February 28, 2014

Social Standards That Are SO Last Year & Fool-Proof French Onion Soup

My school has it’s 35th year celebrations coming up soon and even though it’s been over a decade since I graduated, there’s no denying high school was hard! The crews, the cliques, the competition to be cool. Fans and followers aren’t just a Facebook phenomena, friends.

Almost everyone wanted to be a part of the wolf-pack, but the commandments of cool were constantly evolving and consistently cruel. I commend the kids who had the capacity to cope and keep up. 

For the rest of us, foolish feats were the fast and fool-proof way to fit in.

Back in the day, it was all about being aboard the band-wagon and because peer pressure was more powerful and persuasive than any parent on the planet, I pulled some seriously stupid stunts. 

Who hasn’t, right? 

Of course, said dim-wittedness had to be a precise degree of dumb and dangerous to dignify any kind of acknowledgement from the upper crust, but I missed that part of the memo and totally botched my bad-assery.

Some of my most mortifying moments include crank-calling a crush after the invention of caller ID and getting caught, feeling fabulously fashionable only to come home to the horror of finding my fly hanging wide open, or my personal hallmark of humiliation, being pulled over by a pissed off uncle amidst an enthralling egging expedition.

Oh, the trials of being a teenager! 

In a time when image was everything, it was all unbearably awkward and terribly tragic. 

Fortunately, fifteen years is plenty of time to put things into perspective and forget these faux pas as a painful, but passing phase. 

Or was it? 

It's assumed that as an adult it’s easier to keep the buffoonery at bay because, obviously, we’ve grown up, gotten over the high school hunger games and are completely capable of putting the past to bed.

But I had a weird winter and it made me wonder, does the drama ever end?

Here’s what happened: in the time-honored tradition of dumb december decisions, I designated “Do More, Dammit!as my mantra for the twelve months of 2013 and, damn, did it bite me in the butt!

P.S. The sting was still sore so this year I played it safe by praying for the power to poop Paulo-Cohelo-esque profundity because, clearly, that’s more of a spiritual request than a resolution, right?

Really, who knew resolutions were woeful regrets waiting to happen, huh? More on that in a minute. 

Gratitude before gripes, babies. 

So, on the upside, it was a year full of firsts.

I broke a vow to never get behind the wheel and dared to drive. Granted, it was a golf-cart, but still gutsy by my standards. I finally caved into fashion and conceded to rock red lipstick and, really, it was revolutionary. I made more desserts than I have in the last three decades without any fiascos or the feeling of impending doom. I also managed not to miss a single second of MasterChef and finally ditched the denial and dropped those pesky pounds that made my pants fit funny. 

However, if you ask the husband, the real highlight of this hallowed year had to be my willingness to head out on a (semi)regular basis without being a perpetual pain in the a** about it.  

That’s right! Contrary to custom and as a nod to my complete commitment to that nagging new year’s resolution, I skipped my annual hibernation and had a seriously hedonistic holiday season instead. 

My only comment on the craziness: fun times, but I’m not fit for the fabulous life.

The reality is, any activity that has me end up the Just-Took-Four-Finals-After-Popping-Fistfuls-Of-Pills-And-I’m-A-Crazed-Maniac-Who’s-Slept-Sixty four-Minutes-In-Five-Days-And-I’ll-Be-Crashing-On-My-Couch-For-The-Rest-Of-The-Forseeable-Future edition of exhausted is against my religion.

BUT, and the husband will probably experience genuine joy when he hears this, partying really isn’t the problem. Who doesn’t love to dance?

And for the most part, people aren’t the perps either. Frankly, there are some fantastically captivating characters milling around in the mix. 

The soul-sappers are those sneaky little suckers known as social standards. I’m not implying that all edicts are evil or equal. Seriously, ’don’t pee in public,’ is a splendid societal precedent. Clearly, it hasn’t caught in our country, but that’s a separate story. No, I’m speaking specifically about those snarky pillars of preposterous pretensions stipulated by the snotty set, presumably for the purpose and pleasure of seeing “outsiders” squirm. 

In other words, I suspect Lahore is a parallel universe and the legendary laundry list of dos and donts lives on and lives large. 

I kid you not, high school might have been hell and the guilt of your gaffes may still haunt you, but those horrors have got nothing on the adult edition of questionable conventions. 

I mean, sure the manifestations of madness have morphed, but the premise is pretty much the same. And just so you know, jumping the hurdles is a lot harder.

Maybe it’s because the mandates range from the mildly ridiculous to raving mad and with the Wizards of With-itry forecasting the future of everything from fashion and food to song selection and social circles, fitting in can cost a bank-and-brain-busting bomb. 

Trust me, there are a whole lot of “hottest trends” out there. 

But would you be willing to sell your soul for a slice of popularity pie? Are you in the mood to make a deal with the devil?

Just kidding. 

A little melodrama lightens the mood. 

Look, I’m not here to lament who buys the bull or why. To each, his own. Besides, picking between being popular or a pariah is nearly a no-brainer (I’m not sure if that pun was intended).

But I am kind of curious about the breed of bourgeoise butthead coming up with this crock. I’ll get back to you guys once I’ve filled in the blanks and figured it out. Until such time, you’ll have to settle for a stand-in.

Fortunately for you and according to my imaginary assistant, this week’s schedule is wide open and I’m available to engage in any and all inane activities.

I mean, it’s all about image management and over-sharing all my UH-mayzing-ness, right?

Seriously, I am SO psyched about building a self-based brand and finding self-proclaimed fame, it’s not even funny. Plus, my split-second stint on the party circuit makes me sort of superior, my love for lipstick means I'm totally on trend, and, honestly, what’s more in than thin?

Clearly, I’m ready to rock the crown, reign as queen, and lay down the latest laws of the land.

Problem is, I’m a professional lagger and more than a little out of the loop so “latest,” loosely translates to “last year,” but that’s something my sporadically loyal subjects will learn to live with.  

Hey, I didn’t say there wouldn’t be hiccups. 

Coincidentally, every queen comes with a cadre of cronies to cater to her whims and do the dirty work so, my first act as the first lady of fabulousness was to appoint my Overlords of Awesomeness and assign them the task of tracking down the town’s taste-makers and documenting the details of anything and everything the top-tier tags as totally trendy. 

The benefits of being royalty are ridiculous! Laziness is no longer a luxury, it’s a lifestyle!

To be dead honest, though, I’m a tad disappointed. I had been hoping to hand you a tidy To-Do list that’d clearly detail how you could become the ‘next big thing,’ but, to be fair, it’s only February and, frankly, far too early for my advisors to predict the popularity of future pomposity.  

I’m expecting an update as soon as the spring soiree season starts. 

Meanwhile, because I’m not clear on what’s current and I’m a big fan of ousting the old-fashioned before busting out the new-fangled, I’d like to decree some societal demands dead. Or at least outdated and in desperate need of an upgrade. In my own overrated opinion, though, they’re out, over, old news, antiquated, obsolete, and utterly unfashionable. 

Seriously, SO last year!

Of course, compliance with my credos is completely optional, - tyrannical cruelty isn’t my cup of tea - but, since I’m no saint and almost all overtures of kindness come with a catch, I’ve come up with a customized condition too. In case you’re considering copping out on my campaign, you are forbidden from updating your Facebook profile picture for a year. Terms and conditions apply to cover photos too, so forget about looking for loopholes.

Strike a pose, suckers!

A side-note before the sermon, though: I stand self-accused of nearly all these indiscretions so feel free to mock and make fun of me the next time we meet. 

Now, let’s begin our little briefing!

Frenemies Forever: I’ll be blunt about this dilemma; don’t be a back-stabbing b****. Dare to dump petty people who pretend to be your pals. And when it’s time to say toodles to said Debbie Downer, these keywords should come in handy: quick, quiet, and clean. Much like a murder. Morbid, right? A bad break-up usually is, but seriously, your soul will thank you for purging the poison and pretense.

The Big Bag Bonanza: I know, I know. An outfit isn’t worth its weight without appropriate accessories, right? And big bags were to 2013 what big shades were to 2005, — the ultimate accoutrement — right? Yeah, despite those directives, one of my deepest, darkest desires is to see the immediate demise of this arm-dangling abomination. How much could ditching the designer distractions and brewing some brain-juice hurt? P.S. If you post one more picture of you and your besties hiding behind handbags big enough to house bomb shelters, I’ll have to smack you. I’m serious. Stop. It.

Preternaturally Preserved Pentagenarians: Fine, yes, age is just a number, but holy Botox, Batman! I mean, I’ve heard menopause is hell and yearning for your youth is absolutely understandable, but regularly spending big bucks on refurbishing your face and nip-tucking non-existent flaws is bat-s**t crazy! Add ‘aging elegantly’ to your agenda and step away from the surgeons and scalpels, stat!

Being Exclusive: Four words: Philippe. Lafforgue. La. Maison.

FOMO Frenzy: Yeah, YOLO yada-yada-yada, but it looks like someone’s taking “live every day like it’s your last,” literally. I’m going to go out on a limb and say you’re not alone in your dream to do it all, but life passing you by seems to be the least of your problems. The reality is you’re probably already running right past it. Honestly, unless you’re bent on a burn-out, cut back on the coffee and calm down; press pause for a second, soak it, in and savor the sweetness. For real, forget frantic and make the move from zoom to zen.

Jora, Joota, Jewelry: First of all, how the heck do you fund this habit? Second, even though fashion isn’t my forte, you need to ease up on the outfits and save the head-to-toe for Halloween, sister. A little mix and match lightens the load and the look. Out with awkwardly over-done and in with effortlessly understated. Do it, dammit! Kick the costume and kill ‘em with confidence.

The Facebook Fantasy: Hey, how can you love yourself if all your Facebook friends don’t love you first, right? Well, the popularity polls are in and by the looks of the likes and countless comments, we can confirm that your life is picture perfect. Of course that quirky, yet coordinated desk with it’s carefully arranged clutter, angled coffee cup, an artful jumble of journals, and frames full of pictures with pals is your workspace. And, no shit, you wake up with such a meticulously manicured mane everyday. Listen, subtlety isn't your strong suit and, sure, we all share the sunny sides of our lives a lot more liberally than mortifying missteps we wish had never happened, but such calculated curation is a tad worrisome. Maybe it’s time to consider a career that doesn’t involve managing your own one-man marketing campaign?

Crass Cat-fights: Politics are passé, my pets. Drama-driven sixteen year olds are quite capable of sustaining the ceaseless scandal cycle so, let’s leave the loud-mouthing to the little ones.

The Perennial Party Plant: Look, I don’t know what your day-job is, — with a weekend that starts on Wednesday, your endless energy, and all those extra hours to party like a pop-star, it’s obvious you lucked out — but for the sake of our sanity and your health, how about sitting out a session? Lunches, launches, shadis, showers; it’s starting to feel like there’s a fungus among us. Considering most of your college buds have called it quits and embraced adulthood, complete with kids, commitments, and careers, you don’t have to worry. Your spot on the dance-floor is safe and I assure you no one’s really interested in out-drinking the resident alki. Now, take a time-out.

Misguided Moments of Masculinity: Newsflash, neanderthals; most women aren’t excited by the idea of a whipped man, but if cleaning up after yourself compromises your identity or your ego falls apart at the idea of frying an egg, the fragility of your masculinity isn’t our fault and it isn’t appealing either. Real men don't rely on ridiculous rules to reaffirm their manhood.

The Powder-Puff Posse: This is sort’ve self-explanatory, but a quick clarification: this ain’t LA and you ain’t Lindsay Lohan. Party’s at the bar, not in the bathroom.

Selfies & Picture Panic: Luckily, most of what I wanted to say about selfies has already been said and all I’d like to add is, less is more.  I’m crazy jealous of your knack for contorting your arm at unnervingly unnatural angles all in the name of capturing your own glamor and glory, by the way. 

Awkward Air-Kisses: I swear, only one artificial act of affection in the world sucks worse than the half-assed hug: the awkward air-kiss. The rules sound really simple, — in Karachi, two pecks are pretty customary. Lahore limits it to one. Islamabad is kind of enigmatic, primarily because I haven’t hung out in the capital enough to paint a clear picture, but factoring in the foreigners and the demands of diplomatic decorum, I imagine a lot of hearty handshakes and stunted side-hugs. And in the face of the fashion and fine arts crew, these fundamentals flip-flop — but knowing what you know won’t necessarily save you from fouls and fumbles.  A misfire could mean landing one on the lips, lingering a second too long for a second-kiss cue is kind of creepy, and being passed over right when you’re about to plant one is plain uncomfortable. I wish there was some sort of universally applicable smooch-statute, but until then, I motion we all master the Miss America wave.

To tell you the truth, I’m really not a rebel, but some rules are supposed to be broken, especially supremely superficial and absolutely arbitrary instructions on how to act to in order to be accepted into an imaginary inner circle. 

Go with your gut, guys and girls. Feel the situation out, figure out your stance, see if it fits, and then stick to your guns like super-glue. 

And on the off chance that you do flounder and fall flat on your face, at least you’re the one in charge, in which case, it’s easy to tell fakers and fools to kiss your booty and back off. 

Now, because this week has been all about feigning fanciness and nothing says fancy like French food, I’m serving up one of my favorite forms of liquid love; french onion soup. Peasant fare with a pretty face, it sounds very froufrou saying soupe a l’oignon, but the beauty of this baby is the idea of taking an ingredient as homely and humble as an onion and transforming it into something so subliminal and heavenly. I’m a sucker for such sophisticated simplicity. 

There are all sorts of opinions about what makes a really spectacular onion soup, but really there are only two secrets. The first is a flavorful, full-bodied broth to form the base. Ordinarily, I’m all about shortcuts, but this is one of those instances when you should take the time to brew a batch at home. Store-bought stock tends to be on the bland side and, in my experience, skimping on the quality of key components can translate into a tepid end-result. The second secret is slow-cooking. Letting the onions languish until they’re burnished brown and completely caramelized cooks out any acridity and gives the soupe a l’oignon it’s beautiful signature savory-sweetness. It takes a while, but it’s worth the wait. 

What you end up with a bowl of deep, earthy divinity, cheekily tucked beneath a cozy blanket of barely-toasted garlic croutons and bronzed, bubbling cheese. 

Adapted from, French Onion Soup, by Elise Bauer

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
6 large onions, sliced thinly from root to stem
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon flour (optional)
3 large cloves garlic, minced
8 cups chicken or beef stock
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (optional)
        8 slices French bread, rubbed with garlic and lightly  
        2 cups Gruyere cheese, grated (OR) 
        1/2 cup cheddar + 1 cup mozzarella + 1/2 cup parmesan,  
        grated and mixed
In a large saucepan, over a medium-high flame, heat the olive and butter until it begins to froth. Add the onions and sauté for 30-45 minutes (maybe even longer) until well-browned and sticky from the caramelization. The flour is optional because it’s mostly meant for making a slightly thicker soup. If you’re opting to use it, add the flour and the sugar to the onions about 10 minutes after you started sautéing. Be patient and resist cranking up the heat. 

Once the onions are cooked through, add the garlic and sauté for 1-2 minutes. 

Pour in the stock and add the bay leaf, thyme, salt and pepper. The balsamic vinegar is another optional ingredient, but I’m with Anthony Bourdain on this one; it adds a beautiful layer of sharpness and a subtle tart sweetness and it’s certainly a staple in my soup.

Leave the soup to simmer and for 45 minutes or until the stock has reduced by about 2-3 cups. I like a chunky soup so I let mine reduce by about four cups. Re-season if necessary and remove from the heat. Fish out the bay leaf and discard it.

Heat your oven to 175 degrees C (350 degrees F).

To serve, I recommend using individual soup bowls to avoid crouton wars, but you could use a large casserole dish. Ladle the soup out into bowls and top with 1-2 garlic croutons and a generous heap of cheese.

Place in the oven for 10 minutes or until the cheese is bubbling and lightly browned. Serve hot.

Basic Chicken Stock (approx. 8 cups)

Olive oil 
2 medium onions, quartered
2 carrots, chopped roughly
3-4 cloves garlic, smashed
2 kg/ 4 lbs chicken (a mix of backs, wings, and legs),      
        hacked into 2 inch pieces
8 cups water
1-2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons salt
6-8 whole peppercorns 
6-8 stems parsley (optional)
In a large stockpot, over a medium flame, heat 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the onions, carrots, and garlic and cook for 2-3 minutes or until the onions have softened slightly. Once the onions are translucent, remove from the heat and transfer into a bowl. 

In the same pot, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil and add half the chicken. Cooking the chicken in batches allows all the pieces enough to space to caramelize evenly, intensifying the flavor of the chicken, and resulting in a really meaty stock. Sauté the chicken until it’s no longer pink and starts to get some color and slightly brown on the outside, about 4-6 minutes. Transfer the cooked chicken to the same bowl as the onions, carrots, and garlic. Repeat the process with the remaining half of the chicken.

Once all the chicken is cooked, return the chicken, onions, carrots, and garlic to the same pot. Place the pot over a low flame, cover, and cook for about 20 minutes, or until the chicken releases it’s juices. 

Add 1-2 cups water and use a wooden spoon to scrape any brown bits off the bottom and sides of the pot. There’s a lot of flavor in there so don’t skip this step.

Add the remaining water, bay leaves, salt, peppercorns, and parsley (if you’re using it) and gently simmer the stock for  20-30 minutes.

Remove from the heat and strain the stock through a fine sieve or although cheesecloth. 

Left-over stock can be frozen for up to 4 months.

Until next time, power to the people! Later, lovers!


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