A perfectly viable question and one made even more real to me when I posted a picture of a recent batch of the aforementioned gravy on my Facebook page and a friend asked, "So, was this a a mistake that you had to throw away?"
I explained to her, as gently as I could, that no, it was not a mistake, and that it was, rather, the name of the sauce/gravy. I also felt that I should mention, that I rarely posted pictures of my cooking errors on Facebook, although once I thought about it, the notion kept me rather entertained.
And so it struck me that perhaps I might write a bit about the nature and history of this Burnt Onion Gravy (from hereon out known as BOG), but also take the opportunity to discuss stocks and roux and how they go together to make sauces and yes, gravies. It does take a plan and a pretty good recipe as well to make something with the word "burnt" in the title taste good and I'm going to tell you how to do it.
I learned to make BOG from a friend and mentor, Philipe LaMancusa, while we were working in what was, at the time, a very hot San Francisco restaurant called Embarko. Philipe is, along with being a man who has a very real feel for food and what makes it taste good, also a man with a droll wit and a good vocabulary. We had dishes on our menu with names like "Jamaica Mistake?" (for a jerked pork dish), and fish dishes described as being served "with a squeeze and a pat" (lemon and butter, natch).
BOG was a the sauce that went on a pan fried pork medallion dish that passed through our menu for a brief while. The dish came and went, but the sauce, it's composition and, of course, its name, lingered with me right up to this very day. This sauce is the very essence of a series of ingredients coming together to make a huge flavor with the use of some classic and some not so classic cooking techniques (and a little imagination).
So let us leave this amusing story and its colorful folk, and talk about sauces and stocks, and what gives them the flavors that make one better, or at least different than, another. Really, what this is all about, and what I seem to write about more than almost anything, is FLAVOR. How to capture it; how to enhance it, and how to bring it out when it seems most elusive.
The first building block of flavor, not only in this particular recipe, but in so many, many more is the making of stock. In this case we're talking chicken stock. I know all of you are nodding your heads in abject boredom and saying, "yeah, yeah, yeah, Chef we know all about chicken stock", but none the less, at the end of this I will provide a recipe for chicken stock (the way I do it) and for everything else that we discuss in this particular blog post.
In the interest of creating and building flavor, however, we are going to take our chicken stock one step further and make chicken stock squared, or, "dark chicken stock". This richly flavored dark chicken stock is some killer stuff and can be used to bump the flavor level up in a great many of things you cook. It's a simple enough process, too, it just requires patience.
What you need to make this liquid gold is take all the ingredients you would put in your first chicken stock (which you need to have already made and cannot make this second batch correctly without), that is to say, bones, mirepoix, spices, etc., and put them in a roasting pan in a hot oven (400) until the are nicely browned and caramelized. You will then pull them from the pan, put them in a stock pot, deglaze the pan with a cup of two of your previously made chicken stock (taking GREAT care to really scrape up all the good browned bits off the bottom) and pour that and the remainder of your first batch of chicken stock over the nicely browned bones and veggies.
Got it? Now cook it like you cooked the first batch of stock and you will be amazed at the results. What you get by the time you have cooked it for several hours, strained it and refrigerated it so that the fat congeals on top (for easy removal), is a dark, rich and extremely flavorful nearly sauce-like stock that will bump up the flavor of anything to which you wish to add it.
What we are going to add our dark chicken stock to in this recipe is a roux that is made from the oil that a batch of onions have been cooked in until they are just past the point of caramelization and are definitely crunchy, if not exactly "burnt". Got that? Onions, oil/butter, flour. A roux, you say, you ask, you posit; isn't that just flour and oil mixed together to thicken something? Yes, I say, true indeed, but more than just being a thickening agent, a carefully cooked roux can influence, carry and change the flavors of sauces and soups to which it is added.
Roux was invented by the French and used, yes, almost exclusively as a thickening agent. In the French kitchen it is rarely cooked past a point of pale blonde and only then so that it will blend more easily and not separate in the liquid to which it is added. In fact, beurre manie, used to thicken a number of sauces, is merely softened butter and flour mixed together and never cooked at all.
There is some evidence of darker roux in some Swabian dishes of Southwest Germany, but it was the Creoles and the Cajuns in Louisiana who originated long cooked dark roux and created the dishes in which a dark roux would become flavoring agents rather than just thickeners. Gumbo, of course, and etoufee for another, are dishes in which the long cooked roux takes on a nutty subtle flavor that becomes an undercurrent in the final flavor of the dish.
Additionally, as the roux is cooked and the flour begins to change color, it loses much of its glutinous characteristics and becomes more a flavoring agent and less a thickening agent.
Now that we have our dark chicken stock and an understanding of roux, we can return to the cooking of our BOG and that starts with onions; lots of them, thinly sliced. For a batch of this gravy that will use 1 Qt. of dark rich chicken stock, use 5-6 large yellow onions. These onions will get cooked in a heavy skillet with high sides first in just oil and later with butter added until they begin to brown (the full recipe for this will appear at the bottom of this blog). The onions will, of course, have to be stirred, but not so frequently at the beginning as at the end.
While the onions are browning, bring the dark chicken stock up just short of a boil and hold it on a low flame so it stays warm.
Start the onions in the oil, but once they have begun to take on a nice golden color, add the butter to hasten the browning process. Now you will have to watch them closely because the whole butter that you are adding contains milk solids that will brown (and even burn) very quickly. I use a wooden spoon for stirring the onions so that I can easily scrape them off the bottom as they begin to stick and become darker and crunchier.
And at last you will notice the thinner of the onion strands beginning to look dark, short of black, but definitely becoming darker. They will try to stick to the pan but be diligent; keep stirring, but watch them very closely, you are almost at the point where they will need to be removed from the pan. As we move beyond caramelization into a cooking to crispy of the onions, reduce the heat under the pan and remove them to a colander placed over a bowl using a slotted spoon. Some of them should be decidedly crunchy and nut brown to nearly black.
Now you have a heavy pan with onion flavored cooking oil and it's time to build the roux. Classically, a roux is made with equal parts of flour and oil, so if you have used two ounces of oil (plus a bit of butter) add two ounces (and just a bit more) of flour to the pan, turn the flame back on fairly low and whisk the flour into the oil in the pan. At this point, also, pour the drippings from the drained onions back into the pan.
The flour should immediately pick up a bit of color from the cooking oil and will be a muddy kind of brown. Keep whisking it in the pan over the low flame and you will notice two things about it. You will hear it beginning to cook, but you will also start to feel it cooking, as it will begin to thin a bit in the pan and will whisk more easily. This is an important part in the development of the roux and it means the flour is cooking in the roux, the glutens are breaking down and the roux MUST be kept moving in the pan; not fast, not necessarily briskly, just moving, always moving.
And now the roux will begin to become seriously brown, first to a color nearly like peanut butter and then closing in on chocolate. This is the all critical moment. It is time to add the stock to the roux. This is thrilling, but a bit dangerous, so it is important to do two things (once again): Add the stock to the roux slowly with a ladle waaaay over to one side of the pan, and; whisk continually on the side of the pan away from where the stock is being added because it will spatter. The sauce will thicken immediately with the addition of the first ladle of stock, but keep ladling and whisking until all the stock is incorporated. Now and only now, raise the heat below the pan and bring the gravy up to a slow boil.
Now wasn't that fun? You're almost there. You've mastered dark roux and you should have a deep rich brown (and slightly thick) gravy simmering in the pan. Pull the pan over to one side of the flame and once it is at a low boil, lower the heat again, stirring as you do. As the liquid bubbles on one side, it will push the impurities in the gravy to the other side and you can skim them off with your ladle. Add the onions back to the pan and now you have everything in your BOG. Allow it to continue to cook on a low heat for up to half an hour, but at least for 15 minutes, stirring it occasionally and skimming it as needed.
Check your gravy for salt and add it if you like. I like. And I also like to add a dash or two of hot sauce, a little bit of L&P (Worcestershire Sauce) and pepper. This gravy is great to use right now, but will refrigerate (and freeze) quite nicely. When you bring it back to heat (particularly if you have frozen it) you can add a third volume of water as the gravy will have become very concentrated and rich in flavor. I serve this gravy over roasted pork loin, roasted chicken breast, or I add it to soups and stews. It is also wonderful poured over a big bowl of garlic mashed potatoes. Now there's comfort AND flavor in a bowl.
BURNT ONION GRAVY
5-6 Large Yellow Onions, thinly sliced
2 oz. Canola Oil (or other light cooking oil)
1/2 Stick Unsalted Butter
3 oz. Flour
1 Qt. Dark Chicken Stock (hot)
S&P to taste
In a heavy and high sided skillet heat the oil and add the onions. Cook the onions over medium heat stirring occasionally, until they begin to turn a golden brown. Add the butter and keep cooking, stirring more often as the onions darken.
As the onions begin to take on a very dark color and change texture from soft to crispy, lower the heat to as low as it will go, and lift the onions from the pan with a slotted spoon and transfer them to a colander placed over a bowl.
Add the flour to the pan along with the juices from the onions and whisk until a paste forms. Raise the heat slightly and cook the roux until it begins to turn first the color of peanut butter and then reaches a shade just short of chocolate.
Very carefully ladle the stock into the roux, whisking continually. Keep adding the stock until it is entirely incorporated. Raise the heat again and, stirring continually, bring the thickened gravy to a low boil. Move the pot to one side of the flame, lower the heat (while still stirring) and allow the gravy to simmer. Skim what ever foam comes to the top and return the onions to the gravy. Allow to cook for 15-20 minutes and check for seasonings.
BASIC CHICKEN STOCK
5# Chicken Bones, rinsed in cold water
2 Large Carrots, cut in discs
2 Yellow Onions, cut in large dice
4 Stalks Celery, cut in 1/2" pieces
2 Heads Garlic, cut in half equatorially
2 Leeks, sliced in thin rings (optional)
Stems of one bunch parsley, rough chopped (optional)
5 Bay Leaves
1 Tsp Dried Thyme Leaves (or 7-8 stems of fresh thyme)
12-15 Whole Peppercorns
1 TBS Salt
Place bones and vegetables in a stock pot and cover with 6-8 quarts of cold water. Bring to a rapid boil and then reduce heat to a simmer. Skim foam from top of pot. Add spices and return the liquid to a boil. Once it is boiling, reduce it to a simmer and move the pot so that only one side of it sits over the flame and the liquid makes a small bubble up one side of the pot (this allows a film to form over the top of the liquid, trapping the flavor, rather than cooking it away). Cook slowly, maintaining the bubble at the side of the pot for 5-6 hours, replenishing water if it drops below the level of the chicken bones. Do not stir or mix the stock once it as this point!!!
Strain the stock carefully and refrigerate, taking care not to agitate the liquid. Allow stock to cool overnight and when ready to use, remove fat from top.