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Sunday, April 30, 2006

The slow and difficult bread soup: IMBB25

the slow and difficult soup

Really. I kid you not. This is a slow and difficult bread soup recipe.

If you are one of those people who are averse to doing anything slowly -and in the most difficult way possible- you might as well stop now. I am warning you.

You are still with me? Good! You're not still hoping I'm kidding you, are you? Because, let me say it again, I am not. The idea is hardly original, there is even a book on the subject. But then again, originality is just so…overrated. Heh.

This idea itself came to me in the most roundabout way possible. It began with my friend Derrick of Obsession with Food, who is hosting the current edition of Is My Blog Burning. Stale bread is the theme.

I've said here before that Pa amb Tomàquet might just be the best thing to do with stale bread, but this being May and not August so it's early yet for superlative tomatoes required for that Catalan bread dish.

My mind moved on to another good use of stale bread: bread soup. David reminded me of a French bread preparation called Panade, so I went digging in our cookbook library to find a classic recipe. Escoffier –strangely enough- didn't have a recipe for Panade at all. It may have been too provincial for him. Wait a minute, provincial, eh? Now that was a clue from on high. Who else to consult then but the king of the French provincial cuisine himself: Paul Bocuse?

There it was, in Paul Bocuse's Paul Bocuse's French Cooking, not so much a recipe, but a description.

A Panade is made with coarsely diced bread, sometimes fried in butter, and cooked in milk, which maybe diluted with water.

This soup has the consistency of a cream soup or velouté.
Generally hard bread or stale bread is used.

That was enough.

Since this is practically May already –and you know May is the Eat Local month- I thought I'd put a Northern California spin on this. I've been obsessed with cooking with Green Garlic recently, so I decided to do something a little different. Staying with the Spring crop theme, I'm going with young onions that we bought last weekend from Star Route Farm.

My mind raced to the most superlative onion dish I've ever had: gratin d'oignon doux at l'Arpège in Paris. In fact, I saw Alain Passard himself made it a few months ago in Carmel. Onions -sliced with a Mandolin into paper thin rounds- sauté in a pan with a lot of butter over very, very low flame for hours, until they become the sweetest and purest expression of onion-ness.

And that was that. That would be the onion in my soup. It would be very slow and it might even be difficult, but I was quite certain it would be worth it.

The Slow and Difficult Bread Soup

3 oz or roughly 2 cups of stale bread, trimmed and diced.
(Use only very good and flavorful bread for this or you will be sorry. Simple white bread simply will not do. I use Delle Fattoria's intense Pain au Levain.)
4 young onions or 2 medium onions (about 8oz)
3 cups whole milk
2 cups beef or veal stock
4 tbsp salted butter
salt and pepper
chives and crème fraîche to garnish

1. Cut the onions with a Mandolin into paper thin slices, using a bowl to catch the onion slices and any juice dripping from them.
2. Add the onion slices into a cold medium sauté pan. Break three tablespoons of the butter into small chunks and dot them throughout the pan. Let the pan sauté over extremely low flame, stirring only occasionally, for two hours. After the first 15 minutes, cut a round of parchement paper the size of the inside diameter of your pan and place it on top of the onion slices to keep some of the moisture from evaporating too quickly. Also, make sure that the flame is very low and the edges don't burn. The onion should pick up color very very slowly, and should not burn at all.
3. In a small sauce pan, reduce the beef or veal stock down to one quarter of the original volume. Set aside.
4. In another medium sauté pan, cook the diced bread with the rest of the butter until brown on all sides.
5. Remove the bread from the sauté pan into a medium pot. Pour the milk into the pot and let soak, with no heat, for at least one hour.
6. When the onion is done –looking like a pile of yellow mush with the most heady scent of sweet caramelized onions- add it to the bread and milk pot. Add the reduced stock and turn the heat on. When the mixture comes to a gentle boil, reduce the heat to low and let it simmer, covered and stirred occasionally, for 30 minutes.
7. After 30 minutes, add salt and pepper to taste.
8. Blend the soup, either with a hand blender or in a regular blender, until the texture becomes very smooth and creamy. Check the seasoning again after the blend.
9. Serve with a dollop of crème fraîche and finely chopped chives.

There you have it, a heavenly bowl of smooth and ever so creamy bread soup. The flavors are pure, yet far from simplistic. And they don't get there by accident. This soup begins with great ingredients that are cooked slowly and with care to let the flavors develop to the fullest.

With the rhythm and demand of this modern world, it's natural that we are often seduced by the promise of everything quick and easy. But occasionally, slow and difficult might be the way to go, don't you think? Try it, you might even like it better this way.

P.S. Do you know what the most difficult part of this recipe is? It's the self-control required to leave some of the delicious Della Fattoria's bread uneaten long enough so it would go stale in the first place!!

Local sources:

Bread: Pain au Levain from Della Fattoria
Milk and butter: Strauss Family Creamery
Crème Fraîche: Cowgirl Creamery
Young onions: Star Route Farm

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