Wednesday, January 23, 2013

French Onion Soup!

Onion soup has been around since the ancient Romans and Greeks, but it took the French to add the bread and cheese to make it the much desired "French Onion Soup," or "Soupe a l'Oignon Gratinee." French onion soup has been around since the 17th century and was peasant food, specifically from the silk laborers known as the canuts, and was thought to have medicinal properties. At the time, people thought that eating raw onions caused headaches. The tradition was carried on to local french bistros in the Lyonnaise region of France, called "bouchons." Onions were caramelized to perfection, simmered with water, then topped with a crisp slice of bread (croute), Comte or Gruyere cheese, then baked or broiled until the cheese was melted and slightly browned. Beef stock would have been too time-consuming and expensive to "waste" on a simple onion soup. Sometimes red wine would be added to the broth, an ancient tradition known as "faire chabrot" ("to drink like a little goat"), which is why many modern recipes call for the addition of red wine, port, cognac, white wine, and even sherry. Legend has it that French onion soup was created by King Louis XV (or perhaps XIV) of France? After a long day of hunting, apparently unsuccessfully, he created the dish using stale bread, onions, and champagne that he had on hand... I find that extremely hard to believe that a King, with servants, would have the knowledge or patience to properly sweat and caramelize onions.

I adore a nice bowl of French onion soup and have spent many a day trying to find the version I like best. I've consulted all the greats: James Beard, Eric Ripert, Thomas Keller, Anthony Bourdain, Julia Childs, Jacques Pepin, Laura Calder, Michael Ruhlman, and even Balthazar's, just to name of few! (I'm not kidding!) They all have different convictions about what is best, and what I have concluded is I like mine the best! Although my recipe has a few additions not regularly seen, like the addition of a leek and shallot - technically in the onion family, which I feel rounds out the flavor, giving it that "je ne sais quoi." In addition, I like using beef stock even though I know Ruhlman would gasp in horror! Either way, if you love French onion soup and you don't want to make just any recipe on a whim, I think you'll find this very satisfying and adaptable to your taste. It makes a fine French onion soup indeed!


French Onion Soup (Soupe a l'Oignon Gratinee)

Serves 4, generously!

Ingredients:

1/2 cup unsalted butter
4 LARGE yellow onions, thinly sliced*
1 leek, sliced thinly and washed (see how do you cut and wash leeks?, if needed)
1 shallot, trimmed, peeled, and thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
5 cups beef stock (home-made or low-sodium is the best)
1/2 cup red wine, or port, or white wine, or sherry, or 1/4 cup cognac to deglaze (optional, in fact, sometimes I prefer it without)
2 bay leaves
1/2 lb Comte or Gruyere cheese (**use cave-aged, or it won't melt properly!), shredded
8, 1/2" thick slices French baguette, toasted golden brown (the dry bread makes the cheese float and not sink to the bottom, toast it well!)

Directions:

In a large pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter over low heat. Add the onions, leek, and shallot, sprinkle to taste with salt. (Careful if your using store-bought stock, less is more here.) Stir to coat well with the butter, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until very tender, 20-30 minutes.

Remove the cover, raise the heat slightly and saute, stirring frequently, until the onions turn a deep caramel brown, about 1-1 1/2 hours, or so! Be patient! Do Not Let them Burn, or the soup will be bitter.


Add the stock, 1/2 cup red wine or port or cognac, etc. (you choose), and bay leaves, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer about 30 minutes more. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

When ready, discard the bay leaves. Taste the soup and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Ladle into heavy flameproof serving crocks or bowls placed on a baking sheet or broiler tray. Sprinkle a little of the cheese into each bowl, then place 2 toasted bread slices or croutes onto each bowl. Sprinkle evenly with the remaining cheese.


Place the tray with the bowls in the oven for approximately 20 minutes, or until the cheese is melted. Crank up the broiler to brown the cheese slightly, or use a blow torch. Serve immediately. CAREFUL, IT'S HOT, but very delicious!

*To thinly slice onions for French onion soup, remove the tops and skins from the onions, leaving the root ends attached. (That gives you something to hold on to.) Cut the onions in half from root to tip. Cut each half the same way. Then, holding the root section, slice the onions crosswise, creating the perfect size to fit in spoon!


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