Monday, January 29, 2007

Soupe à l'Oignon Gratinée (French Onion Soup)

It must be wintertime, because my dutch oven is getting a lot of use. I love making soup -- it's always been one of my favorite things to do in the kitchen, partially because it's very easy and quite foolproof. Don't have enough potatoes? Only chicken, no beef? It's ok, because a traditional, homestyle soup calls for nothing in particular: just what you have on hand. Another aspect of soup that I adore is that you can use almost dead vegetables, giving you extra mileage in the kitchen for that worn out stalk of celery you didn't get around to using, or those dingy looking carrots that aren't suitable for lunches or general human consumption. No one will know if the carrots started out a little sorry in the end -- they'll be too busy eating!
My parents were kind enough to bestow upon me their original two-volume edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, complete with box, after I mentioned that I had procured only the second volume at a book fair. Now I have two copies of volume two, but they're different editions -- which doesn't mean much. Still, if I ever lose one copy, I guess I have another to complete the set. Good to have, I guess. Anyhow, my father is fond of making the infamous French Onion Soup, found in the first volume, so I'm pretty thrilled that I own a copy of the book now so I can make it. Growing up, we had a very important birthday tradition: anything you want to eat was made to order on your birthday. My two most requested meals? Onion soup with chicken wings was one, and the other was vanilla milkshakes and bacon. I can't imagine eating onion soup and wings now (or vanilla milkshakes with bacon for that matter) -- much too heavy -- but when I was a kid, it was like being in heaven. My two favorite things together on one plate! Oh, the possibilities!
It's been cold here, cold enough to freeze the lake over halfway to Indiana, and one of the best winter meals is a hearty bowl of soup. This onion soup is easy to make, because all you need are onions, broth, butter, and vermouth. And time -- it requires a good amount of stirring and pot-watching, but that makes a fine excuse for staying out of the cold.

Soupe à l'Oignon Gratinée (French Onion Soup)
Begin by slicing, in thin strips, five cups of yellow onions (five cups is equal to about 1-1/2 pounds, if you buy one of those mesh bags full. We got a 3 pound bag and used half of it, for example.)
Once the onions are sliced, melt 3 tablespoons of butter with 1 tablespoon of oil in a large, heavy-bottomed soup pan over low heat.
Add the onions and cover, cooking over the low heat for 15 minutes.
Uncover and add 1 teaspoon of salt with 1/4 teaspoon sugar, which helps the onions caramelize and turn a delicious golden brown. Raise the heat to medium and stir frequently, cooking for 30 to 40 minutes more. Do not let the onions burn on the bottom of the pan -- you will probably need to be in the kitchen for this entire amount of time, or nearly all of it. About 20 minutes in, start boiling 2 quarts of beef stock or broth (or brown stock as per Julia Child's recipe, also found in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which isn't extremely difficult but requires meat pieces and a fine strainer or cheesecloth. It's not hard, but it's an involved recipe.) Your onions will turn a beautiful golden brown and you'll want to eat them right away. Don't -- the best is yet to come.
Add 3 tablespoons of flour to the onions and stir for 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.
Stir in the boiling stock or broth. Add 1/2 cup dry vermouth or dry white wine (we used vermouth, which is a nice ingredient when cooking because it's not really used in volumes as a drink mixer, leaving the same bottle to hang around for years before it's all killed off in one martini-binging "lets get rid of this old vermouth" afternoon.) Season with salt and pepper to taste (and, at this point if you so desire, my dad's "secret ingredient": Frank's hot sauce, just a few dashes.) Simmer, uncovered, for 30 to 40 more minutes, stirring and skimming occasionally. You really do want to skim, because a lot of the fat and flour rise to the top and form an unpleasant skin.
While you are waiting for the soup to finish, heat the oven to 325º. Cut a loaf of french bread into 1-inch wide rounds, one slice of bread per customer (or two, if you're serving small bowls.) Place on a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes. After baking, brush each side with a bit of olive oil, then put back in the oven to cook for another 15 minutes.
Slice a few pieces of cheese -- the recipe recommends swiss or parmesan, but I'm fond of Gruyère -- and also grate a bit as well.
When the bread and soup are both ready, turn on the broiler to high. Place a slice of bread (which is referred to in the recipe as a "croute") in the bottom of a bowl. Ladle over a healthy portion of onion soup. The croute will float; place a few slices of cheese directly on the croute, being careful not to drop them into the soup.
Arrange the bowls on a baking sheet and put under the broiler for about 3 minutes, watching carefully. You do not want the cheese to burn, nor do you want to serve it without the cheese melting. It's a difficult balance to strike properly, but diligent watching will ensure that nothing goes wrong.
Serve, with a bowl of grated cheese on the side as garnish.
As Miss Child would say: "Bon appétit!"

1 comment:

Lapin Agile said...

I think the soup is a Julia classic. Delicious

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