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Thursday, May 6, 2010

James Beard For the Common Folk

The day the James Beard Foundation announced the finalists for the cookbook awards, Michael went to Morris Book Shop , owned by Wyn Morris, and bought me all the nominated cookbooks. Nice.  I love looking through them, reading them, and cooking from them. Recently, I made some pickled  grapes, radishes, and watermelon  from The Lee Bros.: Simple Fresh Southern cookbook and took them to a post Derby Housewarming potluck brunch.  Our monthly brunches are  serious foodie brunches and these pickles were a surprise. Not ordinary or expected.  Odd and delicious.
Lidia Bastianich's Lidia Cooks From The Heart Of Italy, the companion cookbook to her PBS culinary travelogue, was another James Beard nominated cookbook that Michael picked up that day.  It is a lovely cookbook that chronicles her travels throughout all the regions of Italy and showcases simple regional cooking.  You can taste the food you are reading about.
A couple of nights ago, I wanted something simple to cook for dinner and came across a recipe from the Calabria Region  that drew me in. Zuppa di Cipolla.  Onion Soup.  Specifically, soup made with Tropea La Rosa di Tropea or red onions from the town of Tropea.  They are super sweet onions that are tubular shaped and look like large shallots.  The recipe could not have been simpler.  Satueed onions, garlic, tomato broth, toasted bread, cheese, and water.  Easy. 
Simple recipes with simple ingredients require beautiful ingredients. Check.  Easy. So, off I went for simple excellent ingredients.
In her cookbook, Lidia Bastianch substitutes Tropea onions with sweet yellow onions.  I chose sweet tender mild shallots sliced very thin. Being tiny, I needed alot of shallots.
After slicing them thinly, I sauteed them in olive oil until soft adding minced garlic midway through their cooking.  Once they were sweet and soft I deglazed the pan with chicken stock and added hand crushed whole La Regino imported san marzano tomatoes.  I brought the soup to a boil and let it simmer away for 45 minutes, smelling heavenly.
Unlike its distant cousin French Onion Soup, which has melted and caramelized cheese covered croutons  on top of the soup, this Calabrian version has the crouton under the soup.  Hmmmm.  Think about it.
While the soup simmered, I happily prepared the crouton cushion.  I split a mini ciabatta, slathered it with butter, and completely covered the bread with thick slices of fresh mozzarella cheese.
When the soup was ready and it was time eat, I placed the oozing cheese laden bread in the bottom of large pasta bowls,  drenched the cheese toast with the long-cooked melted onions, and ladled the tomato broth over and around the entire bowl along with fresh grated pecorino. With apologies to Lidia and the people of Calabria, I finished the soup with untraditional crisp fried shallot rings for added crunch and flavor.

I adore French Onion soup.  This zuppa di cipolla was onion soup with attitude.  Though tomato based, it wasn't tomato heavy.  It was a tomato broth.  A light well seasoned broth packed with sweet acidic san marzano tomato goodness. It wasn't crackly and crunchy on top. It was soft and languid. The fresh mozzarella infused toast absorbed the broth from the bottom of the bowl which allowed the stringy taffy cheese to pull up from the soup slowly like a well tanned beautiful naked Brazillian woman stepping out of the lapping sea on the shores of Rio. Check. 
It was fabulous. Different and unusual.  Unexpected. Deep.
Neither of these cookbooks won the James Beard Award, but they are both winners for the common folk.

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