Thursday, December 12, 2013

To Drive the Cold Winter Away (French Onion Soup)

Jon, my father-in-law, has a French onion soup recipe that is famous throughout our family, and I was lucky enough to get my hands on it. Jon's recipes reflect the instinctive, free-form simplicity of a great home cook-a list of ingredients and a general idea rather than a rigid set of measurements. This is a large part of the mystique of historical recipes, which in addition to amazingly creative spelling, almost never do the math. "Take ye a vasty amount onions, and likewyse a potte full of stronge broth, and seethe it well over greate fyre" is all well and good, but to really guarantee an outcome, you need a formula. I always measure things out when first trying a new recipe or jotting down something for the blog. 
Meticulously measured
Soupe à l'oignion, as it is known in French, is an ancient preparation with thousands of variations and its own website, so it's difficult to nail down an "authentic" recipe. Onions, of course, but the liquid, it seems, is a matter of great contention. Beef is the obvious and most elementary choice, it provides a rich taste and deep savoriness that makes a classic counterpart to the sweet onions, but some insist a mixture of beef and chicken is requisite for balance and complexity, others demand all chicken broth or simple water, to preserve the pure flavor of the onions, yet more swear by pork or veal stock for their deeper sweetness and unique characters, and at least one even caramelizes the onions in a decadent wash of heavy cream. 
I have no more tears left to cry
Since French onion soup owes its popularity to the upswing of interest in French cuisine precipitated by the inestimable Julia Child in the 1960s, I decided her version would be the most appropriate starting place to compare notes. The glorious things about Julia's books is the extreme specificity the recipes provide. She gives notes on technique from start to finish, clear directions, and helpful troubleshooting. According to my copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she used brown stock, canned beef bouillon, or a mixture of either with water. It seems even America's great codifier of French cuisine played a little fast-and-loose with onion soup. I settled on beef stock; that's what Jon uses and it seemed the simplest choice. 
Lots of onions required
 Thinly sliced shallots lend a little extra soprano sweetness and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar lends some bass and helps the onions caramelize. Balsamic vinegar is something to always have on hand and tip into the pot when making wintery soups, rustic tomato sauces, and other dishes that benefit from its multi-layered, umami undercurrents. A more generous splash of sharp, sugary sherry deglazes the pan in a shimmering cloud of steam and a few sprigs of thyme lend lemony-green notes to play against the savory-sweet earthiness. 
Everything's better with cheese
Soupe à l'oignon gratinèe (French onion soup with croutons and melted cheese)
The traditional presentation is gratinèe, mantled beneath crusty croutons and a bubbling cloak of strong and salty cheese, an indulgence one should never go without.

8 tbs butter
3 lbs sweet onions, slivered
4 oz shallots, slivered
1 tsp sea salt
1 tbs balsamic vinegar
3 tbs whole wheat flour
1 c dry sherry
8 c beef stock
3 sprigs fresh thyme

1/2 loaf French bread, diced
2 tbs extra virgin olive oil
2 c Gruyere cheese, finely shredded

Warm a heavy, 5-quart or larger stock pot or Dutch oven to medium-low, toss in the butter and allow it to melt. Add the onions and shallots, tossing to coat. Damp the heat a little and leave the pot, covered, for 15 minutes.
Sweating it out
 After 15 minutes, uncover the pot, raise the heat slightly and stir in the salt and balsamic vinegar. Cook the onions, stirring frequently, for 40 minutes until they have turned glossy and richly golden. The longer you let the onions swelter into sweet caramel ribbons, the deeper and more flavorful the soup will be. In a large pot on a separate burner, warm the stock to steaming and drop in the sprigs of thyme.

After the onions are sufficiently bronzed, sprinkle them with the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for about 3 minutes. Slowly stream in the sherry while stirring, then (carefully!) do the same with the hot stock. Season to taste with pepper and simmer, uncovered, for 30 to 40 more minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Set aside until needed. This will keep several days in the refrigerator or for a virtual eternity sealed in airtight plastic and frozen.
Preheat the oven to 325 F and line a baking sheet with foil. Prepare croutons by tossing cubes of French bread in extra virgin olive oil and toasting until crisp and golden-brown, about 10-15 minutes.

Arrange ovenproof soup bowls or cruets on a large, foil-lined baking sheet and fill with soup, topping with a layer of croutons beneath a thick mantle of shredded gruyere. 
Bake soups on tray for 20 minutes, then preheat broiler. Finish for a minute or two under the broiler to brown the top lightly. Serve immediately.


Unknown said...

This looks perfect for a stormy winter evening. The homemade croutons are a special touch.

James Pereira said...

Thanks! It is a great easy supper for cold nights. I did get a little crazy caramelizing them up for these photos, but I love the colors and browned cheese is surprisingly delicious.