Philly and Farro and Fennel… oh my!

This week in the Catalyst Cooks Kitchen, we’ve got some fun food goin’ on.  We’ve gone from 85 degrees in March to 55 in April, and as an homage to the bipolar seasons, my menu choices this week reflect warm comfort soup as well as hopeful and more ambitious spring flavors (carrot and kumquat.)

There are many ways to do a great French Onion Soup.  I’m sure there is a way that Julia Child would approve of, the way that they teach in culinary school, the way you’d learn if you went to a Classical French cooking basics at your local cooking school.

And then there’s my way, based on what I have on hand and what I’m feeling like that day.  I believe you can craft a great soup using  Soup Basics which includes 5 techniques:

  1. Aromatics: Thinly sliced onion and leek.  I used the food processor to slice the onions and leeks, and if I could go back I’d probably do it by hand as they ended up too finely sliced for my taste.
  2. Caramelize: I used a Cooking Light trick and heated 2 T olive oil, then added 1T butter and the onions and leeks.  Olive oil is a healthier fat than butter but this allows for a bit of that rich buttery taste to be incorporated.  I let the onions caramelize for 45 minutes to an hour to get to that nice rich brown color.
  3. Deglaze: Traditional French onion soup uses Sherry wine for this step but I didn’t have any on hand so I opened a bottle of my cherished Parley Lake Winery Chardonnay, added a cup and turned the heat up high.  Most of the alcohol burned off and the wine reduced by half…. but you can still tell it’s in there (Yum).
  4. Main Flavor/Supporting cast:  Traditional french onion soup uses beef broth but I added homemade chicken broth (which resulted in a lighter color.)  I brought the soup to a boil, reduced to simmer, threw in some thyme sprigs, and let it simmer for awhile.
  5. Spice: French onion soup is pretty straightforward, I didn’t add additional spices, but could have topped the soup with freshly cut chives (I can’t find them in my garden yet… I hope they’re still coming back!)  What does add some yumminess is a toasted piece of french bread with melted Gruyere.

Philly Cheesesteaks

For some reason, while I’m trying to reduce my meat intake, gosh once in awhile my mouth just waters when I see a picture of red meat.  I didn’t hesitate to book a night at a local steakhouse when Neighbor Dave’s friends suggested it.  And this week, I adapted a Cooking Light Recipe for Philly cheese steak sandwiches to fulfill my craving.

I seared 1 lb of flank steak after lightly seasoning with salt and pepper, until the middle registered 135 degrees.  While the steak was searing, I cut an onion and green pepper, and minced some garlic.  Once the meat was out and resting, covered, I sauteed the onions for a couple minutes and added the peppers and garlic and sauteed for a couple minutes more.  I thinly sliced the flank, added it to the pan, turned the heat to high and added a bit of red wine to deglaze the pan.  Put the meat mixture on some homemade rolls and topped with a small bit of horseradish and provolone, and put them under the broiler to melt.  Yum.

Birchwood’s Grain Carrot Cakes (with the Jen twist)

My most ambitious cooking this week involves my latest obsession, grains.  I made a traditional grain pilaf: wheatberries, farro and barley in chicken stock and flavored with aromatics (onions and mushrooms).  I then adapted a Birchwood Cafe recipe from the Minnesota Homegrown cookbook.  Result: Grain Carrot cakes (breaded with panko and lightly fried in canola oil) served over fresh fennel salad with kumquat pistachio topping.  I put a cute carrot on top of each cake, using the carrot coulis (my coulis did not turn out nearly as bright as the one in the cookbook picture- not sure why, another interesting cooking challenge to tackle) and a pesto I made from the carrot greens.  They are filling, and except for the broth used in the pilaf preparation, vegetarian too.


What’s cooking in your kitchen this week?  I’m in need of inspiration, if you are hungry for something- tell me what it is and you just might score a dinner invite to my place to taste it!

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