Simple Stunners: Caramelized Onions

I wanted to open this post with a movie clip from RED 2; you know, the part where they’re driving away, and Sarah asks if there is a human being in the trunk and Marvin answers: “Yeah, I’ve been caramelizing his onions for a couple of days.”

I give you permission to laugh out loud for a couple of minutes. Its just so good. But…… I couldn’t find the movie clip.

Clearly.

Otherwise it would be here.

So just do yourself a favor and watch the whole movie instead. Right now.

 

…………. OK, so now its time to figure out what you did wrong while trying to caramelize onions.

Three things are necessary to succeed in this endeavor of caramelizing onions (wow, typing the word caramelizing is really difficult. Seriously. Try it.): a heavy bottomed pan. Butter. Brown sugar.

Oops, I actually meant four, cuz the fourth one is: patience. This is because it takes at least ten minutes for the onions to reach the translucent, very-cooked stage. It also takes patience to keep the heat on low, because it is soooooooooooo tempting to just crank it to speed up the process; and what do you think happens instead of the expected result of speeding up the process? Yup, they burn. You’re right.

So here’s the method. Put your heavy bottomed pan on medium high heat for two minutes. Add a couple tablespoons of butter to the pan (the amount depends on the amount of onion; I would say that 1 tblsp. per onion should start you off pretty well, but you will probably have to add more.) and wait until the butter is completely melted. (You can use oil, it just won’t taste quite as good.) The pan is on too high of heat if the butter starts browning really fast.

Add your onions to the pan. The chopping method is something like: cut the ends off the onions and then place them flat side down on the board and cut them in half and pull the skins off. Then put the new flat side down on the board, and slice as thinly as you can, in the same direction as you cut the ends off. Get it?

So you’ve added your chopped onion to the pan. Now you lower the heat, and you let them sweat. A little color isn’t the worst thing, but, honestly, it just isn’t necessary, so don’t worry about browning them at all, just cook them and cook them until they are absolutely limp. Depending on how good your pan is, and how hot your stove-top is, this is going to take 10 to 15 minutes. As they soften, the butter will brown slowly little by little, and so will the onions.

However, they will not truly caramelize until you add the brown sugar. This is how its done, people. Brown sugar. I mean, how do you think caramel is made, anyways? So dump a couple tablespoons of brown sugar into your very soft, totally translucent onions, and stir it carefully, while you try not to drool onto your beautiful onions. Cook on a still very low heat, for about 7 or 8 minutes, until the onion are deliciously dark brown and sticky and taste amazing. Also, season them at some point, it doesn’t really matter when; the salt especially brings out the flavor, as it balances out the sweetness.

Remember, you can always add more of anything, but you cannot take away. Err on the side of caution when it comes to adding the sugar; you don’t want to over do it and ruin all your hard work.

A really awesome optional addition would also be balsamic vinegar. Again, add it a little at a time. It just goes so well with the sweetness, and adds loads to that signature stickiness that you want.

This wordy tutorial is the first in a series of basic recipes that are what I think of as “showstoppery”. Which clearly is not a word, but should be. Basically, not many ingredients, simple method, but fantastic results.

Caramelized onions bring to mind French Onion Soup (yes, that is why it is so good), quiche, grilled cheese, potatoes, a topping for pretty much any vegetable, and whatever else you feel like on any given day. They’re versatile, which is always a good quality in food I think, and. they. taste. amazing. Enjoy!

 

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Restaurant Recollections: How Service Works

Two weeks into my new job, I started to realize that I was an anomaly in this business, and had become indispensable to the team. That might sound wildly egotistical, but it was the truth. The slowness and apathy of my coworkers startled me every day, even when I thought I had seen the worst of it. Most of them didn’t go so infuriatingly slow on purpose; they just didn’t have any incentive to do a good job, or any care for food or customer service.

While it was a blessing to be the best worker, besides my two awesome Persian friends, Pardis and Valeska, who both happened to be women (go figure!), it also meant that I got stuck working just the salad and sushi station for a solid four months or so. Being on top of it and keeping the station together means that you won’t be able to move on from that station for a long time. It was fun though, especially when I was scheduled with Pardis or Valeska, or both, and if the sushi rice was cooked correctly. The three of us had a blast, because we all did our part and coordinated well, which means we would also get out of there before everyone else. Line cooking doesn’t just involve cooking the food for the tickets; as a night worker, you also have to close up all the food and clean all the stainless steel. Thank God The Beach House was big enough to hire a floor cleaner. I sure hope I don’t have to explain why this was so nice. But the cleaning still took forever. And everything has to get stocked and wrapped in plastic wrap for the lunch service the next day.

Service works like this: the tickets print as the servers punch them in. All the different stations received the entire order. If there were only salads or cold foods on the bill or ticket, you make them right away because the table has not ordered any other hot food. If there is no item made on your station on the bill, you smile evilly, crunch it up dramatically, and toss it in the trash (or, alternatively, punch it dramatically onto the spike.) On the other hand, if there is a salad and a steak on the bill, you have to wait until the steak is being plated to make your salad. It’s a simple concept, but gets very complicated very fast.

I used to work in a restaurant where the tickets were hand-written.(And yes, I give you permission to try to imagine all the different types of handwriting that servers can produce. Its mind-numbing.) There was no electronic system because the place was so small. The ticket holders were the same everywhere though. And I am still amazed that they actually work. I mean, really, how is it possible that those little silver balls actually hold on to the paper. This must be a freak of physics.

Anyhow, to get back to why line cooking gets really complicated really fast. 2 or 3 tickets is fine, easy to keep straight. But now imagine ten, and they all have a different mixture of fry foods, salads, saute station, and grill. (And they are covered in modifications (mods) and little extras people want added to what is ACTUALLY ON THE MENU (why did you come here again?! I mean this is a seafood restaurant, and you are allergic to seafood!! I don’t appreciate you putting your life in my hands on a whim!!)) The entire line is trying to communicate their ticket times to each other over the noise of the fan (oh, yeah, the fan. More on that later) the ovens the fryers the banging of pots and pans from the line and the dish pit the splutter and hiss of food cooking the creaking of equipment the banging of plates. Or the line cooks aren’t communicating, and instead the servers are yelling at everyone trying to get their tables put up. Which is much less desirable than option one. Believe me. Because servers are worried about making their tips, something we lowly line cooks are much less concerned about.

Those are pretty much your two options. Line cooks who communicate and those who don’t. It’s the biggest skill a kitchen worker needs to have. Not just because it keeps the restaurant running smoothly, but because that worker will get his ass kicked if he isn’t communicating. Which usually results in someone from another station coming over to get him out of the weeds, and then everyone being pissed at him for the rest of the night for messing up their awesome service. No big deal. Not communicating means later/longer clean up time, which is something everyone hates, even the guy who caused it.

But a good service is one of the most rewarding and exhilarating things in the world. (While some might be tempted to argue this point, I would suggest that they try it first.) And spiking that last ticket, after completely demolishing about twenty-four of them in an hour, is so awesome. Giving your station coworker a high-five (if they were any help) and knowing that you just flawlessly executed so many dishes, that feels so good. And you know what, it even feels good when you don’t flawlessly execute them, because in a place like the Beach House, which made every sauce from scratch, you have confidence in the yumminess of the food, and that it made someone, or 300 someones, happy.

What I Ate: My Guide to Vancouver

I did actually make something this week. Which I could technically write about here, on this post that is technically supposed to be what I MADE, but……. I just ate too much good food on the trip I took last week, and I must talk about it.

The thing I loved most about living in Vancouver, besides the daily panorama of the ocean, was the food. Small town life can’t offer the variety and surprises in ethnic foods that the big city has in spades. So the planning of my recent visit there revolved mostly around food. The food I knew I needed to eat there that does not exist where I live now.

Ironically, the first thing I have to talk about is not food, but drink, and is readily available everywhere. But the roast I have in mind is specific to Vancouver, and tastes as unique as a unicorn would look nowadays. In other words, this coffee is like no other. And its JJBean. And its awesome. And it is the first must in my guide to Vancouver.

So moving on to actual food, there are literally hundreds of sushi places in this city, probably thousands. And they are all fantastic and very affordable. So we had sushi on Friday night. And it was so yummy. But the real story here is that my sis made us try tamago, which is a random strange sort of sushi dessert, lightly sweetened eggs, cooked in a special folded over pattern, and served with sushi rice. I know, crazy. But it was actually…………sort of good……………in a very weird sushi-ish way.

The next day was Granville Island time, and the highlight of this was the amazing Gelato that I had never tried before. They had Ferrero Rocher gelato. Made in house. I mean, I ask you, does it get any better than that? I also gave into my cravings at the market, and bought weird cheese and specialty salami, and feta-stuffed olives (I won’t be forgetting those soon) and parsley and garlic olives. Wow. I still do not know how people who do not like olives survive.

AND, I must bore you with yet another drink must have: Barrel-aged gin. It is caramel colored, doesn’t taste like gin at all really, and is made in the Granville Island Distillery. Unbelievable. And worth every penny.

I cannot go through every thing I ate, because it would take way to long, so I will leave you with an idea of something sort of Turkish/Persian/Middle Eastern called chicken shawarma, which is the most flavorful charred fantastic chicken you will ever taste. Whether its in a pita wrap or dumped over rice, it doesn’t matter. It is one of my favorite things about Vancouver. We get it at a place called Al Basha, along with falafel and all their other house made goodness. Its insane. Argh, I’m starting to salivate just thinking about it. Jamie Oliver has a shawarma recipe in his Comfort Food cookbook but I have yet to try it.

Oh, and there is also the amazing chicken tomato chili that my sisters made, and that we demolished because it was so good. and the knock your socks off chai place. Like I said, this would literally never end. So I shall say farewell, and hope that my word-vomit on all things food in Vancouver wasn’t too unbearable.

Ciao!!

Flavor to Savor: Cumin

I am a little saddened to be the purveyor of the rather unfortunate news that traveling for vacation has, for me at least, the effect of dulling one’s inclination toward creative pursuits (wait, did I just claim that this is a creative pursuit? Haha.) Even though I have found this to be true, it doesn’t mean that the vacation was completely unproductive. In fact, I was blessed to be able to try food both new and old. Fantastic sushi, tamago, olives, gelato, doughnuts, shawarma, falafel, coffee, pastries and Indian. More on all these amazing experiences is forthcoming, but it just so happens that I purposefully mentioned Indian food last, as today I must finally actually complete the blog post on cumin that I tried to start before my vacation (!), and cumin just so happens to be a really big component of Indian cooking. I concede that it is just one facet of the amazing plethora of flavors that is Indian cooking, but nevertheless I do believe that it is my favorite of them all.

Cumin is a spice, usually sold in a dry powder, that is ground from the seeds of a flowering plant. As I tried to do research on this my most favorite of spices, I could find nothing that was really interesting about it. And apparently all people have to say about its flavor is that it is “nutty and peppery” (what?!) and is often confused with caraway.

Since I find caraway to be one of the most disgusting things on the planet (clearly no bias here) I am disappointed by this vulgar association. And by the fact that no one can say anything more exciting about cumin than that it is nutty and peppery. These descriptions are far to vague and off the mark for my taste, and while I understand that reading a description of a flavor is not the most exciting thing, I am pretty sure it could and should be more exciting than that.

Also, the only interesting historical things I ran into were long and exhaustive lists about all its health benefits. While I am glad to hear that my joy in eating it is not ill-founded, I do not find these lists anything interesting or noteworthy. I you, dear reader, would like to read them yourself, feel free to type “cumin” into google.

I digress. Moving on; cumin does not remotely taste like caraway. Instead, cumin enjoys the distinction of being the only spice necessary for a great guacamole, and the spice that gives a great curry its mellowness. It is the softness behind the bite of that amazing Indian curry you had the other day (oh, wait, was that just me?) I do not think of it as peppery at all. It shares some of the spiciness of chile powder, but none of the kick.

I could go on forever. 🙂 My advice? Try it yourself, and not just in guacamole and curry. Get adventurous with your cumin cravings. Its worth it.