We’ve had a cold snap lately; the thermostat dropped below freezing for the better part of two days. This is a rather amazing occurance, and I thought we might get our single, annual ice storm. We didn’t, but it left me craving something rich, warm, and satisfying. I had planned to make samosas with cilantro-mint chutney all week. Unfortunately, like the wizard I often am, I left my recipe notebook at work. I logged over sixty hours this week — spring classes just started up — and I had made my grocery list there when I could steal away for a few minutes. So, I had a kitchen full of all the wrong ingredients. Tragic. Surveying what I had, though, I noticed some beautiful organic onions that Jeremy had brought home one day when he had made a run to the grocery store for me. Something had to be done with these; something like french onion soup.
French onion soup is that richly delicious treat from Parisian bistro cuisine. It’s a great showcase for the humble onion, and it’s perfect for a cold day. Deeply caramelized onions meet with a flavorful broth and garlicky, cheesy croutons. It’s an easy introduction to French cooking, and it tastes impressive. As its flavors are very simple, the ingredients make it imperative that you choose them for quality. As such, find the best onions you can. Yellow onions are a better choice that sweet onions, as the standard Spanish onion actually has a higher sugar content. Higher sugar equals better caramelization, so save your pennies on the Vidalias and Maui Sweets.
For the wine and the sherry, make sure you use alcohol you would actually drink. Using that vile “cooking wine” and “cooking sherry” will ruin the flavors of the soup. If you don’t have wine or sherry on hand that you would actually drink, skip them. You can deglaze the pan with water and add balsamic vinegar in place of the sherry for a little bite. This soup can easily be made vegan, also. Use a great homemade vegetable stock, and skip the cheese on the garlic toasts. Rather than covering soup-filled ramekins with cheese and broiling it, I top the soup with cheese toasts and pass additional cheese for sprinkling. This allows everyone to adjust cheese content to their liking — or even leave it off completely.
Cutting up the onions is easy — no mandoline or food processor needed! Just follow these easy steps:
Make this when you want to warm your bones and curl up with a good movie. It makes a wonderful meal when paired with a simple green salad dressed with a Dijon vinaigrette. And, this recipe makes just enough for two to enjoy generous bowls-full.
French Onion Soup – Soupe à l’Oignon
- 3 Spanish onions, sliced very thinly
- 1 T butter
- 1T extra virgin olive oil
- pinch of sugar
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 T flour
- 1/4 – 1/2 C good, dry, unoaked white wine
- 2 1/2 C beef broth
- 1 T soy sauce
- 1 sprig thyme
- 1 sprig parsley
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 T sherry
- a good French baguette
- 1 clove garlic
- 1/ 2 C gruyère cheese, grated
- leaves of a couple thyme sprigs, chopped
Preheat oven to 400º. Melt the butter and oil together over moderate-low heat. Slice the onions into thin crescents. Add the onions to the pot, and cook them covered for 15-20 minutes. This will allow them to retain some moisture in the caramelization process.
Remove the cover from the pot, and stir in the sugar, salt, and garlic. Cook for 30-45 minutes, stirring often. You want the onions to reach a deeply golden-brown color. Be prepared to splash in some water if needed to slow the cooking process. Towards the end of this set your stock to boil.
When the onions are beautifully caramelized, sprinkle the flour over the onions to thicken the mixture. Cook for 3-5 minutes, stirring almost constantly, to keep the flour from tasting raw. Deglaze the onions with the white wine. Start with a 1/4 C, and add more if you need more liquid to get the dark, crusty bits off the bottom of the pot. Cook most of the liquid off. Remove the pot from the heat. Pour in the boiling stock and add the soy sauce and herbs. If you have kitchen twine, tie the herbs together for easy removal after the soup is done. Return to the heat and simmer this, partially covered, for 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Now, make the cheese toasts. Slice the baguette on the diagonal about 1/4″ thick. Make at least 6 small toasts, but feel free to make more if you enjoy them. They also make great croutons for a green salad. Lay the toasts on a cookie sheet and toast them, dry, for 10 minutes or until the edges are golden brown. Remove them from the oven, and preheat the broiler Rub the croutons with the garlic clove. Grate the cheese and top toasts with the cheese. Pop the toasts under the broiler for a couple minutes. Leave the oven door slighly ajar, watching them to make sure they do not burn. Remove when the cheese is melted and bubbly.
When the soup is finished simmering, remove it from the heat and stir in the sherry. Ladle the soup into bowls and drop on a few croutons, toasted side up. Garnish with a bit of fresh, chopped thyme.