Beautiful shallots, beautifully braided, from Morgan and Ben Tartakoff, whom we met at the Dallas (WI) Farmers Market last summer.
To get right to the point, I think if one wants to understand the delicious mysteries of French--or of Italian, Spanish, or even Chinese--cooking, a really good place to start is to learn more about onions. Or rather, perhaps I should say, we ought to explore the many expressions of the allium family, lilies all, many beautiful, some poisonous if ingested, but many others exquisitely edible.
I've been flipping through some vintage cookbooks recently, and one thing that has struck me (along with that whole canned soup thing), is how timidly flavored many of the recipes are. Now, I'm all for simplicity, but when your palate of flavors goes no further than salt, pepper, and a bit of onion, that seems like a recipe for monotony. Rarely in these sorts of mid-century middle-American dishes will you even see a clove of garlic. A scallion is something rather exotic. Leeks, shallots? Unheard of.
Along with making your own stocks, I think adding more alliums to your cooking is one of the main keys to big, savory flavors in home cooking. And come to mention it, adding more alliums to your stocks--the tough outer layers of leeks, trimming of shallots, bits of scallion greens--makes them that much better, too. It's a synergistic thing....
Now, by no means to I mean to dismiss the contributions of the everyday onion, yellow, red, white, what have you. Those are still the most-used alliums in my kitchen. But when you move into the realm of leeks and shallots, you get layers of flavor, both savory and sweet, and, I'd have to think, wickedly umami, just utterly delicious. A lot of times when we're heading out to our cabin in Wisconsin, I'll nip into our garden in Saint Paul and pull a leek out of the ground, peel off the dirty parts and toss it on top of the groceries tote. In the hour and a half it takes to drive to Bide-A-Wee, the car fills up with such an appetizing aura, it's like being inside a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos--I mean, if those things were actually good, instead of being fake-good.
And shallots are another beautiful onion-family member you ought to get to know. They're becoming more common, though you still won't find them everywhere. They can be pricey in grocery stores, cheaper at Asian markets, usually very reasonable at farmers markets. Used raw in small doses, like in a sauce mignonette to drizzle on a raw oyster, or minced in a vinaigrette, they bring a pungent kick. Sliced and sautéed to serve over a steak or chop, they make for magical bistro deliciousness. Employed more liberally, whole or halved, added towards the end of a long braise, so you can still pick them out in the final dish, they're mellow and toothsome, sweet and savory at once, with still a little vegetable crunch.
And then, cooked a long time, they become a sort of jam, so utterly edible that, once you take a bite, it's hard to stop eating. You could do this same thing with onions. I took half the basic jam this recipe below produces, warmed it up with a quarter-cup of heavy cream, and served it beside warmed smoked herring. I served what seemed an ample portion on the plate with the fish, brought the leftovers to the table in a little bowl. It's all a little fuzzy now, but by the end of the meal I think Mary and I were fighting to lick the last drop from the bowl. I'm pretty sure Mary won....
Then the other half, we served that plain as a condiment on a lovely charcuterie plate, all store-bought, mostly from the excellent Seward Co-op. Oh, brave new world, that has such speck and coppa picante in it!
At lower right. The stuff is not too photogenic, but it's damn good:
8 ounces gray shallots, sliced ¼-inch thick
2 Tbsp butter
½ cup sweet apple cider
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
1 large clove garlic, sliced
¼ cup water
3 sprigs thyme
¼ tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan melt the butter over medium heat. Add the shallots and the ¼ tsp salt. Cook gently, stirring frequently, for 6 minutes, until the shallots are much reduced in volume and starting to look and smell a bit caramelized. Stir in the garlic and a few grinds of black pepper. Cook for 2 minutes. Add the cider, vinegar, water and thyme, bring to a simmer; cook at a quick simmer until almost all the liquid is gone. Taste for seasoning.
You can take the recipe to this point several days ahead of time. You can serve this jammy mixture--as is or with the addition of a spoon of grain mustard--alongside charcuterie or a cheese plate, or on a turkey sandwich.
To make the warm sauce to serve with warm smoked fish and steamed fingerling potatoes: Combine half the shallot-cider reduction with ¼ cup heavy cream. Warm gently, stirring. Serve with smoked herring, whitefish, or lake trout, wrapped in foil and warmed in a 400 degree oven.
Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw