Saturday, October 30, 2010

French Onion Soup

The leaves have mostly fallen off of the trees, the sky is perpetually gray (or so it would seem), and day by day, the weather gets gradually cooler.  While the scene outside is less-than-inspiring for me, it's at this time of year that ideas fly around my kitchen.  Slow cooking, stewing, and braising become regular occurrences in my culinary repertoire this time of year; and french onion soup is the ultimate slow-is-better soup.  I'll occasionally order this soup at a restaurant, but it inevitably is always too salty, too beefy, or otherwise sub-par.  It isn't a soup that's overly complicated.  The key is to let the ingredients speak for themselves: slowly caramelized onions combine with rich broth, wine, and fragrant herbs.  Simmer the mixture for as long as time allows, and top the mixture with thick slices of french baguette and cheese.  Broil until bubbly on top. It's as simple as that... so why is it so difficult to get a good batch of french onion soup?

If I had to guess, I would say that many restaurants don't provide the soup with the quality of ingredients it really deserves.  I use a high quality beef stock that isn't overly salty - and never beef bouillon cubes - combined with a healthy dose of red wine.  I've seen recipes that call for white wine or even flat champagne, but I think the tannic notes in the wine provide body and balance to the mix.

This recipe makes 8-10 bowls, which is considerably more than my husband and I can eat in an evening.  Luckily, this soup only gets better when serving it the second and third days - just keep the soup, baguette, and gruyere separate until ready to serve.  There's not much more to say about this recipe - except that it is really, really good.  Really.

French Onion Soup
Makes 8-10 bowls

3 T. unsalted butter
5 large sweet onions, peeled, halved, and slice 1/4" thick (about 8 c. total)
1 1/2 c. red wine
32 oz. high quality, low-sodium beef stock
1 t. dried thyme
1/2 t. dried rosemary
1 bay leaf
1 T. apple cider vinegar
16 oz. low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock
Baguette slices, 3/4" - 1" thick
Gruyere cheese (1/4 cup or more shredded per bowl)

In a large skillet with high sides, melt butter over medium heat.  Once butter is foaming add the onions to the skillet (it will be very full); add 1/2 t. salt.  Cover skillet with lid or tent with loose foil.  Cook for 8-10 minutes, until onions have just begun to soften and reduce.  Remove lid/foil, and continue to cook onions, stirring occasionally, until mixture has reduced and onions are golden brown, about 40 minutes.

Transfer onion mixture to a large stock pot over medium-low heat.  Add red wine to the onion mixture, and let cook for 1-2 minutes.  Add the beef stock, chicken or vegetable stock, and apple cider vinegar, as well as the thyme, rosemary, bay leaf, and 1/4 t. pepper. Simmer 45 minutes to an hour uncovered; taste - add salt and pepper if needed.

Ladle soup into broiler-safe bowls or crocks; cover with baguette slices.  Top with shredded gruyere cheese, and place under the broiler until cheese is melted and bubbling.

Serving suggestion:  Serve a simple green salad of butter lettuce, mache and/or other baby lettuces dressed lightly with white wine vinaigrette (1 t. dijon mustard, 1 T. white wine vinegar, and 3 T. extra-virgin olive oil, S&P) and topped with a sliver of shaved parmesan cheese.

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