To Brew a Cauldron of Roots and Bones
by Catherine Harper
When the year turns, the earth is less gentle, and the outdoors is no longer safe. The soft green woods of summer are now stripped bare and home to winds and rain. For light and warmth, we must retreat inside, even in the gentle clime of Puget Sound, where we are sheltered by the mountains and the extremities of season are kept at bay by the vast thermal mass of the ocean.
All at once, it seems, it is autumn, and past the drawn-out golden harvest and into the dark days and rain. There may be a few peppers and tomatoes left to us, but the season has turned from fruit to fallow. For the gardener, there are a few hardy greens, the squash lying amidst their shriveling vines and the late apples. For the forager, there are a few roots and the cool-weather fruiting of mushrooms. But the focus has changed from the fields and orchards to the kitchens, pantries and root cellars, from what is fresh to what can be saved for later use.
After the extravagance of the autumn harvest, it is a good time to contemplate the dark season. All that is left of the corn are the stalks in the field; in the orchard, the branches are bare. The supermarkets bring us strange and often illusory delights from far distant lands (yes, one can have hothouse strawberries in winter, or bland and mealy fruits picked too early and ripened far from their trees, but do the limp imitations you may purchase feed your body any better than they do your soul?). But you still may take a step back and look at the land around you, and recall both to the mind and table the humble foods that are still with us.
Consider, then, the onion.
The origins of onions are hidden back in the misty recesses of antiquity. There are wild onions known and enjoyed throughout the world, and by the time the pyramids were built the onion was widely cultivated. Herodotus records indeed that the builders of the pyramids sustained their strength on a diet of “radishes, onions and leeks,” and onions and bread were the staple diet of workers throughout the greater region. The Egyptians honored their onions, and were well-known in the ancient world for the quality of their leeks. But by the Roman period, while the leeks were considered a fit item for the tables of emperors, the onions, though grown in vast quantities, were confirmed in their place on the poor man’s table.
In the garden, it is easy to see why the onion has been so embraced by those lacking in both time and money. It is a hardy plant, resistant to disease and pests, and needing little in the way of cultivation. A bit of rich soil, perhaps a quick weeding once or twice during the year, and the tiny shoots you planted that looked like nothing more than frail blades of grass send up a tower of sturdy, pungent greenery, and then below ground swell into plump bulbs.
In our own kitchens, onions are ever present, and yet little regarded. They are so often used as a flavoring agent that I suspect few people realize how much they contribute to the bulk of a dish, and so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget how much flavor they add, while their cousins garlic and shallot get most of the press. Few vegetables have ever carried so much weight with so little notice. In the store, there are always onions, vast piles of onions, cheap and long-lasting. Red onions and white, yellow onions in their darker skins, pearl onions and boiling onions, green onions, dried onions and french-fried onions.
I think too little thought often goes into the selection of onions. Red onions and white onions are sold, usually at a jacked-up price, peeled and trimmed, a form in which they must be kept refrigerated. This allows you to get a good look at the onions and is undoubtedly more convenient, if one is willing to pay twice the price and use the onion swiftly. The yellow onions, our local most common staple, are sold only untrimmed and often poorly sorted. And yet a good yellow onion will sit like a bronze pearl, filling its skin smoothly with no trace of bruising or of the black powdery mold that likely infests many of its neighbors. I have been laughed at by produce clerks for my careful selection of onions, but I have never regretted looking closely. (Onions in bags, while cheap and convenient, I have often regretted, in part because the bag often prevents close inspection, and onions only last a long time if they are intact.)
When I was first on my own, at 15 finding myself abruptly responsible for my own sustenance, I kept my ears always open as I made my way through the produce aisle. One day, I overheard a woman talking of the labor of feeding a family after a long day at work herself. “When I get home, sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to make, and no one else wants to wait at all. But my mother told me a trick — chop up and fry an onion in a pan, and you’ll buy yourself some time. When they smell that onion coming out of the kitchen, they’ll sit back and wait, because they know it’s going to be good.”
Or consider the venerable soup bone.
It is a curious reversal that the thrifty old art of boiling meaty bones for soup, and the great equalizer of the soup pot where the taste of the ingredients is shared by all even if the best pieces might not be, has become something of a mark of culinary distinction. True cooks now build their stock with love, patience, time and often fairly expensive ingredients. Indeed, it is common now for a stock to be made for soup, after which the meat the stock was drawn from is thrown away and replaced by fresh pieces for the finished product.
I can’t quite see that. From a technique point, yes, this is a fine way to build a soup, but to rob meat of its flavor and yet little of its nutrients and then to throw the meat away… perhaps there is a time and a place for such extravagance, but not in my kitchen, as late autumn mutters of the coming of winter. There are generations enough of hungry dead.
Soup bones are almost an anachronism to most home cooks. They come from a time when people were more comfortable with the animal origins of their meat, when larger roasts were more common and yet also more dear, and when people took care to extract all the nutrients they could from their food. Today, one is more likely to see beef “stew meat” for sale, though this ignores that the purpose of a soup bone isn’t only meat, but tendon, cartilage, connective tissue and even marrow. (A dear friend of mine, retired lawyer and accomplished Jewish mother, informs me that the curative powers of matzoh ball soup reside in the gelatin leached out of the chicken. I hesitate at such a reductionist explanation, but the theory is the same. A good rich homemade broth will thicken and even solidify when cold.)
Onion Lemon Soup with Mushrooms
This soup has Greek avgolemono in its ancestry, but it has become vegetarian and shifted its focus to include the onions and mushrooms that form the base of the stock. The onions must be thoroughly caramelized.
The dried mushrooms in this recipe can be six or so good-sized shiitake mushrooms, reconstituted in warm water and then sliced, or a slightly smaller quantity of dried porcini, matsutake or other strong-tasting wild mushroom — chantrelles, delicately flavored as they are, would be lost. One could also substitute a cup or fresh shiitake or porcini for both the dried and fresh mushrooms, or use some combination thereof. I’m afraid this really only qualifies as poverty food if you hunt your own mushrooms, considering the prices wild mushrooms command, though during my impoverished years I sometimes found dried mushrooms in the marked-down bin.
- 1 or 2 large onions (yellow or white) chopped
- Olive oil
- 3 to 6 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped
- 1 cup button mushrooms, sliced
- Dried mushrooms
- 2 cups cooked rice
- 1 bay leaf
- Salt, pepper
- Juice of two lemons
- 2 egg yolks
- 2 quarts water, plus an additional &fraq14; cup
In a thick-bottomed pot, caramelize the onions in olive oil over medium heat until they are thoroughly brown. (If they begin to stick to the bottom of the pan too badly, you may deglaze the pan by pouring in a few tablespoons of water and stirring vigorously, until the water boils off and you resume caramelizing.) Add the garlic and mushrooms and continue to cook, stirring gently, until the mushrooms are tender.
Add two quarts of water, the rice and the bay leaf, bring soup to a simmer, and let it simmer for 20 minutes or so. Add salt and pepper, taste the broth and correct the seasoning if needed. (Add more salt, more mushrooms or perhaps a teaspoon or so of molasses.)
Remove pot from heat while you juice the lemons and separate the eggs.
Add lemon juice. Beat the egg yolks. Beat in about a quarter cup of lukewarm water. Then beat in a half-cup of broth from your soup. (The idea here is for the egg yolks to blend smoothly with the broth and not to cook too quickly.) Finally, whisk the egg and broth mixture into your soup, and return the soup to the burner, over medium low heat. Return to the barest simmer, gently, then remove from heat and serve
Beef Bone Barley
This soup is based on a savory, layered broth that still uses all of its edible parts. The bones and raw and roasted meat add richness and complexity to the broth.
- 1 soup bone
- 1 small package beef stew meat
- 1 cup barley
- 1 onion, chopped
- 3 or 4 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 or 3 carrots (optional)
- 2 or 3 stalks celery (optional)
- 1 bay leaf
- 5 to 10 peppercorns
- 1 glug of red wine, if available
For the soup bone, if you do not have easy access to a neighborhood butcher, nose around in your grocery’s meat department. Often bones for soup are hidden in the frozen section. I’d recommend a nice joint, if possible, and don’t worry too much about whether it has meat on it, as you’ll be adding meat later. Ox tails are never a bad thing, either, though they make for a very rich soup.
Cover your soup bone in cold water in a thick-bottomed pot, and then slowly heat the pot over a low burner. Seek a stable temperature just at the edge of simmering, cover and allow to stew overnight.
A few hours before dinnertime, remove the soup bone and discard. Add half your stew meat to the pot, and roast the other for some 20 minutes in a 350-degree oven. Add the roasted meat as well to the pot. Add the cup of barley, cover and continue simmering.
Forty minutes or so before dinner, add the onion, garlic, carrots, celery, bay leaf and peppercorns. Add your glug of wine, and quickly cover and return to simmering.
In the last few minutes before serving, add salt, remove the bay leaf and taste the broth. Add more salt, wine or fresh ground pepper if needed.