Recipe Project #9 and 10: Szechuan String Beans and French Onion Soup

I’m thinking I should aim for writing recipes that are more like this wonderful one from Mig. But with fewer avalanches and rampaging chickpeas. That said, here’s what we were up to this week.

Szechuan String Beans:

Szechuan String Beans by Mr. Husband

We’ve been in search of a solid recipe for Szechuan String Beans for years now — ever since we moved to the Twin Cities, where not all that many Chinese restaurants serve them. It’s been a journey through oven methods and greasy formulations and odd flavor balances. We’ve made recipes from Chinese cookbooks and purportedly Szechuan cookbooks and from Cook’s Illustrated and from random blogs. Finally, Mr. Husband picked up a $12.99 cookbook that is simply titled Asian: the essential recipe collection and made this, and it’s our new favorite.

5.5 oz. green beans, trimmed and cut diagonally into 3-4 pieces (we make more than this)
2 tbsp vegetable or peanut oil
4 dried thai chiles, cut into 2-3 pieces
1/2 tsp Szechuan peppers (available in Asian groceries and online)
1 garlic clove, finely sliced
6 thin slices of fresh gingerroot
2 scallions, white part only, cut diagonally into thin pieces
pinch of sea salt

Blanch the beans in a large pan of boiling water for 30 seconds. Drain and set aside. In a preheated wok or deep pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil. Over low heat, stir-fry the beans for about 5 minutes, or until they are beginning to wrinkle. Remove from the wok and set aside. Add the remaining oil and stir-fry the chiles and peppers until they are fragrant. Add the garlic, gingerroot, and scallions and stir-fry until they begin to soften. Throw in the beans and toss, and then add the sea salt and serve immediately.

Soupe a l’Oignon Gratinee, or French Onion Soup:

During a break in the CCR 760 seminar last week, Mike Frasciello said that this bit from my first Recipe Project post had intrigued him:

But really, French Onion Soup is this story: “It’s cold and I’m hungry and all I have is this bunch of onions I grew in the dirt, some old bread, a bottle of okay but not very good wine, a leftover bone, and a heel of cheese. What can I make with this that will be awesome?”

He asked me for a recipe for such a soup, and I was so thrilled to have a request for this project that I went right out and bought an extra couple pounds of onions. It’s a very easy soup to make, assuming that you’ve set aside about three hours to construct it. The flavor depends almost entirely on your patience for sweating and browning the onions. (Well, on that and on two different types of booze.)

Onions for soup, before and after.

Good, well-cared-for equipment will make your life immensely easier as you do this. A freshly sharpened knife will make slicing through a pound and a half of onions much quicker and safer. (Mine is like this Farberware apparatus, but with a different handle.) And a heavy-ass pan is essential for browning something this long, because otherwise it will scorch. If you couldn’t kill someone with the pan, then it’s too light.

The steps are simple: sweat the onions for 15 minutes in oil and butter, then add salt and sugar and brown them for about 40 minutes. You’ll need to stir them more and more frequently as you go along. When they’re a deep, golden brown, add boiling beef stock and half a cup of wine. (Since I live near the Finger Lakes, which excels at Rieslings, I used a 2007 Wiemer Riesling. You could use just about anything dry or semi-dry and drinkable, though.) Add salt and pepper and let it simmer for another half hour. Then turn off the heat and add a couple-three tablespoons of cognac. (It’s perfectly tasty without this, but adding it moves the whole thing up a level. You don’t need super-expensive small-batch sipping cognac, unless you have it lying around; I used Raynal VSOP napoleon brandy.) You could stop there, but I wanted to go the whole cheesy nine yards, so I decanted it into bowls, threw in some slivers of Emmentaler, some rounds of stale, crusty baguette, and topped it off with more grated cheese. Into the oven for another twenty minutes, and here you go:

Julia's French Onion Soup

It was really rather lovely on a single-digit winter night, served with the rest of the bottle of wine. And it gave me an excuse to spend a few hours in the kitchen, alternating between fiddling at the stove and reading for my seminar. You can find the recipe version I used here (it’s the one from Mastering the Art of French Cooking,) but the whole thing is really very flexible. Here’s Julia and Jacques Pepin making it in another way, with red wine and herbs and gruyere. Even if you don’t care about the variation, you should watch for no other reason than than Julia tells Jacques he has asbestos mouth after sipping some boiling soup.

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One Response to Recipe Project #9 and 10: Szechuan String Beans and French Onion Soup

  1. gina says:

    wow..you’re like the Julia of upstate New York now….with all this cooking….

    bon appetite!

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