I made chicken stock the other day. Trudged down to the butcher to buy two organic soup chickens from France, ankles bound indelicately, skin cast in a yellowish hue. Passed the grocer on the way back home where I found wilting soup greens, as the Germans call that bundle of aromatics made up of two halves of a leek, a carrot, a slice of celery root and a spray of parsley tied together, in the dark recesses of a shelf close to the floor. At home again, I sliced an onion in half and charred each side in a pot with no oil, as every German recipe for chicken stock will instruct you to do, then filled up the pot with cold water, peppercorns, the yellow French chickens, bay leaves from my mother's garden in Italy and the soup greens, washed and peeled as best I could, plus a little bundled bouquet garni. The pot simmered away for hours, clouding up the kitchen windows, making the kitchen and my office smell like a Jewish grandmother's house.
The stock lasted us all week. A ladleful in risotto here, a golden puddle with tiny semolina dumplings there, a jar for my mother, a container in the freezer. If I had a bigger freezer, I'd make stock once a month. There's something so elemental about cooking it (and if you have two chickens floating in the broth, you can salvage one after an hour to actually eat, dipped into HP Fruity sauce, for example, my little guilty pleasure) and finding yourself supplied with the groundwork for a great many delicious meals.
The other day at lunch, inspired by a recipe from a German cooking magazine called essen & trinken, I sliced a small pile of onions thinly and cooked them in a little olive oil along with some unusal aromatics (star anise, juniper berries) until they were soft and translucent and going pale brown in the pan. A few sprigs of thyme from the balcony gave the onions an herbal touch. After a while, I poured a glug of dry white wine to deglaze the onions, then filled up the pot with some ladlefuls of chicken stock and let everything simmer away for a little while, while I sliced bread and spread the slices thinly with mustard before showering them with a carpet of grated Gruyère cheese. Under the broiler the bread slices went, until the edges were crisp and browning quickly and the cheese had melted and blistered in the heat.
I filled each soup plate with onion soup, then floated a toasted cheese tartine on top. The soup softened the bread, turning the bottom-side custardy and easy enough to cut with a spoon. We slurped away as carefully as we could, marveling at the depth of sweetness in the soup, crunching away at the edges of the toasts before they sogged entirely.
You always dream, when you work in an office, of being free one day, free to work in your pyjamas, free to be your own boss. It's a misleading little daydream, because the truth is that working from home for yourself is so much harder than being in an office. At least it is for me. I miss my commute to work, my colleagues, my office uniform. I spend too much time in my own head at home, feel far more oppressed under my own expectations of myself than I did under any employer. But in one respect, working from home really does beat everything else and that is the luxury of being able to emerge from the fog of work to cook my own lunch. To spend a half hour standing over the stove in the middle of the day, making a little salad, setting the table for the two of us, is bliss.
In a few months, our lunchtime ritual is going to change. Max will be working far away during the week and I'll be left to my own devices, probably sentenced to a great many peanut butter sandwiches at midday. It's just not as much fun to cook for yourself than it is when you're sharing a meal, is it? That seems to be one of the great truths of a cook's life. So until then, I'm counting my blessings, boiling chickens and making onion soup.
Simple Onion Soup
Serves 2 for lunch
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
5 medium yellow onions, cut in half and sliced thinly
1 star anise
A few stalks of fresh thyme, minced
10 juniper berries
1/4 cup (100 ml) dry white wine
4 1/4 cups (1 liter) chicken stock
4 slices country bread
1. Put the oil in a heavy saucepan over medium heat and cook the onions, star anise, thyme and juniper berries slowly in the oil for 20 minutes, until the onions are limp, silky and starting to turn brown. Deglaze with the wine and let most of the alcohol cook off, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour in the chicken stock and let the soup simmer for another 20 minutes.
2. Spread each slice of bread very thinly with mustard and top with a layer of grated Gruyère. Put the cheese toasts on an aluminum foil-lined baking sheet and slide under the broiler in your oven for a few minutes, just until the cheese is blistered and melting and the edges of the bread are toasted.
3. Ladle the soup into deep soup plates and top each plate with a cheese toast. Serve immediately.