When you think of a pantry, what comes to mind?
Tins of tuna?
Cans of Spaghetti-O's?
Big boxes of cereal from the big-box store?
For me, pantry means any ingredient used frequently in the creation of other dishes. Beans, pasta, sugar, flour, spices, oil, vinegar, vanilla, mustard and mayo — all belong in a cook's pantry. I stock frozen items, too, like peas and pearl onions, that feature in recipes for stews and soups. And there are the perishables that I use in many of my recipes: lemons, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, yogurt, garlic, and onions.
This notion of fresh foods in the pantry isn't at all far-fetched; the word pantry derives from the Middle English pantrie, from Old French paneterie, from panetier (pantry servant), from panis, which is Latin for bread; originally, the pantry was where bread was stored, and where food prep was done.
Very few savory dishes come out of my kitchen without onions somewhere in the preparation. I can't think of a single cuisine that doesn't use some form of onion as an essential flavoring. Without onions (and shallots, and scallions, and leeks) we'd have no poulet yassa, no basque lamb stew, no Croatian beef in onion sauce, no onion bhajji, no spring onion bread, no pissaladiere.
The National Onion Association has collected lots of onion trivia: eat parsley to get rid of onion breath; Libya has the highest per capita consumption of onions; the Beatles' song "Glass Onion" is on the White Album; there are fewer than 1,000 commercial onion growers in the US.
And there are dozens of suggestions for how to cut onions without crying. Some are ridiculous (chop onions under running water), or just plain frightening (cut onions next to a gas stove with the burners turned on), but the swim goggles thing really works (Pauline proved it, in one of our group cooking sessions!).
Store onions in a cool, dry, ventilated place, not in plastic bags or in the refrigerator. I pile mine in a large wooden bowl, right on the countertop, where they keep company with a few heads of garlic and rarely languish for more than a week or so.
Soupe a l'oignon, maison (French onion soup)
Homemade French Onion Soup, from Julia herself. The French Chef, episode 97. Serves 6.
A heavy 4-quart saucepan or casserole
3 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp olive oil or cooking oil
About 1-1/2 lbs or 5-6 cups thinly sliced yellow onions
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
3 Tbsp flour
2 quarts hot beef bouillon (you may dilute canned bouillon with 2 cups of water)
1 cup red or white wine
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp sage
Salt and pepper to taste
Melt the butter with the oil in the saucepan or casserole, add the sliced onions and stir up to coat with the butter. Cover the pan and cook over moderately low heat for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onions are tender and translucent. Then unover the pan, raise heat to moderately high, and stir in the salt and sugar. (Sugar, by caramelizing, helps onions to brown.) Cook for about 30 minutes, stirring frequently, until onions have turned an even deep golden brown.
Then lower heat to moderate, stir in the flour, and add a bit more butter if flour does not absorb into a paste with the onions. Cook slowly, stirring continually, for about 2 minutes to brown the flour lightly. Remove from heat.
Pour in about a cup of the hot bouillon, stirring with a wire whip to blend flour and bouillon. Add the rest of the bouillon and the wine, bay, and sage, and bring to the simmer. Simmer slowly for 30 to 40 minutes, season to taste with salt and pepper, and the soup is done. If you are not serving immediately, let cool uncovered, then cover and refrigerate.
Serve with French bread and grated Parmesan cheese.
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