “work” to help us feel great.  For M, its vegetables, tea tree oil, and being outside.  For me, its probiotics, healthy fats, and sunshine.  I know that I feel better with rich broths and healthy fats in my regular diet, so I am stocking up on bones, avocados, coconut milk, and fish.  (Some of my favorite vegetables–asparagus and artichokes–are, delightfully, back in season, too!)  We endured a trail of poor food choices and a lot of eating out during the moving process.  First we had to unpack, then we had to wait for pantry cabinets to arrive to store all of our dry foods (I’m still picking spices out of a moving box each night), then our oven was smoking horribly for a week where I wasn’t able to start dinner until 9:30pm and I was too afraid of setting off the fire alarm for our poor upstairs neighbors to allow the oven cleaner to burn off properly.  By the time that I was able to cook dinner–really cook dinner: chopping vegetables and simmering sauces and turning on the oven–I was blissful.  I had missed the routine of dinner prep.  Living the roommate-free life means I get to try new recipes as well.  I tried to be cautious with strong- or odd-smelling recipes, or those that took too prolonged of a cooking time, when we lived with other people.  I hadn’t really realized the weight of sharing a kitchen until it was lifted.  We have lived in our new apartment for exactly one month and I have already made two batches of stock from bones in my crockpot.  24 hours for chicken and four days of siphoning and replacing the liquid for beef bones.  I didn’t have to worry that the crockpot would be in the way, or that the smell of broth would get overwhelming.  Now, I can make whatever odd experiments I want.  I am sorely tempted to try brewing kombucha, but so far I am hesitant to forfeit anymore of my limited counter-space.  But a batch of vinegar-boiled potatoes and fried fish are coming back on our dinner menus soon!

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The bone broths were quite successful and very exciting.  My beef broth gelled! I ended up with about four quarts of broth after four days, so soup was definitely in order.  French Onion soup is one of my standbys.  One that I’ve now learned to make three different ways, given the time I have available to prepare dinner.  The addition of the rich bone broth made this soup even more delicious, adding a lovely silky quality to the broth.  As mentioned, I have three ways that I like to use to prepare this soup.  The first is the traditional recipe, where you caramelize the onions slowly, for nearly an hour, before constructing the soup.  The second is a quick-cook stovetop method, browning the onions over medium-high heat for about 15 minutes.  You get lovely color, though not quite as deep of a caramelization.  The third way is a crockpot method, started the night before you want to serve the soup.  This involves caramelizing the onions overnight in the crockpot and then adding all the other ingredients in the morning before allowing the flavors to meld in the slow cooker all day.  All three methods use the same ingredients and result in very similar soups.  Choose the method that best suits your prep time and enjoy!

P.S. Did you notice that I had to trade a gas stove (love!) for a glass top?  Boo!  Even so, I think it was a worthy compromise for our new place!

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French Onion Soup

  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 3-4 large sweet onions, thinly sliced
  • 1 clove of garlic, finely minced
  • 2 Tbsp sherry*
  • 4 cups beef broth (preferably bone broth/stock)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tsp. thyme
  • 2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 c. red wine**
  • Salt and pepper

To serve:

  • Bread
  • Shredded gruyere cheese
  • Butter

*If you wish to avoid alcohol, substitute an equal amount of beef broth

**If you wish to avoid alcohol, substitute an additional 1 Tbsp of balsamic vinegar + enough beef broth to make 1/2 c. of liquid

Traditional Method (Onion prep):

Melt the butter in the pan, coating the surface evenly, and then add the sliced onions.  Stir to coat the onions and allow to sweat over medium heat.  Over a few minutes, the onions will soften and turn translucent and finally begin to brown.  When the onions begin to turn color, turn the heat down to low and stir occasionally.  Over the course of an hour, the onions will condense caramelize to a deep brown.  Proceed with the recipe.

Quick Cooking Method (Onion prep):

Melt the butter in the pan, coating the surface evenly, and then add the sliced onions.  Stir to coat the onions and allow to sweat over medium-high heat.  Stir constantly.  Over a few minutes, the onions will soften and turn translucent and finally begin to brown.  Continue stirring over high-heat as the onions continue to brown to a deep amber.  Proceed with the recipe.

Traditional/Quick Cooking Methods (Soup prep):

Once the onions have caramelized, add the minced garlic.  Stir for 1-2 minutes until the garlic is fragrant.  Add the sherry and stir well to deglaze the pan.  Use your spatula to scrape the browned bits off the bottom of the pan.  Add the beef stock, bay leaf, thyme, balsamic vinegar, and wine.  Stir thoroughly and turn the heat to medium.  Bring to a simmer and allow to simmer for 10-15 minutes to combine the flavors.  Remove bay leaf before serving.  Salt and pepper to taste

While the beef is simmering, prep your bread.  Butter your bread and then decide on your method.  You can either broil the cheese on the bread separately to add to the soup, or wait until the soup is cooked, then ladle into oven-safe bowls, top with the bread and cheese and broil directly.  Broiling should only take 2-5 minutes, just enough time that the cheese melts and begins to bubble and turn brown.

Slow Cooker Method:

Coat the inside of a slow cooker crock with oil, then add the slice onions.  Turn the slow cooker on its lowest setting (8 or 10 hours) and allow the onions to cook over night.  In the morning, add the butter, minced garlic, and sherry to the slow cooker and stir well, until the butter is melted.  Add in the broth, bay leaf, thyme, balsamic vinegar, and red wine.  Reset the slow cooker to high for 4 hours or low for 8-10 hours and allow soup to cook.  Remove the bay leaf and add salt and pepper to taste before serving.  Broil the bread and cheese at meal time.