Le Fromage and Caramelized Onions
Well. This weekend I was meant to go to Santiago de Compostela, A Coruña, and Fisterra, which are three gorgeous towns in the northwestern corner of Spain. However, thanks to a complete closure of all national airspace, 150,000 other Spaniards and I were stranded. So instead, I’m hanging around Madrid. Not to worry, I’ve seen some good theater and will be going to the movies later tonight; till then, I thought I’d share the trip I took last weekend.
Last Friday, I flew into Paris and took a train to Caen, Normandy to visit my friend Andrea from Williams. Her town looks something like this:
We saw the sights in Caen, including an unexpected light show on the Hôtel de ville; we went to a little Christmas market in Caen where, to my delight, they were playing Jackson 5 Christmas music; we had really top-notch tea at an adorable coffee shop; we prepared apple pie and twice-baked potatoes for a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner with fellow Americans; I saw Andrea’s community band perform at a mass, and then we all went out for an exquisite Norman lunch. (Tarte normande, anyone?)
One of my favorite activities was the open-air market on Sunday morning, where we arrived a bit early to see the vendors still setting up their stands and the streets covered in frost. It wouldn’t have made much sense to buy produce and bring it back with me to Spain, but, having had my eye on the French cheeses all weekend, I finally decided to go for it. And wouldn’t you know, once I started speaking to the woman behind the counter, it turned out that I wanted a great deal of cheese: a small round of goat cheese, a thick chunk of compté, and a somewhat enormous piece of Parmesan.
And as much as I’m enjoying the cheese, I was mostly excited about the experience. Successful communication with a French person resulting in several pounds of fromage? It doesn’t get much better than that.
We’ve been picking away at it all week. Like most other specialty ingredients, Fiona and I used the Parmesan cheese to spice up our salads. Andrea suggested shredding Parmesan cheese on top and adding just a dash of oregano, which is a rather refreshing change.
The goat cheese is quite potent (read: delicious.) Much like the layers of the Earth (crust, mantle and core–have I been teaching Science to third-graders, you ask? Perhaps.), this goat cheese starts with a thin outer layer of mold which gives way to two inner layers: the center is white and quite solid, and the outer layer is slightly yellow and creamy like Camambert. [If anyone has special tips for slicing goat cheese, by the way, I’m all ears. I can’t seem to do it without making a mess.]
My roommate prefers fresh goat cheese, which is slightly less offensive, but we agree that the best possible combination is a bed of lettuce topped with chunks of goat cheese, sliced pears, and a heap of caramelized onions. We started out sharing an onion between the two of us but quickly agreed that it wasn’t enough, and we’ve since graduated to a full onion apiece. (Don’t worry, I’ve drawn the line there. If I were to eat two onions myself, I might as well go the whole nine yards and leave out the lettuce, cheese, and pears and eat them directly out of a bowl.) Until then, I’ll stick to the salads.
Caramelizing onions is shockingly easy (which is why we’ve started eating this salad about three nights a week), although it did take me a few tries to get them just the way I wanted them. I did notice that more salt results in a sweeter product, so I speculate that it draws out the naturally sweet onion juice.
Heat a generous amount of oil–enough to coat the onions–in a skillet. Slice the onions into half-rings of the desired thickness, keeping in mind that thicker rings will take longer to caramelize. With a big pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar if desired, sauté the onions until they are dark golden-brown. Then turn down the heat slightly, adding just a bit of liquid to deglaze the pan as necessary. And voilà, in 15-20 minutes you’ll have a pan full of deliciousness. I’m sure different varieties of onion vary in their natural sweetness and liquid levels, which might require some tweaking, but believe me: once you try it, you’ll be hooked.
In other news–cue choir of angels–I now have a very small convection oven in my kitchen! Hooray! I have yet to test it out (I need to find a teeny-weensy cookie sheet first) but I’ll be sure to report the first successfully baked product out of my own kitchen in Madrid.