Sunday, February 22, 2009

French Onion Soup

I have a dear friend I met 5 years ago, and when we met we hit it off instantly. I think one of the common denominators that has made us such good friends is our love for food (and creativity- but she's got me beat there!). A while ago, I don't remember when we started, we began getting together as often as we could (not as often as we'd like) and cooking. We would pick a theme each time and use that as an opportunity to make something we've been wanting to try, or a kind of food we love, but don't often cook. It has ranged from Chinese to doughnuts, originally it started out as a day long event, culminating in a huge meal that we shared with our husbands. As life has gone on and they have added two little ones to their family, our long days spent together in the kitchen has turned into deciding on a meal, each making parts and then getting together, giving us more time to relax and catch up. Our last get together was French Country. She had been wanting to do crepes and I thought I would give my hand at French Onion soup, today's post. I also brought along some champagne and the gougères to round out the meal. I looked at a few different methods and came up with my own version. It's basically just onions, broth, some bread and cheese, but it really drives home how layering flavor and technique can take something from not exciting at all, to sublime. Don't skimp on the technique/ cooking time, it will pay off in the end result.

French Onion Soup

French Onion Soup (Serves 6 as a main course)

6 medium size onions
3 TBS butter
parsley stems (approximately 15)**
fresh thyme (few sprigs), or 1 tsp dried **
whole peppercorns (about 1 tsp)**
2 bay leaves**
3 TBS flour
4 cups chicken stock
4 cups beef broth
9 TBS dry vermouth
3 TBS brandy or sherry
1 TBS Worcestershire
1-2 cups grated cheese (I used a mix of mostly gruyere and a little Parmesan)*
1 clove of garlic
Bread for croutons- traditionally Baguette is used, but I had a nice (lonely) loaf of challah in the freezer that I used. It turned out wonderfully- which makes me think that brioche would also make an indulgent version. Any quality bread will do. For the version in this recipe, a slice of bread is on the bottom and top of the soup, so you will need enough bread to cover both the bottom and top of the pot you are using. The best way to cook this soup is in little oven safe dishes that can allow for individual servings. You can also use one large (oven safe) pot that you can serve family style, but it's important everyone gets an equal share of the toasted bread and cheese!

*I almost contemplated going a little nontraditional with some gouda- especially a great aged gouda- feel free to play around with different cheeses, your favorite cheeses.

** These ingredients are all for what's called bouquet garni. This is basically like a savory tea bag for the soup. The best way to do this is to bundle it all in a square of cheesecloth, making sure to fold in the ends so the items inside won't get free and float around in the soup (this is removed before serving). Tie the whole bundle with butchers twine. If you don't have any cheesecloth you can also use a coffee filter, or go with the very traditional green portion of a leek.

Bouquet Garni

Pre heat the oven to 400. You will need an oven safe pan with a lid. If you don't have one you can cook the onions entirely on the stove. I found that by slow cooking them in the oven, not only does it dramatically cut down on the time you have to pay attention to it, but the onions become so buttery and smooth, and full of flavor. Slice the onions, and put them in the pan with the butter and 2 tsp of salt, cover with the lid and bake in the oven for about 1 hour. Stir the onions and once they are very soft and translucent (may take a little longer than 1 hour), move the lid to the side a bit so the steam can escape from the pot, but it still remains fairly covered (I would imagine foil could work as a stand in if you didn't have a proper lid). Let it cook for another 1 1/2 hours so until they are very soft, cooked down and golden brown.

Onions Caramelizing

Return the pot to the stove and add the flour, stirring to mix in. Cook over medium heat and add the vermouth, then add the broths and bouquet garni**. Bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Turn the heat off and add the brandy and Worcestershire. Season with salt and lemon juice (about 1 tsp- just enough to perk up the flavor). The amount of salt needed will depend on how much salt is in the broth. This can be made a few days ahead. To serve, rewarm the soup and toast the bread (slice into 1/2 inch slices) in the 400 degree oven until crispy and golden. Cut the clove of garlic in half and rub all the toast with the garlic. Spread half of the toasts on the bottom of the pot or serving dishes the soup will go into. Sprinkle some cheese on the toasts. Ladle the soup into the pot/ serving dishes, top with another toast, sprinkle with cheese. Turn the oven to broil, put the soup into the oven until the cheese is melted and golden brown.
I was hesitant to put the piece of bread and cheese on the bottom, and only did so when reheating some leftover soup, and was pleasantly surprised. The bread soaked up the juices of the soup, but also gave it some more body (not that it needed more) and then the addition of the cheese on the bottom, heightens the cheese presence in the soup. Good quality cheese will make quite a difference in this soup and should be used.



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