Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Classic French onion soup

Sometimes I take a few minutes to read my blog.  Not just skim posts for comments or check the statistics (thank you, by the way!!), but actually read the entries as if they were new to me.

You know, to make sure I'm at least more interesting than the most recent issue of Reader's Digest.  (I remember my grandma always having copies of that around her house as a kid an adult and wishing for something... anything... even some pictures, please!)  If I can't entertain myself, how can anyone else be expected to put up with my antics?

I certainly don't claim to be a master chef, nor do I like to follow food trends of any kind.  Instead, I prefer searching for classic recipes to add to my collection.  Something that I can return to time and time again, be it five months or five years from now and know without a doubt that it will still be relevant, easy to follow, and mind-numbingly delicious.  How does French onion soup meet those demands?  Beyond perfectly, if we're being honest!

Weathering a bit of a cool spell here in Pittsburgh took me right back to a food category that didn't get nearly enough attention this past winter -- soups.  There were thick and thin varieties, creamy and hearty, but not much in the way of simple and brothy.  Hello, French onion soup. 

Where do I begin with the reasons you should love this soup?  How about this for starters -- it uses five ingredients.  Five!  Olive oil, butter, yellow onions, beef stock, and red wine.  Sure, the bread and cheese piled atop the whole thing adds two more, but they're not totally necessary (though I recommend them highly).  So, a revised seven ingredients.  That's it!

How about that it's so darn simple?  French onion soup may sound fancy, but the deeply delicious flavor comes not from hard work or complex techniques but from a not-to-be-rushed stove-top cooking adventure.  If I had to simplify directions, it'd go something like this: "Cook onions until soft, then cook and stir some more until the onions are a beautiful deep golden brown.  Think they're brown enough?  Keep going a little more.  Now they're brown enough.  Add beef stock and wine.  Top with bread and cheese.  Devour."

The third reason you should totally love this soup -- you'll pay more for a movie ticket than you will for the ingredients to make this soup and feed at least six people.  Onions are dirt (no pun intended) cheap, as are the stock, Swiss cheese, and baguette.  And most people already have olive oil, butter, and a little bit of red wine lingering somewhere in the kitchen.  No red wine?  Have a party and invite over some kind folks.  Party guests love to bring wine, trust me.

Have you added onions and beef stock to your grocery list yet?  If not, this is my last ditch effort to convince you that you must make this soup today.  Nay, yesterday!  Everyone loves French onion soup... even onion haters!  Most people against onions claim the taste is too bitter or the smell too pungent.  Not these onions.  These onions are soft and oh-so-sweet, swimming in a pool of beefy red wine goodness.  Plus, topped with bread and cheese, how can anyone turn this stuff away?

Make it now.  Don't delay.  It's a classic.  Trust me (and Julia Child).  Or just trust her.  She knows her stuff.  And French onion soup was classic enough for her, it's classic enough for the rest of us.  Go and tell all of your friends.  Okay?  Okay!  :)

French Onion Soup
(adapted slightly from Mastering the Art of French Cooking)
-makes 10 cups, roughly 6 servings

A few notes: I usually recommend using low sodium stocks because that stuff is loaded with salt, but I couldn't find low sodium beef stock on this occasion, so I skipped adding table salt.  The stock and eventual topping of cheese were salty enough for my taste.  That said, adjust to your liking.  Also, the original recipe called for white wine, but I used red.  I think it gave the soup a deeper flavor and color and, since it's already gone, I'd say that my suspicions were correct.

1.5 pounds yellow onions, thinly sliced
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon granulated sugar (helps the onions to brown)
3 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 quarts (8 cups = 64 ounces = 1.9 liters) beef stock
1/2 cup red wine
Ground black pepper
6 slices Swiss cheese
Grated Gruyere cheese, optional (I had some left from these)
French baguette, sliced into 1-inch thick rounds

Melt the butter and oil together in the bottom of a large stock pot or Dutch oven over moderately low heat.  Add the onions, toss to coat them in oil and cover the pot.  Reduce the heat to real low and let them slowly steep for 15 minutes.

After 15 minutes, uncover the pot, raise the heat slightly and stir in the salt and sugar.  Cook onions, stirring frequently, for 30 to 40 minutes until they have turned an even, deep golden brown.  Be patient with this step!

After the onions are fully caramelized, add the flour and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes .  Add the wine in full, then stock, gradually, stirring between additions.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Bring to a simmer and simmer partially covered for 30 to 40 more minutes, skimming if needed.  Correct seasonings if needed but go easy on the salt because the cheese will add saltiness later.  Remove from heat and set aside until needed.

Toast slices of baguette under broiler until just beginning to turn golden.  Remove and arrange as many as you need to fit in the opening of the soup bowls you'll use on a piece of foil.  Top the bread slices with a slice of Swiss cheese (and a little Gruyere, if using) and return to the broiler until the cheese is melted and beginning to bubble.

Meanwhile, ladle out the soup into bowls for eating.  Remove from broiler and slide bread and cheese layers onto soup and, voile!  French onion soup for you and yours!  Enjoy :)

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