Saturday, February 25, 2012

French Onion Soup

French Onion Soup in Classic Crock
Classic French Onion Soup

Recipe by Robin

“Onions are the Queen of Vegetables!” So spoke my college roommate Dave many a year ago. “Think about it,” he continued, “You need them for just about any kind of cooking.” We kept more onions than any other vegetable on hand in those days, not so much for their versatility, but because they were cheap and could be stored at room temperature for a long time without spoiling. I cooked so much cheap, filling, and delicious Pasta a l’Olio in those days that we abbreviated its name to a l’Olio to save time. When I felt financially flush, I’d lay out some cash for the more costly Gruyere cheese and make some French onion soup. This is an approximation of the recipe I made then, with the addition of white wine, which was impossible to keep on hand in a household of thirsty students.

French Onion Soup with Bread and Cheese Topping
Ready for the Broiler
I debated long and hard about the bread. Go traditional with a French baguette, or use a more healthful whole wheat bread from a microbakery? Save money and go traditional, or spend more for locally produced, wholegrain bread? I actually reviewed my mission statement at the store, and citing the “healthful deliciousness, whole foods, and improvisational cooking” sections, opted for a locally produced whole wheat loaf whose shape is somewhat baguette-ish. We will also use this bread with our Slow-cooked Turkey Chili (made with boneless skinless chicken breasts this time). But then I went back for a baguette—there’s a good reason for this tradition. We’ll try a little of each.

Although this recipe is simple, taking the time to slowly cook the onions to caramelize them to a deep golden brown is key to getting the deepest, most complex flavor. I highly recommend this because most people have tasted the caramelized onion variety and some will judge a quickie sautéed onion version harshly. I’ve even seen it happen online.

Soup Crock Broiling in Toaster Oven
Toaster Oven Conserves Energy
There’s lots of room for variation on this recipe. My version is rather thick with onions, you could add more broth to make a more soupy soup and feed more people. Some people use garlic, some skip the Parmesan, some substitute economical Swiss for other cheeses…and most people use white French baguettes! Some people like butter instead of or in addition to olive oil. Either red or yellow onions, or both, can be used, and they can be sliced thick or thin, as long as their size is consistent. Wine can be dry white, dry red, vermouth (reduce quantity) or dry sherry (ditto). Some toast the baguette slices, others don’t. Ingredient proportions can vary quite a bit, so feel free to get creative with your Queen of Vegetables Soup.

Crock of French Onion Soup with Sliced Bread and Grated Cheeses
French Onion Soup with Toppings
French Onion Soup
serves 3

2 tbsp. olive oil
4 cups sliced onions (see below)
½  tsp. sugar
¼  tsp. salt
2 tsp. flour
2 bay leaves
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
a few grinds of black pepper
½ cup dry white wine
4 cups beef broth (32 oz.)
~ 4 oz. shredded Gruyere cheese
1 - 2 tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
whole wheat or white baguette

If onions are small, slice so that they will make rings about ¼ inch thick. If onions are larger, cut in half lengthwise, then slice crosswise so shape of slices is half-round.

Heat oil over medium high heat in deep soup pot or Dutch oven. When oil shimmers, add onions and reduce heat to medium low. Stir to coat all onions with oil. Sauté for about 45 minutes, stirring about every 5 minutes to insure even cooking. Add the sugar and salt after about 20 minutes to encourage caramelizing. Continue cooking until browned, even if it takes longer than 45 minutes, to get the authentic French onion soup flavor. If necessary, you can turn up the heat, but be sure to stand by and stir frequently.

Turn heat to medium and stir in flour, cook for a minute or two, stirring constantly. Add the wine and deglaze the pan, stirring up browned bits from bottom of pan and blending the flour and wine thoroughly. Add the bay leaves, thyme, black pepper, and broth. Simmer for 20 minutes or longer to blend flavors.

Towards the end of this time, grate the Gruyere coarsely and the Parmesan finely—keep separate. Slice baguettes on the diagonal, about ½ inch thick. Toast the baguettes if desired; they will soak up less soup if you do. Use a toaster oven, or put on cookie sheet under broiler till slightly brown. Make two or three slices per bowl of soup.

When soup is cooked, turn on broiler or broiler part of toaster oven—the latter saves energy if you’re only making a bowl or two. Ladle soup into ovenproof bowls, float a piece or two of bread on the soup, and top with Gruyere cheese. Finish with a sprinkling of  Parmesan. You can make extra “cheesy bread” under the broiler if only once piece fits in the bowl.

Place bowls (and extra bread) under broiler until cheese is bubbly. Bon appetit!

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