Saturday, December 11, 2010

Liberty! Equality! Fraternity! Soup!

One of my favorite soup recipes is French Onion Soup. It's simple, cheap, lends itself well to an appealing aesthetic presentation, and is a reasonably flexible recipe; we've made a vegan option before that was just as outstanding as the original. I make it almost every time we head down to the famed family Beache Haus. It can stand well on its own, or be paired with a variety of other dishes: serve with a green salad or traditional Caesar for lunch, or dish it up as a first course to a more elaborate dinner. Goes well with strong red wines (burgundies, for instance) or a big mug of dark ale.

I base my recipe on the one from the 1997 edition of The Joy of Cooking, but with a much less structured approach.

Prepare for Gallic oniony goodness!
Onions (white or yellow, as sweet as possible - Walla Walla Sweets are excellent in this recipe)
Butter (olive oil for vegan option)
Beef broth (mushroom broth for vegan option)
Salt & pepper
Dry red wine, cognac, or sherry (optional)
Grated cheese (Gruyere is traditional, but works fine with Parmesan or something like it too)
Stale or toasted crusty bread

Mmmm... butter...
Melt a few tablespoons of oil/fat in your favorite soup pan or stock pot over medium low heat. Butter is best for this, but you can use olive oil for a vegetarian/vegan option, or a combo of butter and oil.

Sweat, baby, sweat!
Slice onions (on the thin side, but don't worry about it too much) and add to the pot. Use white or yellow onions, and get the sweetest ones you can, because you're trying to carmelize the onions over a low, slow heat. Onions with more sugar will tend to carmelize more readily (and taste extra yummy).

Add salt and pepper here - I usually do 8 to 12 grinds each on a mill, depending how much soup you're making. More soup = more seasoning.

Sweet, sweet onion love.
It is absolutely vital to this recipe that you pay attention to the onions, because how they cook will either make or break your soup. Cook them over a low to medium low heat, give them plenty of fat to cook in, and let them sweat.

Carmelization takes time: I usually spend at least a half an hour attending to the onions. You don't need to stand there stirring them the whole time, but you do need to let them cook, and check them every few minutes to make sure they're browning but not burning. Scrape the pan if the butter starts to stick to the bottom, and lower the heat a little.

It can also help to cover them, as that helps trap moisture so they sweat instead of frying. This isn't a fast, high heat quickie, this is low, slow, sweet, sweaty cooking, like good lovin' on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

With a little herb added.
Once the onions have been cooking for a half hour or so, add tarragon - a teaspoon or so dried, perhaps twice as much if fresh. At this point you can also add up to 1/4 cup of cognac, sherry, or dry red wine to boost flavor and color, but this is optional.

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble...
Scrape the pan and add broth. One of those 28-oz. aseptic boxes of broth will serve two very hungry people, or four less-hungry people. I tend to make a lot of whatever soup I've got going, so I'll put in up to four 28-oz. boxes. Raise heat to high and let the soup come to almost a rolling boil, then drop the heat back down to a simmer. Let it cook for at least another 10 minutes or so.

Beef broth is the standard here. However, I've done a mix of chicken and beef when we're short on beef, and it doesn't ruin the flavor at all, just makes it a little bit lighter. If you happen to have your own home-made beef stock, you can add some of that here as well. I tend to make stock a few times and year and freeze it, so will toss in a block of frozen stock here if I have it. It's not necessary but will lift this soup from excellent to outfuckingstanding.

For a vegetarian option I recommend mushroom broth, NOT vegetable broth. Mushroom broth has the right kind of savory, umami flavor; veggie broth lacks this and will produce an inferior soup. Avoid it for this recipe.

When you don't want to be fancy.
So at this point, the standard treatment for French Onion Soup is to ladle it up into ovenproof ramekins or thick bowls, plop a thick slice of crusty stale bread/toast into each one, cover with shredded Gruyere cheese, and pop under the broiler until the cheese bubbles and browns. I think this finish helps make the soup extra special - but it isn't always possible or necessary.

So for this cooking, I just dished it up into a soup bowl and sprinkled shredded Parmesan all over it. We accompanied it not with crusty bread this time, but with oven-baked polenta. I've also had it ladled out into smaller mugs, which is perfect for a quick mug of soup on a cold rainy afternoon.

As far as cheese goes, Gruyere is the best and most traditional: stinky, creamy, and nutty, it's a lovely pale golden cheese with a texture a bit like gouda. It's also a bit expensive, especially for a soup that's supposed to have working-class origins. You can substitute gouda or something like it if your budget won't accommodate Gruyere. And Parmesan or Asiago works just fine in a pinch.

Using the best ingredients you can afford will help make this the best damn soup you've ever had in your life.

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