My French Onion Soup Haiku 
hot bubbling crock
onions, beef broth, Gruyere cheese
melting down the sides …
When I am craving classic comfort food, a signature lunchtime staple comes to mind: French Onion Soup.
The origin of onion soups can be traced all the way back to ancient Roman times.  (Reinforcing my belief that all good food originates in Italy!)  “French Onion Soup,” the version that combined beef broth with caramelized onions, originated in France in the 8th Century.  This soup became popular in the United States in the 1960s, when the nation experienced a surge in French cooking.  This trend was due to the publishing of Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in 1962.  
French Onion Soup is still wildly popular in restaurants across the U.S. today.  It is usually served with croutons or bread and melted Gruyere cheese, which is to many people, the best part. Authentic Gruyere cheese, however, is not really French. It is Swiss, named after the town of Gruyeres in Switzerland. The French versions of Gruyere cheese are Comte and Beauford. A notable difference between the two is that in accordance with French law, French Gruyere cheese has holes in it, whereas Swiss Gruyere does not.  Gruyere cheese has a salty, nutty flavor and is oven creamy.
I love to order French onion soup for lunch in restaurants on snowy days. There’s nothing like breaking open that golden cheesy crust that engulfs the crock of the hot onion broth. What’s even better is the little slice of heaven that is tucked under the cheese: the baguette. It’s love at first bite.
You don’t have to go to a restaurant to experience this soup – it’s easy to make in the comfort of your own home.  If you have broth, onions, and some red wine in your pantry, you’re all set!   This recipe is rich and flavorful.  I substituted 2% Swiss cheese slices instead of the Gruyere to drastically cut down on the cost of the soup, as well as the calorie and fat content without sacrificing any flavor.  The buttery, cheesy and crunchy comforting goodness of this soup is hard to resist on a cold winter’s night!
Fairytale French Onion Soup
Serves 4-6
4 large onions
2 tablespoons of butter
6 cups of beef broth (you can use chicken if you don’t have it but beef gives a heartier flavor)
1/2 cup of red wine
2 bay leafs
4-5 sprigs of fresh thyme, tied together.
Pam cooking spray
2 sourdough rolls or French baguette
Kraft 2% Swiss Cheese Slices (8 slices)
Salt and pepper
Peel and cut onions in 1/4 inch slices. Melt the butter in a dutch oven. Add the onions, sprinkle with some salt, and cook down over medium-high heat until the onions are soft and have some color, at least 10 minutes. (You want them to be soft and tender, not completely caramelized.) Add the broth, wine, bay leaves, and thyme. Simmer on medium low heat for 30 minutes. 
Meanwhile, slice the rolls into 3/4 inch slices and spray with Pam butter cooking spray.  Place under the broiler and lightly brown each side.
When soup is ready, remove the bay leaves and thyme bundle. Ladle soup into 4 crocks/soup ramekins.  Top with toasted bread and 2 slices of Swiss cheese.  Bake at 425 degrees or until cheese is melted and bubbling. (You can use the broiler if necessary for two minutes.)

Fairytale Breakfast: Toasted Muffaletta bread with ricotta cheese and honey.

In the United States, November 11th is Veteran’s Day, an annual holiday commemorating Veterans for their honorable service, bravery, and sacrifices they have made in serving to protect our country.  In my family, not only do we celebrate Veteran’s Day, but we also celebrate the Catholic holiday of St. Martin’s Day.  It is also the feast day of my late paternal grandfather, Martin Collins. I wait for this holiday all year because when my maternal grandfather bakes his infamous Muffaletta bread to mark the occasion.  Here is how this tradition came about:

St. Martin, a Roman soldier and monk who was baptized as an adult, was the bishop of Tours in 397 A.D. He is commonly depicted riding on a horse and is best known for allegedly giving a beggar half of his cloak during a snowstorm.  St. Martin of Tours is commemorated on November 11, the day which he was buried. 

St. Martin’s day traditionally marks the end of the fall farvest and the beginning of winter, a time when newly produced wine is ready for drinking. Around the world since late 4th century, this is also a period before the season of Advent starts when people would begin a 40 day fast. This period was called “Quadragesima Sancti Martini,” which is Latin for the “forty days of St. Martin.”  On St. Martin’s Eve, people traditionally ate and drank as much as possible before starting their fast. Thus, St. Martin is the patron saint of horses, mounted soldiers, tailors, wine cask makers, and even, well, “drunks.”

In Italy, many Sicilians celebrated St. Martin’s day by dipping hard biscuits containing anise seeds into Moscato wine. These biscuits are small flat loaves of bread known as Muffaletta. Many Americans associate Muffaletta with the famous New Orleans hero-style sandwich that originated in 1906.  This New Orleans style Muffaletta is filled with layers of provolone cheese, Genoa salami, ham and a chopped mixed olive salad served on “Italian bread.”  However, the Muffaletta bread that is used to make this traditional sandwich comes from this Sicilian St. Martin’s day tradition. Today, there is still a Muffaletta festival celebrated in Reizi and the Province of Caltinessetta in central Sicily.

My grandfather has been making Muffaletta bread to celebrate St. Martin’s Day since I was a little girl. (And every year he ends up making more and more to try and keep up with the demand!) We serve it toasted, with a dab of ricotta cheese and drizzled honey on top. I love this bread so much that I usually freeze a loaf and enjoy it with the ricotta and honey for a special breakfast on Christmas morning. It’s savory and sweet and the perfect fairytale!  If you are craving a taste of this tradition, try buying a loaf of Fennel or anise bread at your local bakery. Spread some part-skim ricotta cheese on the bread. Toast in the oven until it is warmed through and drizzle it with some honey immediately upon removing from toaster oven.

As an alternative, instead of serving this bread by the individual slice as shown above, you can also bake each half in the oven with the ricotta spread on top. Then drizzle with honey and put together as a sandwich and serve as shown below.  This is how Muffaletta is traditionally cut and served in New Orleans. Here we kept the traditionally Sicilian tradition and used ricotta and honey. 

Whole loaf of Muffaletta with ricotta and honey.
Photo Courtesy of Alissa Costello.

On our last night in Nashville, we ventured to the Germantown Cafe, one of the top rated restaurants in Nashville, to see what all the fuss was about and hopefully enjoy some of the local cuisine beyond greasy fried foods smothered in barbecue sauce.  I’m happy to report that we had a very pleasant experience here and I would absolutely return there again. The atmosphere was quaint and cozy, the crowd a mix of all ages from locals to foreign CMA music fest concert goers. Though we didn’t have reservations, we didn’t have to wait for a table. The hostess was kind and happy. She seated us a a table near the glass window which allowed just enough of the setting sunlight to peer in to the restaurant. There was a great view of the Nashville skyline.

I was pretty impressed with our server, who had the patience of an angel when answering all of our detailed questions about the menu and the daily specials.  She was a perfect example of what every server should be: kind, patient, attentive, prompt.  She possessed an all encompasing knowledge of the items on the menu and was not afraid to steer me in the right direction when it came to ordering the restaurant’s specialties. 

We started with the strudel and the fried green tomatoes.  The tomatoes, served hot, were deep fried in a crisp and greasy (but not too greasy) coating and topped with miniature goat cheese rounds, accompanied by a spicy red bell pepper aioli sauce. We devoured these within seconds.

The Germantown Cafe Strudel was served with a tropical salsa. Studel, German for “whirlpool” or “eddy” is a type of pastry composed of thin layers of dough spread with a filling and rolled and baked until crisp and golden brown.  The dough tastes just like the Greek phyllo dough, commonly known as a puff pastry shell.  (These sheets can be found in the frozen aisle of your local grocery store.) Strudel is commonly filled with fruit but it can come in all different varieties and be savory as well.  The Germantown Cafe Strudel was a savory, spicy blend of chicken, cream cheese and peppers. It was very different and that is why I loved it! 

The most jaw dropping part of our dining experience at the Germantown Cafe may have been the bread basket, which was really a little bundle of heaven. Imagine biting into soft and buttery round roll right out of the oven – sounds like a pretty ordinary indulgence. Now imgaine that the bread is deep fried, making the outside crust crisp, flaky and a bit oily with a soft warm center. Bread is absolutely my weakness in this life and I have sampled many different kinds but I’ve never had anything like this before. And there was a silver lining. Indulging in a deep fried roll made it easier for me to limit myself to one.
The caesar salad was equally as delicious, with its crisp romaine lshaved parmegiano regiano cheese and deep friend herbed croutons. Add a piece of grilled shrimp, this could have been dinner.

The Germantown Cafe offered a generous portion of a crab cakes, placing three decent size lightly pan fried cakes consisting mainly of jumbo lump crabmeat on a dish with an abundant serving of french fries and green beans. The crab cakes were served with a mustard-tartar sauce, a nice and creative accompaniment to this classic dish, without being over the top. 

The plum pork was tender and delicious. Thinly sliced pork medallions grilled and served in a savory but sweet plum sauce over mashed potatoes and served with green beans.

I decided to take a chance on the fresh catch of the day, the Grouper. Served over creamy polenta and accompanied by a heaping portion of lima beans drizzled with a light chunky tomato sauce, this dish was a much welcomed change from the greasy southern barbecue we loved but overdosed on. The Grouper was delicate but firm, easily flaked with a fork and oozing with its own juices. A light cream sauce with parsley adorned the grouper, enhancing its own flavor.

The only negative part of the dining experience was that we were too stuffed to try the desserts, which sounded sinfully delicate and delicious – but it’s all the more reason to return again next year!

Enjoy! 🙂