HEARTY IDAHO ONION SOUP (with ELK)
serves 4 - 5
2 lbs. elk (or buffalo, or beef) "osso bucco" (shank or leg steak)
2 large or 3-4 medium or small onions
1 large or two small carrots, chopped into largish chunks
1 cup diced celery, or 1/2 tsp celery seed, or 1/4 cup dried celery
1-6 cloves garlic (I used 6, we like garlic)
1-2 bay leaves
fresh herb sprigs - thyme, rosemary, etc.
6-8 whole peppercorns, optional
1 small bottle of beer, optional, your choice of style (here I'm using some wheat beer I made this fall)
1 Tbsp meat drippings, saved from the roasted meat, or 1 Tbsp olive oil to be used for sauteeing onions
salt to taste
This is a type of not-quite-classic French onion soup. Definitely winter comfort food! The flavor of homemade beef (or in this case, elk) stock is nothing like canned stock or that made from instant bullion. It has a complexity and depth of flavor that only slow roasting and slow cooking with aromatic vegetables and herbs can give. Because there is a fair bit of meat on the bones this makes a nice, light one pot meal with the addition of some bread and a salad. This recipe also finishes just as well in the crockpot, for those of us who have to be away all day and can't mind the stove.
Ingredients round up: Clockwise from high noon (okay, "high eleven-thirty"...) we have a bowl with some no-knead bread dough patiently doing its thing, a small bottle of home-made beer, three onions (storage sprouts and all), osso bucco elk leg shank steaks waiting to go into the oven, and one 2 lb. wheel of our inaugural farmhouse white cheddar cheese, ready to be opened and (hopefully) melted on top of the finished bread we'll be eating with the soup. I forgot to set out the herbs, spices and carrots for this picture, but they made it in later!
Roast the osso bucco in the oven at 400 degrees until nice and brown. If the meat looks like it might burn or become too dry before the bones are roasted, haul the whole thing out of the oven and cut the meat from the bones. Hold the meat aside until you assemble the stock, but roast the bones a bit more. The darker you can get the bones at this point (without burning them, of course) the richer the flavor and color of the stock will be when you are through. If you like the taste of roasted garlic and carrots and want to boost the flavor of the stock even more, throw them into the pan with the meat about thirty minutes before you take the pan out of the oven. Be sure to watch so the veggies roast but don't burn. Burnt garlic, in particular, tastes rather nasty.
If you want to use the crockpot method and don't have time to do all of this in the morning before you leave, try making the recipe up to this point the night before, then cool and refrigerate everything. The roasted meat and bones (and vegetables, if you decide to roast them first) should look something like this when you are finished.
Round up the rest of your stock ingredients, and set out the crockpot or stock pot you plan to cook everything in. Remove the meat from the roasting pan (reserving any drippings if you want to sautee the onions in them.) Place the roasted meat and bones into your crockpot or stock pot, adding enough water to cover all by a good couple of inches. Add the chopped carrot, garlic, celery or celery seed, the peppercorns and the herbs. Slice up the onions now into thin rings, throwing the clean skins and peels into the stock for flavor. Pour in the beer (I used it to deglaze the roasting pan first.) Put a lid on the crock pot or stock pot and let the whole thing simmer on a back burner for at least a good 6-8 hours or in the crockpot for 8-10 hours. If cooking on top of the stove, be sure to keep an eye on the liquid levels so you don't run dry.
(Don't wander off for an hour to read your favorite food blogs, and forget to plug your crockpot in, like I did. Oh, well, at least it's a long weekend! And, as I told myself when I discovered the problem, it could have been worse - I could have decided to take a nap.)
In a medium skillet, add the reserved fat drippings or the 1 Tbsp of olive oil, and sautee the onion rings until they are transluscent and lightly caramelized. (If you don't have enough meat drippings to make a good tablespoonful, add some olive oil to the pan.) At this point you can put the finished, cooled onions into a covered dish and refrigerate them until the stock is ready.
With the bulk of the work out of the way, you can now take some time to work on your bread. You want to time your recipe so that it comes out of the oven about half an hour before the stock is finished. Ideally, your bread should be well baked and "settled," but still fresh and warm when the time comes to assemble the meal. If you will be out of the house, but have a bread machine, you could start your favorite bread recipe in it now and set the timer so that it begins to bake right after you arrive home (for safety reasons, you probably don't want it to go through the bake cycle with no one there.)
Here's a picture of the finished loaf from that bowl of bread dough goo in the first picture. I've got to tell you, that no-knead bread recipe is amazing. It's quite simply become the backbone of our meal menu these days. It could hardly be any easier than it is. Mix three dry ingredients with enough water to make a wet dough, let sit for 12 hours or more, half-heartedly shape the loaf, let it rise again, and bake. If you spend more than 10 minutes, hands on, actually making the bread, you're probably doing it wrong. I've had the goal of baking all our own bread for years, but with the usual recipes I could never manage it often enough to keep up with the demand for fresh bread around here. With this recipe, finally, I can. And as you can see, the technique produces the most amazing crust...my husband goes into raptures every time a loaf comes out of the oven, and he's got pretty high standards for bread.
To serve, strain the meat stock, reserving the meat chunks and if you wish, the carrots (and, of course, the stock!) for the table. The garlic will most likely have been liquified by the roasting and long cooking, so if you can no longer find it, that's where it went! Dice the meat and any retained vegetables into manageable sizes (I like approximately 1/2" dices) and put them back into the pot. Remove the sauteed onions from the refrigerator and gently stir them into the very hot broth. You want the onions to remain as intact as possible, so don't stir too vigorously. Taste and adjust for seasoning - it will probably need some salt.
Slice your bread and sprinkle your choice of grated cheese on top (or use thin slices to cover each piece) then run the breads briefly through the toaster oven or under the broiler until the cheese has melted and begins to turn golden brown around the edges. Ladle the hot broth and vegetables into soup bowls and either float a slice of the cheese bread on the top to sop up juices until it becomes "spoonable," or serve the bread dry on the side for dipping.