Food for Thought: French Onion Soup

Every labor requires proper sustenance and nourishment.  Writing is no exception.  Cooking and writing, in fact, share many qualities in common:  understanding and breaking rules, developing things (flavor, characters), creativity, inspiration, starting with good ingredients, and the need for practice and time to achieve a quality product.

Before I knew I loved to write, I knew I loved to cook.  The conjuration of something complex and soul-satisfying out of disparate ingredients, and the way food brings people together, nourishing so much more than just our bodies, has always given me a deep, abiding sense of pleasure.

When we write, fueling ourselves mentally and physically is important.  Many, though, are intimidated by the kitchen and it’s mysteries.  In an effort at demystification, I’ve decided to share the occasional recipe (with pictures and instructions) here on the blog.

To kick off my “food for thought” series, I thought I’d start with one of my favorites:  French Onion Soup.  This recipe takes a lot of time, but very little active involvement; the stove does most of the work for you.  As such, it’s a great dish to prepare while you’re attempting a writing marathon on a sleepy weekend afternoon.

FRENCH ONION SOUP (recipe adapted from Thomas Keller’s BOUCHON cookbook)

Serves 4.  Allow 4-6 hours for preparation.

Begin with a bunch of nice, juicy onions.  I usually use 3-4, depending on their size.  Some people swear by red onions, others white.  I like a mix.  Be sure to grab sweet ones if they’re available (Walla Wallas, for instance).  But, really, any nice looking onions will do.

Step 1: Slice your onions.  There are a couple of tricks to keep in mind here.  First, the sharper your knife, the less you’ll cry :).  Cut cleanly and quickly for minimum tears.  Still, this part requires a little fortitude, because if your onions are fresh, they are sure as hell going to make you cry.  I start by cutting off the ends and peeling the onions.  Then slice the onion in half and use the ribs as a cutting guide (cut down along the ribs for slices of even thickness).  This is important when browning (if the slices are all different thicknesses, the onions will brown unevenly).

Once your onions are ready to go, you’ll want to begin the long, slow task of reducing them to a caramely puddle of goodness.

Step 2: melt 4 TBS unsalted butter in a large, heavy skillet along with 1 TBS fresh thyme leaves.  Use medium-low heat.  Add the onions and about 2 TSP kosher salt.  I find tongs helpful for gently tossing the onions with the melted butter, thyme, and salt.  Let this cook uncovered for about 15 minutes.

Prepare a paper lid for the skillet using parchment paper.  Cut a piece of parchment large enough to cover the entire surface of the skillet.  Fold it in half, and then in half again, and snip off the corner.  When unfolded, this will create a small, centrally located hole from which steam can escape.  Place the parchment lid over the onions in the skillet and reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting.

Cook the onions, covered, for 3-4 hours.  Every 20 minutes or so, remove the lid and gently stir the onions, making sure they don’t brown too quickly.  The idea here is make sure that the onions caramelize naturally, reducing down, giving up their liquids, and concentrating their sugars.  Meanwhile, go write.  Let the onions do their thing.

Eventually, they should begin to look something like this:

See, dark and gorgeous.

Be sure to keep cooking them down until they are nice and caramelized — if they reduce into a gooey puddle, so much the better!  The dark color is what’s going to give your soup all that lovely, umani flavor.

Okay, so, now you’ve gotten your onions browned and your house has started to attract the attention of hungry neighbors.  You’re almost there!

Step 3:  Increase the heat on your skillet to medium and sprinkle 1 TBS flour on the onions.  Using your tongs, or a spatula, saute the onions with the flour for about 3-5 minutes (to allow the flour to cook).  Then add 1 cup water to the skillet, scraping up the browned bits from the pan and creating a base broth.  Once you’ve captured all the flavorful morsels from the skillet bottom, begin adding water until your skillet is more or less full (you’ll want about 6-8 cups water total).  At this point you’ll also need to add 3-4 TBS demi glace.

You may notice I’m giving you lots of approximations.  Unless you’re baking, cooking is as much art as science.  Taste.  Look.  Smell.  Use your judgement.  I trust you.  Add as much demi glace as you think you need for a flavorful broth.

Demi glace can be purchased at most grocery stores and is, essentially, reduced stock.  You can use chicken, veal, or beef to equally delicious effect.  I like the “More than Gourmet” brand.

Let the demi glace melt into the liquid and stir gently to incorporate everything together.  Also add 2 TSP fresh thyme and 8 whole peppercorns.  Bring the whole mixture to a boil and then reduce to a gentle simmer.  Let the soup cook for at least 30 minutes to allow the flavors to marry together.  Season to taste with more salt.  You’ll probably need at least 2-3 TSP, if not more.  Don’t be shy.  Salt enhances the flavors of the other ingredients.  Sort of like magic.  A splash of balsamic vinegar can also be used to bring out a little more sweet, tart flavor in the broth.  Acids, like vinegar, are often an important addition near the end of cooking a savory dish.  Add at your discretion.

Remove the soup from the heat and let sit in the skillet until cool.  As awesome as this soup is when freshly made, it’s actually even better if you can wait a day.  If you have this sort of restraint, go ahead and put the soup in the fridge and chill it overnight.  If not, proceed immediately to Step 4…

Step 4:  Prepare croutons and slice your cheese.  For the croutons, start with a French baguette.  In this case, day old is better than fresh.  Slice it into 3/4 inch rounds and dip each round in olive oil (both sides).  Sprinkle the rounds with salt.  Put them on a cookie sheet and broil them until they are a light golden brown on both sides.  Watch these babies carefully, as it’s easy to forget about them and end up with charcoal and a screaming fire alarm 🙂

For the cheese, you can use the classic, Comte.  This is a lovely, mild, Swiss cheese.  You can also use Gruyere, a stronger flavored cheese that is otherwise quite similar to Comte.  You’ll want good, thick slices of cheese to cover the entire top of the bowl, so be sure to get sufficient cheese.

Slice your cheese about 1/4 inch thick, as seen here:

Step 5:  Gently reheat your onion broth.  When it is warm, but not boiling hot, pour about 1 1/2 – 2 cups into each bowl (you’ll want sturdy, ceramic, oven-safe bowls for this).  Get a 3:1 ratio of broth to onions in each bowl — there’s nothing worse than soup that has too many onions and not enough liquid.  Top each bowl with croutons (try to cover the top completely) and then layer cheese on top of the croutons.  Sprinkle with salt and a few leaves of fresh thyme.

Place your bowls under the broiler and broil until the cheese is bubbling and beginning to brown.  Again, you must watch carefully, as you don’t want to burn the cheese or any bits of crouton peeking through.

Remove from the oven (careful! this stuff is hot!) and serve with a nice salad (frisee or Boston bibb with bacon & croutons is a nice accompaniment).

Well, alrighty!  I sure hope you like the recipe  — and please be sure to let me know if you have any suggestions, or any favorite recipes of your own to share.

Bon Appetit!

ps. the last time I made this soup, I got 2,255 words written while the onions were browning.  Consider the gauntlet thrown!

3 thoughts on “Food for Thought: French Onion Soup

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