French Onion (soup kitchen)

Once upon a time, or so the story goes, King Louis XV of France (some say it was actually the XIV) returned to his hunting lodge only to discover there was almost no food. So he improvised with some butter, several onions, and some left-over champagne.

If you believe that, I may finally not need employment after I sell you some prized properties. (King, cooking? King, no food? No attendants? He, who said, “Après moi, le déluge?” It is to laugh, non?)

That said, I’ve made french onion soup to this recipe. It’s a bit sweet for my taste, but not bad at all. In fact, with a minor modification it’s my preferred recipe. Well, a couple of modications. For the soup itself, I like to remove the butter and add beef broth. No, wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Start with onions. Lots of onions. I use five to six pounds of yellow onions – sweeter onions if it’s the season. Peel them and halve them keeping the root attached so they’re easier to slice. Except now I do something a bit non-standard; I partially quarter. I cut each half in half ALMOST down to the root so the onion half stays together. Now I slice – eighth inch (more or less) slices. Why do I make this extra slice? I hate the sloppiness the longer strings bring to the eating. Cutting here massively reduces the eventual mess.

Once I’ve got about five pounds of onion slices I start caramelizing them down. Now there are a lot of ways to do this – crockpot, electric skillet, your soup pan on low heat, all work. Notice the very important thing, however, is that they’re done on low heat. If you do it too fast, you get some burned onion and some just hot. You want deep brown for all of it, but no black. Some people will tell you not to stir, just let it go. Me, I’ve discovered if I do that I get black stuff on the bottom and black stuff does not taste good. That means I stir – just once in a while is fine. It takes 15-20 minutes to bring the onions down where they need to be.

Once they’re caramelized move them to the soup pan (unless that’s where they are already, of course.) I now like to add about 2/3 of a bottle of flat champagne and about 2 1/2 cups of beef broth. I will point out that 500 ml is just a bit over 2 cups, so this is very close to equal parts champagne and broth.

Heat this up and you could eat it now, but I like to go another step. Actually this next step is pretty much traditional any more. Unless you’re in a cheap, cheap restaurant, of course. I speak, of course, of the bread and cheese lid.

You’re going to need a ramekin or other oven-proof bowl. Fill it about 2/3 full of soup, and let’s move on to the topping.

First, a crouton. No, not one of those nifty cubes for salads. We’re talking a thick, fillling… nevermind, let’s just do this.

Start with slices of bread. If you really want to do this right you want slices that are “texas toast” thick – 3/4 to one inch thick, preferably a heavier bread that’s a day or two old (so it’s a bit dried). If you have to and have the time, make the slices in the morning for the evening’s soup and let them dry. Now you’ve got your slices but they’re not yet right. You need to cut them and you need to finish them. To cut, take an empty ramekin and use it as a biscuit cutter. This will surprisingly (snicker) give you a piece of bread that fits the ramekins perfectly once it’s time to assemble them. Now take your circles (you did make more than one, right?) and lightly fry them (both sides) in butter. Let these set for an hour or two and you’ve got slightly crisp, flavorful soup croutons.

Place a crouton on top of the soup in each ramekin, and go to the next step. That’s topping your crouton with cheese.

I prefer to use grated or shredded cheese here – it just seems to do better for me. Given total choice I’ll use gruyere or other fairly mild, easily melted cheese – but it’s worked well with swiss and with cheddar as well. I’m not going to tell you how much cheese to add – I like cheese and always add “too much” (or so I’ve been told by purists. Fine, I’ll eat whatever they don’t want. ahem. sorry.)

Put the ramekins on a cookie sheet for easier control, and slide them under a broiler. Not for long, just long enough that the cheese melts and begins to bubble. Bring them out and serve. CAREFULLY, please – the dishes are very, very hot after all, and you don’t want to burn your guests (especially if they’re giving you their cheese. Nobody shares when they’re rushing to the burn ward, after all. Trust me on this.)

Let the soup cool just a bit so the crouton softens and is easily pierced by a spoon. Enjoy.

Can you make this dish for only one or two? Absolutely. Figure out how large a serving you want to eat. Divide by two and that tells you how much champagne and how much broth you need. You want a pound to a pound and a half of onion for every cup of soup (for my recipe – again, I like a lot of onion in my soup. If it’s too much by all means cut it down. Remember – all my recipes are guides. Feel free to meander the direction that interests you.)

Not quite the easiest recipe in my repertoire, but close. And definitely one of my favorites.

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