Friday, July 2, 2010

French Onion Soup

Ah, Onion Soup (some folks call it French Onion Soup). How could something so simple be so gobnobldy good! But simple can also be a bit challenging to a chef, and I’ve tasted my share of bland onion soups in my time. But when this soup really hits its stride, it is pure gastronomic gold.

Yes, you too can turn these few simple ingredients into one of the best soups you've ever tasted.  Uh huh huh!

Onion Soup is the first entry for my new blog, because it is what I consider my signature dish. It is also one of the first dishes I reverse engineered back when I started getting into gourmet cooking. What is reverse engineering? Glad you asked. It’s taking an existing item and, working backwards, figured out how it’s made. My cooking version of this process is simply finding the best version of said dish (in this case, a restaurant in Orleans, France) and then by trial and error, and comparing and contrasting as many different recipes as I can find, replicating that dish.

It goes something like this. If every recipe I find calls for something (like say, onions), then I’ll make sure to include that. If one calls for something that another doesn’t, (like say, red wine) then I’ll try it both ways, and decide which I like better. (definitely like it with red wine...both in the soup and in the cook) I’ll repeat this process until I’ve gotten just what I’m looking for, and in the case of onion soup, what I want is to pull as much savory, hearty, tangy flavor as I can out of just a few simple ingredients. So, let’s get started, eh?

Soupe L’Onion

6 lbs large yellow onions
olive oil
3/4 stick butter
fresh thyme
6-8 cloves of garlic
5-6 cans beef broth (14 oz cans)
2 cans water
1/4 cup red wine
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup flour
balsamic vinegar
1 baguette
block of Gruyere cheese

Slice onions into long, thin strips, and toss with the sugar. The sugar will help the onions develop a nice caramelization, which will add a lot of flavor to the soup. Melt ½ stick butter and 2 tbls olive oil in a skillet and saute the first two sliced onions 15 min or so, until they're soft, clear and well browned. The key is to saute with low heat, so they turn clear, caramelize slowly and don’t’ burn.

After you've sauted for 15 minutes or so (turning the onions with a spatula several times) they should be looking about like the photo above.  Resist the urge to stop at this point and make a hamburger to put them on.  Instead, add a couple cloves of minced garlic, and about a teaspon of dry thyme (or better still, fresh thyme.  If using fresh...use more, about a tablespoon) and let saute about a minute more.  Enjoy the delicious aroma wafting through your kitchen. 

Meanwhile, track down your favorite soup pot, and fill it with the beef broth, water, the vinegar, and the wine. (better take a sip or two of that wine to make sure its good.  Oh hell, just pour yourself a glass.  This is a French dish after all)  Bring this to a gentle boil and add your first batch of onions.  Start a second batch with the onions you've certainly already sliced and sugared by now.  When this is done, add it to the soup pot and start a third batch. Also, keep a good eye on your soup pot.  A nice gentle boil or heavy simmer is what you don't want it to cook down too fast.  If it does, just add some more water.  The goal is to let it simmer for at least an hour or two, so that it really develops a lot of flavor. 

Onions, onions, la la la!  Here we see all three batches.  The first in the pot, the second in the pan, and the third sliced, sugared, and awaiting its culinary destiny.  Oh, and about that third batch.  I saute it just like the first two, but I don't add it directly into the soup pot.  Onions have a tendancy to cook down to almost nothing in a long two hour boil, so I move the third batch into a bowl and set aside, then add this when there's about 15-20 minutes left in the boil.  This way there are some nice, thick onions left for you and your guests to enjoy.

At this point, we want to thicken the soup slightly.  This is where the flour comes in.  Sift it slowly into the soup while stiring.  If you have a nice sifter like the one pictured below, you can avoid those nasty clumps of flour that can form if you spoon it in.  But even those will stir out in with a little effort.
Now there's nothing to do but wait.  Well, actually, there is more stuff to do.  After the soup has simmered for 30-45 minutes, you can start tasting it.  I'm a big fan of making little adjustments to soup as it cooks, so I make sure I get the same results time and again.  On the first taste, the soup is probably pretty good, but let it keep will get better.  When you get to the point that you add the last batch of onions and have let that go another 15 minutes or so, you are almost ready for the last steps before serving.  But give it one more taste, and make adjustments as necessary.

If it doesn't seem rich and hardy enough, you can let it boil down more, but of course, that means less soup.  One way to solve this is by adding a crushed beef bouillon cube to the soup.  Also, a few shakes of garlic powder can help in this department.

If the soup doesn't seem tangy enough, add a little more red wine, red wine vinegar, or both.  Be careful not to over do it here...just a few drops at a time, stir and taste.  This tangy flavor is to me the hallmark of a good soup l'onion.  I've tasted many without it, and they're just so bland.  All the versions I've tasted in France have that tangy flavor, so yours should too.  Don't cut corners by skipping the wine...because later, when you're sitting at your table with your guests, you're gonna want that tangy flavor to be there as well. 

So, soup's almost done.  At this point you should be slicing that baguette into little medallions and toasting them in a 400 degree oven until they are golden brown.  Also, grate or shred your gruyere cheese as well.

To serve the soup, I just drop a couple toasted bread medallions into a bowl, ladle the soup over them, and sprinkle the cheese on top.  This is how you will usually find it in France.  The taste of the gruyere cheese is the last key flavor that the soup needs to really sing.  Make sure you ask your local cheese monger for the best gruyere she time to skimp at this point.

Now, that being said, I know some of you will wonder why this doesn't look like the soup you've had at TGI Fridays.  Well, that's because I find I like it best the way the French usually serve it, as the gruyere flavor can lose something when its melted under a broiler.  But, if you want that really cool cheese melted over the top look, you can pull it off.  But you're gonna need some mozzarella cheese.  Gruyere by itself just doesn't melt as well.  Adding Moz to the mix won't taste as perfectly Frenchy, but it will get you the look you're going for.

Mix shredded mozzarella with your gruyere, place a couple of the bread medallions on top of the soup, and then load the cheese mixture liberally onto the top.  Then place the bowls on a baking sheet or similar, and place the soup under the broiler for a minute or two...watching constantly.  This can burn fast, folks, so don't turn your back or pour yourself another glass of wine at this point.  Watch watch watch!  Pull it out when it looks about like the picture below:

The cute little soup bowls with the handles are made just for this type of operation...they're onion soup bowls, after all.  The straight sides and douple lip on top make them perfect for melting cheese like this.  You can find them at places like Ashers, William Sonoma, or other fine gourmet shops.  The handle makes it nice for serving what would otherwise be an awkward, cheese entombed bowl of soup--but be careful and use a hot pad or oven mit.  That handle gets hot under the broiler. 

And with that, I will say to you, Bon Appetit, my friends. 

Until next time....

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