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Field of Onions

“Only he can understand what a farm is, what a country is, who shall have sacrificed part of himself to his farm or country, fought to save it, struggled to make it beautiful. Only then will the love of farm or country fill his heart.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900-1944)

I remember how hard the life of a farmer is, especially after having lived it, and it came back to me in full measure when I saw the results of the recent frost we experienced here in the Bajio.

At the Ex-Hacienda Purisima de Jalpa, where I now work, we were ready to harvest the little yellow patty pan squashes, nasturtium flowers and heirloom tomatoes amongst other vegetables. Despite the thick protective plastic covering they turned to mush overnight due to the freeze (-4˚C/24˚F). I fried some of the unripened green tomatoes for our lunch but they just did not taste as delicious as usual, knowing they were a rescue effort from a disaster.

However sad this loss was, there was a much bigger one looming in the distance in the large onion fields of the hacienda.

A group of field workers had been hired to begin harvesting the tons of onions that were ready for market. The kitchen staff was busy cooking hearty meals to bring to the workers in the fields. Hundreds of sacks of onions were quickly piling up and then packed onto delivery trucks.

After the freeze, the green tops of the yet-to-be-harvested onions, having dutifully protected the onion bulb, turned into a yellow brown mush and left the onion bulbs vulnerable to damage by the next round of frost and to also become sunburned, which meant developing into a very undesirable shade of green. The loss would be devastating in many ways; hundreds of hours of lost labor, money invested and a scarcity of onions for the consumer.

With the speed of an ambulance a large truck carrying thousands of yards of a white cotton-like, non-woven material was brought in and spread over each of the endless rows of onions. Despite the grim situation, the fabric created a surreal image; the large white strips of cloth covering the ground waved in the wind like dancers veils, while the wind stirred the dried earth into dust that defused the sunlight.

The sun warmed the onions and the most aromatic fragrance was released. All I could think about were my favorite onion dishes: French onion soup, onion tart and Indian-style caramelized crisp onion strips.

But most of all, it reminded me off how volatile growing crops can be. In this case, Mother Nature did not need to create a dramatic natural disaster such as floods, hail or storms. Just the subtle drop of a few degrees in temperature was all it took to cause great damage in the fields, not just for the Ex-Hacienda Purisima de Jalpa, but for all of the farmers in our area.

The recipe for onion soup is from The Art of Mastering French Cooking by Julia Child. I personally like to place my cheese croutes on top of the soup and melt the cheese under a broiler.

Onion Soup

Soupe à l’Oignon

For 6 to 8 servings

1 1/2 pounds (680 grams, about 5 cups) thinly sliced yellow onions

3 tablespoons (40 grams) butter

1 tablespoon oil

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon granulated sugar (helps the onions to brown)

3 tablespoons (25 grams) all-purpose flour

2 quarts (2 liters) boiling beef or other stock

1/2 cup (120 ml) dry white wine or dry white vermouth

Salt and pepper to taste

3 tablespoons cognac or brandy (optional)

Rounds of hard-toasted French bread (see recipe)

1 to 2 cups grated Swiss or Parmesan cheese

Cook the onions slowly with the butter and oil in a heavy bottomed 4-quart saucepan, covered for 15 minutes.

Uncover, raise the heat to moderate, and stir in the salt and sugar. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes stirring frequently, until the onions have turned an even, deep, golden brown.

Sprinkle in the flour and stir for 3 minutes.

Off heat, blend in the boiling liquid. Add the wine, and season to taste. Simmer partially covered for 30 to 40 minutes, skimming occasionally. Correct seasoning.

Set aside uncovered until ready to serve. Then reheat to simmer.

Just before serving, stir in the cognac. Pour into a soup tureen or soup cups over the rounds of bread, and pass the cheese separately.

Garnishings for onion soup

Croutes- hard toasted French bread

12-16 slices of French bread, cut ¾ inch thick

Olive oil or beef drippings

A cut clove of garlic

Place the bread in one layer in a roasting pan and bake in a preheated 325˚F/160˚C oven for about half an hour, until it is thoroughly dried out and lightly browned.

Halfway through the baking, each side may be basted with a teaspoon of olive oil or beef drippings; and after baking, each piece may be rubbed with the cut garlic.

Croutes au Fromage cheese croutes

Grated Swiss or Parmesan cheese

Olive oil or beef drippings

Spread one side of each croute with grated cheese and sprinkle with drops of olive oil or beef drippings. Brown under a hot broiler before serving.

Bon Appétit!

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