Rain and cold weather make me want soup to warm the body’s innards and restore the basic energy needed to brave the elements outside in this our winter months.
Often I am asked, “where do you come up with the ideas for your dishes?” After so many years of mentally recording experiences and classical pairings I am not reinventing the wheel. I draw from and interpret elements of food or flavor combinations that my predecessors revealed to the world way before I was born (even if my mom believes differently). If anyone tells you that they invented some combination of ingredients or flavors or they happen to put a patent on a special cut of meat they are either lying or, to keep the Italian flair going, a pretentious stronzino. All they did was reveal what naturally exists in the world, and are moving in on God’s copyright.
The culinary universe is vast and boundless, and I find it hard to believe that at this point in history any chef would be the first to do something genuinely unique as far as flavor combination. I would be afraid to make that assumption unless I had complete knowledge of the universe itself. It would take only one discovery of a long lost aboriginal tribe like the Pintupi Nine, with their roasted kangaroo with acacia seed, that could certainly come back to bite a self-proclaimed genius chef on the ass thinking he did that, he was the first. Yeah right!
Like I always say flavored foams of the modernist age meet the original flavored foam, Dodah Tzvia’s Yemenite hilbeh whipped up to an airy cloud packed with a savory punch of flavor. By the way, nitrous cartridges are for pussies. Like a culinary physicist, realized and in the words of Ali G, “respek” yo that we are only revealing what the culinary universe has to offer and redeliver it with our blessing. Now that being said there is obvious originality on how a chef draws on these existent foodie altruisms and executes its reintroduction to the world especially with the use of new science as in the use of molecular gastronomy or other more traditional methods.
In my journeys I have logged either in my taste memory, mind, or a more reliable notebook thousands of experiences, not just food ones, that have inspired dishes I have or will compose one day. I revisit that notebook and sometimes I throw away an idea that was obviously born after an imbibing of far too much alcohol at dinner but for the most part it’s the breeding ground that hopefully will come to fruition by exercising the skills I have acquired and with acquiring new ones needed to be learned.
So with soup on my mind in this cold rainy backdrop I am reminded of a story about a soup that has graced my menus and Its convoluted story of how it became so. This story reveals the madness, the circumstance, the luck and the turning of the wheels inside a chef’s head in answering where did that idea come from?
Firenze, March 1996. The glorious pre-smartphone era. A once skinnier and younger aspiring chef is trying to get on a bus to the small town of Artimino to be a stagiaire at Ristorante Da Delfina under the tutelage of Chef Carlo Cioni. Now unbeknownst to me in that fine Italian manner there is more than one bus station in Firenze and they all go to similar sounding places but never the same place. By culinary luck I landed in the bus company that goes to Ortimino (which could be mistaken with the desired Artimino for instance). Now even today if you search for Ortimino Google’s algorithm is smart enough to ask “Did you mean Artimino?” That simple question could have crossed that doe-eyed simpleton selling me the ticket but who would I thank later for this culinary discovery.
Have you ever seen a detailed map of Tuscany? It’s like reading a signed birthday card which was passed around an office of 100 people, all clamoring for empty space to write. See if you can find Ortimino and Artimino on this map. The Italian lesson is, who cares if you will be two days late to your stage, your bosses are Italian as well and they live by the same credo.As I arrived in Ortimino, I trustfully exited the bus in the middle of scenic rolling hills, middle of nowhere, I walked a few kilometers with backpack on my shoulders and hips to what I thought could be Ristorante Da Delfina believing that I was in Artimino. I reached a small, unassuming trattoria with the looks of an everyday haunt for the locals. “This couldn’t be the five star ristorante that I had corresponded with in my letters,” I thought. Neon signs blinking and all, I had to go inside to confirm my suspicion.
In my shall we say newly acquired tongue of Italian and after a good game of international charades with the proprietor we decided I was in the wrong restaurant and the wrong town. I had been living in Italy for 6 months prior to this and if there was one thing I learned it was that everybody and every hole in the wall cooked food that closely comes in second to any sexual encounter you may have had or will have. This plain truth was clear as I sat down to partake in some fine Ortiminian-style cuisine. The simple soup of obvious Roman or Arabic influence with its almond thickened, onion puree, thinned with chicken stock, savory herbs like marjoram and oregano gently sailing on top releasing all their fresh perfume as the hot soup bellowed steam onto my face. Wafer thin toasted crostini saturated with house pressed olive oil adorned a side plate. Wow what an inspiring entry into my notebook that would be stored away like a treasure waiting for the right time to spark its awakening.
New York City, 1998. One day while I was out with my close friend and fellow kitchen comrade Caroline Fidanza, renown O.G. chef and author of the Williamsburg restaurant movement, original chef of Diner and owner of the former, foodie institution, Saltie in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, having our usual pre-dinner service luncheon, we stopped in to our familiar used book store not far from the restaurant. I found a unique Italian cookbook, Florentines, A Tuscan Feast by Lorenza De’Medici with beautiful still life paintings from 17th century artist, Giovanna Garzoni. Inside this book lies the recipe Crema di Cipolle alle Mandorle, onion and almond soup the same one that once restored my resilience along my Italian odyssey.
The book had brought back the vivid experience I had eating that rich almond thickened broth, a perfect winter soup especially because of the scarcity of the Union Square farmers’ market during the winter months. I unearthed the exact journal recording of my Ortimino fiasco. I was then the chef of the upstairs dining room at Savoy and responsible for the market Prix Fixe menu at the time. I decided to try my first manifestation of this soup, which I have come to refer to as Nonna Emilia soup after meeting her in the kitchen of that little trattoria on Ortimino. I decided to make it as authentic as possible with the sweet flavors of caramelized onion and richness of blanched almonds all pureed up into a smooth unctuous potage with wintery savory herb served on a snowy night in New York City with wood fire warming the chefs dining room.
Present day, as an older chef, maybe not as svelte, but nevertheless much wiser. To add focus onto and bring to light the textural differences to the components of a dish can make a strong statement. It reveals the truths behind what makes those particular elements so harmonious and stronger than their singular forms. The greater sum of the components revealed to the diner. This means simply plating them in a manner that the diner can visually recognize the ingredients. Revealing each element, the diner can make the realization for themselves the harmony of eating them together. by rethinking technique and presentation you can have a completely different experience. I want to keep the rustic quality of julienned caramelized onions in my soup like a good old French onion soup, and not puree them like the original. The almond cream that accompanies it now becomes a secondary garnish of richness. My Mediterranean sensibilities cannot be subdued any longer and my mind conjures the need of Moroccan, Spanish influence with aromatic saffron a classic pairing for almond and onions. This soup is such a restorative elixir and a beautiful timeless combination of ancient flavors I have included a couple of the variations I think are the best way to enjoy a hot bowl to restore your spirits in this cold weather.
Nona Emilia’s Crema Di Cipolle alle Mandorle
6 medium yellow onions, peeled core out and julienned
3 tablespoons olive oil
30 grams of fresh thyme branches tied with string (these herbs are interchangeable and can be mixed with the thyme, fresh rosemary, sage, zatar, savory, marjoram)
180 grams blanched whole or slivered almonds
1.5 liters Chicken or vegetable stock
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Optional: 60 ml amaretto almond liqueur
Atlantic sea salt
Sauté the onions in the olive oil inside the bottom of a soup pot. Add tied bundle of herbs (called a bouquet garni in French culinary terms). This will release their fragrance and essential oils into the hot olive oil. Cook until onions are translucent and start to brown a bit. Add the almonds and continue to sauté for a few minutes to toast almonds very lightly. Make sure to keep almonds blond, cook for approximately 3 minutes in oil and onions. Pour stock into pot and lower flame to a simmer. At this point, add nutmeg and almond liqueur, put a loose lid or one that sits ajar over the pot and continue to cook for approximately 30 mins. Note if you used whole blanched almonds you might need to cook for a longer period until almonds are soft. When ready let cool a bit before you ladle into a blender or food processor. We use a Vitamix in the restaurant and it makes things smooth as can be. You can also use a blender wand, just make sure soup is cooled down first. Add puree back to pot and reheat to serve. Adjust with sea salt and black pepper. The almonds act as a thickener so if the soup becomes thick add some more stock to thin out a bit. Serve with thinly toasted crostini tossed in olive oil and an additional drizzle of excellent olive oil.
Onion, Saffron & Almond Soup
6 medium yellow onions, peeled core out and julienned
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 hearty pinch of saffron threads (make sure your saffron is fresh, old dry saffron will not exude its color and fragrance)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1.5 liters chicken or vegetable stock
½ cup Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay or other dry enjoyable and drinkable white wine
180 grams blanched whole or slivered almonds (note: blanched almonds are without their skins as too much skin will make the soup bitter)
30 grams of fresh thyme branches tied with string (these herbs are interchangeable and can be mixed with the thyme, fresh rosemary, sage, zatar, savory, marjoram) and some leaves set aside for garnish
Optional garnish: 1 cup of cooked bulgur or freekeh
Atlantic sea salt
Onion Soup – Sauté the onions in the olive oil inside the bottom of a soup pot. Add the pinch of saffron threads along with the cinnamon and nutmeg. This will release their fragrance and essential oils into the hot olive oil. Cook until onions are translucent and start to brown a bit. Tilt pan away from you and add wine so if the alcohol now in gas form catches fire and briefly burns off. Reduce the flame. Add 1 liter of the chicken or vegetable stock to the pot and continue to cook at a simmer for at least thirty minutes. Adjust flavor with sea salt and black pepper.
Almond Purée – Meanwhile in a separate pot add the remaining half liter of chicken or vegetable stock, bouquet garni of herbs, and the almonds and bring to a simmer and cook for approximately 30 minutes covered (until almonds are soft). Remove from stove and let almonds cool and soak in the stock. Note: if you used whole blanched almonds you might need to cook for a longer period until almonds are soft. When the almonds have cooled remove the bouquet garni and discard. Let cool for at least 30 minutes then ladle into a blender or food processor. As above, we use a Vitamix in the restaurant for great results. You can also use a blender wand, just make sure the almond mix is cooled down first. Adjust with sea salt. The purée should be thick and creamy if need be you can add some more stock to help turn it into a smooth mixture you can spoon into soup.
Build it – Ladle hot onion saffron soup into bowls. Place a spoonful of almond purée into the center of the bowl. Sprinkle the reserved thyme or savory herb leaves over top of bowl and sprinkle a tablespoon of cooked bulgur or freekeh into the soup.