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Friday, October 16, 2009

Soup of the Week: French Onion

      When I lived in Manhattan, I often ordered French onion soup as a late night snack at a diner or bistro and justified paying five or six dollars for it by telling myself it wasn't the type of thing you could make at home. In Paris, I ordered it everywhere I ate, savoring each variation. It is a perfect light meal during the week, especially when rounded out by a nice salad and a glass of red wine. We recently enjoyed this soup with this delightful Bordeaux blend (pictured at right). The French are great at making easy drinking table wines, and this one is a prime example, dry and subtle, and a bargain at $14 per magnum.
     Last winter I started a project to demystifying French Onion soup, so I could make it for myself (and maybe a lucky friend or two) just how I wanted, whenever I wanted. I bought myself some oven proof crocks and read up on all the different recipes out there. The soup that I make right now is based on Anthony Bourdain's recipe from Les Halles.
     Not a lot of fancy ingredients are required to make French onion soup. That is one of the things I love about it: onions, stock, bread, cheese and seasonings. Blissfully simple!
I usually splurge on a nice cheese, since you don't use a whole lot of it and I feel that it makes a big difference. Gruyere is my favorite so far, but you can really use whichever cheese (or blend of cheeses) you like, or have in the fridge. Swiss, provolone, mozzarella, gouda...the sky's the limit!
This dish does require patience. I've broken it down in my head to several steps, which gives me more flexibility and allows me to make this wonderful soup more often:

Caramelized onions. Our friend, Frankie, gave us some of his country bacon. I couldn't bring myself to waste the bacon grease that was left over after cooking it, so I sliced up some onions and let them cook in the grease at a low heat. This is the first place patience comes in. It can take some time for onions to get as rich, brown and melty as you want them. Watch them carefully because you don't want the onions to burn. The process is very satisfying, and smells just wonderful, but I don't always have the time to do it.
     Luckily, I have learned that you can caramelize onions in a crock pot. It usually takes 10-12 onions, sliced, to fill my crockpot, which I then drizzle generously with olive oil (sometimes I use a knob of butter as well, or instead) and sprinkle the top with dried thyme and maybe throw in a bay leaf. This doesn't achieve exactly the same result as caramelizing in a pan, but it saves a lot of time. The caramelized onions keep well in the fridge. I've also read that you can freeze them, but I haven't tried that yet (ie I always eat them all before they get to the freezer.) There are lots of other excellent uses for caramelized onions, such as a topping for a burger or steak or in an omelette.

     Once the onions are caramelized (or onions that you've pre-caramelized are warmed though), you can add a splash of port, sherry, balsamic vinegar, red wine, white wine, or any combination thereof. (Maybe a some of what you're planning to serve with the soup, or some of what you've been drinking while you caramelize the onions.) Recipes vary here, so it's up to you. For me, it depends on my mood and the levels of the bottles in my cupboard.
Stock. Next, add the stock to the pan with the onions. Simmer the stock with the onions to allow the flavors to concentrate, tasting as you go. Ladle soup into oven proof crocks. Put a slice of toasted bread and some cheese at the bottom of the the bowl before adding the soup for a great extra surprise.
Both beef and chicken stock (or a combination of the two) work well in this soup. Stock does merit (and will get) its own post(s), but long story short: the better the stock, the better the soup. This rule especially applies with French Onion. Making stock also takes patience, but there really is no substitute. You can make your stock ahead of time and keep it in the fridge, or freeze it, so it's ready when you want to make the soup.  Your crockpot can also come in handy preparing the stock.

Assembling the soup. First, preheat your broiler. Slice up a baguette or whatever bread you'd like, toast one slice per serving and float on the soup in the crock. This is an excellent use for day old bread. I had great success once using a leftover olive roll. Grate the cheese, and generously top the crouton with this. Make sure to sprinkle some over the edge. It will form a tasty crust on the crock. The crouton and cheese make this soup. I can't think of another dish where the garnish is so important, but I do know that melted cheese makes anything taste better.

Place the crocks on a baking sheet and broil on high for a 5-7 minutes, keeping a close eye. By this time, your house will smell delicious and you'll be getting your spoon ready to dig in.
Allow to cool before devouring.


~~louise~~ said...

Hi Corinna,
I adore French Onion Soup. I can't wait to try Caramelized onions in the crock pot. I admit, I do sometimes run out of patience which really isn't good to do especially when preparing French Onion soup. (they would never make it to my freezer either:) How long does it take it the crock?

Your soup looks so golden and delicious. Thank you so much for sharing...

Corinna said...

Thanks, Louise!

I usually do the onions in the crock pot on low overnight (8-12 hours), and then decide from there. If I have to go out, I will continue another 6-8 hours or so on low. If I will be around to keep a bit of an eye on them, I might switch them to high. (On my crock pot there seems to be a big difference between the two.) It's also good to take the lid off for a bit to let the excess water evaporate, again when one is around to watch what's going on.

Hope this helps and makes sense. :c)

~~louise~~ said...

Totally makes sense. I am so loving this idea. Thank you so much Corinna, I really appreciate it.

SY said...

I've only had french onion soup a few times in my life and everytime I had it I enjoyed it... The coat of cheese on the top makes it extra special..
cool article

Corinna said...

Thanks, SY! Yes, it's a great soup, and you can't go wrong with cheese!

Tom said...

My wife tried this out and it is definitely the absolute best French Onion Soup I've ever had (and I've had a BUNCH). Thank you for all the work you put into the post. I can tell you personally that it was worth it!
Columbia, MD