What a Crock:
“Life is an onion and one peels it crying.” -French Proverb
Onion soup can be traced as far back as Roman times and was historically considered food for the poor – probably because this pungent underground bulb was abundant and easy to grow. But according to legend, when King Louis XV of France, famished after a late-night hunt, raided his pantry and found it empty, he concocted our modern version using the few items he had on hand: a sack of onions, beef stock, butter and champagne. I totally love the idea that this now-famous recipe was invented by an industrious regal with a serious case of the munchies.
The soup enjoyed a resurgence in the 1960′s with the growing popularity of French cooking in the States (thanks to Julia) and became the sexy starlet in restaurants everywhere. Now, it’s a staple “soup du jour” in just about every eatery in America. But most versions, I have found, are tasteless, pedestrian impostors of what French Onion Soup should be: a magical combination of sweet, caramelized onions swimming in a beefy pool and crowned with a crust of cheese and bread. You would think that with a short list of humble ingredients, it would be a cinch for them to create this delicious and savory soup. Mais, non! I have had some real losers over the years in my quest for real, good French Onion Soup.I have been offered crocks of bland broth with nary a nuance of onion flavor. Some that tasted like the cook dumped a whole bottle of Worcestershire sauce in a pan and mixed it with a cup of dirty bath water. Some that were too sweet. And one that was cloaked in an ungodly amount of imitation mozzarella and served with tiny plastic scissors, which made me feel like I was back in the third grade, sporting my new kid-friendly, chunky safety slicers. I’m sorry, but something’s seriously wrong when you need two opposing blades to cut your way to bouillon. So, there I was, trying to act as if it were perfectly normal to be stretching the melted cheese product into impossibly long strands, and it’s stringing all over the place and people are staring. I felt like I was at a taffy pull instead of a diner. Not pretty. Gruyère, that creamy, fruity, earthy, nutty cheese, is traditional for authentic French Onion Soup, and it should be properly melted and nicely browned so that you get the very desirable side of the bowl stuck-on parts that require short, quick strokes of your spoon to dislodge them. I’ll scrape, but I won’t pull.
But perhaps the most royally disappointing aspect, in my opinion, is The Soggy Bread Syndrome. I understand that the “crouton” on top is an interpretation of the medieval “sops,” where a piece of bread or toast was dunked into wine, soup or broth and then eaten. I don’t inherently have a problem with the consolidation of this step, but I do prefer to sop at my whim, rather than have the sopping be done for me. And that’s exactly what happens if the baguette is just thrown in there. Floating around aimlessly, it soaks up the liquid gold and turns the bread into a mushy mess, leaving you with two decent sips of soup. Maybe three, if you’re lucky. So, I made it my mission to revive this classic soup that not only has the balanced flavors of onion and beef, but keeps the crispy crunch of the cheese-topped lid (pssst…the secret’s in toasting the bread first and cutting a large enough slice so only the bottom touches the broth). The result? A majestic, magnificent soup that is truly fit for a king. Or a queen. You get my drift.
I don’t know about you, but to me, the trickiest part about chopping an onion is getting the peel off. I have a foolproof method, albeit a little unusual. I actually use a serrated knife for onions because I like how the blade grabs on. Cut off both ends of the onion. Holding the onion in one hand, (carefully!) make a shallow slit in its side through the first layer, then peel it away. Do it in one piece and you’re a rock star! Halve the onion and notch out the root end of each half so the slices easily separate as you cut them.
Food for thought: Ever wonder what makes us cry when chopping an onion? When you cut an onion, it releases an enzyme with a really long and obnoxious scientific name that converts the onion’s sulfoxides into sulfenic acid that wafts towards your eyes. This gas reacts in your tears to form sulfuric acid, which, of course, burns like the dickens, stimulating the release of more tears to flush out the painful irritant. Unless you wear contact lenses (a built-in barrier!), you can try a couple of things to avoid tearing up: run your stove’s exhaust fan, wear goggles or chill your onions before cutting. Some say chewing gum helps. Not sure about that one, so if you try it successfully, let me know!
French Onion Soup
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 large yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced in half-moons
- 3 large sweet onions, peeled and thinly sliced in half-moons
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- ¼ cup dry sherry
- 1 cup white wine
- 2 bay leaves
- ¼ teaspoon dried thyme leaves
- Pinch of sugar
- 8 cups beef stock
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1 small baguette, halved lengthwise
- 6 ounces Gruyère or Swiss cheese, sliced
- Minced fresh parsley, for garnish
- In a Dutch oven over medium-low heat, melt the butter with the olive oil. Add the onions and season liberally with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally and scraping up any browned bits as they cook, until the onions are golden brown, about 25 to 30 minutes (may take longer, depending on the size of your onions). Stir in the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Deglaze the pan with the sherry and white wine, scraping up any more browned bits on the bottom and sides of the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture has reduced, about 15 minutes.
- Add in the bay leaves, thyme, sugar, stock and Worcestershire, raise the heat to medium and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, for 1-1/2 hours, occasionally stirring.
- Adjust salt and pepper, if necessary. Fish out the bay leaves and discard. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
- Cut the baguette into pieces that will just fit inside the rim of individual broiler-safe crocks or bowls. Arrange the baguette slices in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake until the bread is golden brown, about 10 minutes.
- Adjust the oven to the broil setting. Set individual broiler-safe crocks on a rimmed baking sheet and fill each crock with about 1-3/4 cups of soup. Nestle a toasted baguette slice in each bowl, so that it is slightly elevated, and only the bottom part of the bread is touching the soup, and top with a slice of cheese. Broil until the cheese is melted and bubbly around the edges. Allow the soup to cool for 3 minutes before sprinkling with some parsley.
…from the Picture-Perfect kitchen:Planning: Whoa! Slow down there, Sparky! Don’t rush the caramelizing process – it’s the base for the deep flavor of this soup. When it comes to caramelizing onions, I refer to an old Italian saying: “Turn your back on them,” meaning let them do their thing. Your patience will be greatly rewarded, I promise. This soup is even better made a day or two in advance (minus the bread topping).
Product Purity: As always, check the label on your Worcestershire sauce. Many contain high fructose corn syrup. I use an organic, like Annie’s, which has fantastic depth of flavor. Opt for organic, all-natural beef stock. My choice is Kitchen Basics.
Presentation: The handled crock in the photo makes a great bowl for French Onion Soup. I troll stores like T.J. Maxx and Marshall’s for props – they are goldmines for scoring upscale serving pieces for next to nothing.