Thursday, December 20, 2007


I refer, of course, to that most savory member of the vegetable kingdom, the Onion. The Onion is at once inexpensive, even common - and yet, who can imagine the finest, most elegant dishes without its aromatic touch? A kitchen without onions is no kitchen at all.

Even so, the onion - that most changeable of vegetables - is not for everyone. Some people can eat them out of hand like an apple; others cannot tolerate them even in their mildest forms. The Missus is somewhere in between: she cannot abide raw onion in even the smallest amounts, yet a nice, crunchy deep-fried onion ring is a source of pleasure to her. When first we met, she would strip the fried batter off, leaving the onion itself, but these days, she will actually eat the entire ring, onion and all. Progress!

Every so often, I develop a serious Onion Jones, and there is nothing for it but to have something seriously oniony. I’ve enjoyed a Soup of Many Onions in the past - it combines regular ol’ yellow onions, spring onions, leeks, scallions, chives, and garlic (an Oniony Cousin) to make a perfect springtime soup - and Russian Cabbage and Onion Pie.

But with cold, blustery winds and lowering skies outside, it’s Soup Weather for sure. Something hearty and warming. What better than French Onion Soup?

Most of the time, French Onion Soup is merely a convenient excuse to eat the slab of crouton and the pound of molten cheese with which it is topped. The soup itself is usually a thin, darkish broth with occasional chunks of onion. Meh.

I found a recipe that sounded interesting, though, and so I thought I’d give it a try. The key is to cook the hell out of the onions...s l o w l y.

You start with four pounds of yellow onions. Not sweet onions like Vidalias or Walla Wallas: you want good, strong yellow onions, the kind that make you weep profusely when you slice ’em. And slice ’em you must. Not crosswise, but pole-to-pole. Split the onions, then cut off the root end - this will make peeling them a cinch.

Spray the inside of a heavy Dutch oven with cooking spray, add three tablespoons sweet butter, and the sliced onions, then stick it (covered!) in a 400°F oven for an hour. Stir the onions - they will have wilted and started to give off their juices - and put them back in the oven, this time with the lid slightly ajar, for about 90 minutes.

[I had a meeting across town, so after about 45 minutes, I turned the oven temp down to 200°F and kept the onions covered. When I returned a couple of hours later, they had softened up nicely, and I just picked up with that second 90 minutes of cooking.]

Now, take the Dutch oven out (use mitts!) and put it on a medium-high flame for about 15 minutes to cook off the excess liquid. Stir frequently. Now, cook for another 7 minutes or so over medium-high heat, scraping the bottom of the vessel. You’ll see a lot of aromatic brown goop start to build up on the bottom and sides of the Dutch oven. After the seven minutes is up, deglaze the pan with a quarter cup of water, scraping all that goop up. Cook the onions down for another seven minutes and deglaze again with a quarter-cup water. Repeat once or twice more, and you will have a pile of soft, dark-brown, extremely flavorful onions.

Caramelized Onions
Caramelized onions. These have been deglazed four times.

Add a half-cup dry sherry (Dry Sack is not dry sherry, BTW) and deglaze the pan one more time, allowing the sherry to evaporate for about five minutes. Now add two cups water, two cups beef broth, and four cups chicken broth (use low sodium, if possible), a few sprigs of fresh thyme, and a bay leaf. [I had a supply of fresh bay leaves given to us by our friends John and Jackie, and I will tell you that fresh leaves beat that dried-out grocery store crap any day...but if the dried-out crap is all you have, use it by all means.] Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook for 30 minutes. Take out the thyme and bay leaf, and you now have a pot of Serious Onion Soup.

French Onion Soup
The soup.

To serve, slice up a baguette and roast the slices in a 400° oven for about 10 minutes, until nice and crisp and golden at the edges. Ladle out the soup into broiler-proof bowls set on a baking sheet, top with a couple of the honkin’ big-ass croutons you just made, and now bury that sumbitch with shredded Gruyère cheese.

[Do NOT use domestic “Gruyère” cheese. I have never seen a domestic Gruyère that was worth a shit, or that tasted remotely like what Gruyère is supposed to taste like. Spring for the real thing: Swiss or French Gruyère.]

Run the bowls under a hot broiler for a couple of minutes, until the cheese has turned into molten lava and has started to brown. Remove from the oven and let cool a couple of minutes before serving it forth. If you want to be fancy, sprinkle a few bits of chopped fresh parsley to dress it up. And be careful when you start eating: this soup carries a Mouth Burn Alert!

French Onion Soup
Ready to serve.

Yeah, it’s a little whole lot more time-consuming than opening that packet of Lipton’s Instant, or going down to Houlihan’s...but good things take time, and even SWMBO agrees that you will never taste a better bowl of French Onion Soup. Unless you live in France, and even then, it’s questionable. It’s the first time I’ve ever made this soup, and I can guarantee, it won’t be the last.

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