Note: This article is one of many which Maggie Parkinson of Poulsbo, Washington has contributed to our blog.*
Today we’re going to talk about soup….One of the world’s GREAT soups.
Soup à l’Oignon Gratinée or
Soup a l’Oignon au Fromage
Gratinee or AU FROMAGE – with cheese!
Well, it’s from France so we might as well start out with it’s formal title – right?
French Onion Soup
When it’s good, it’s glorious and when it isn’t good, well – I was once served a bowl of this soup and it reminded me of trying to down dirty dishwater with a yellow tarpaulin. I sent it back.
So, I’m going to outline a formula for you that will get rave reviews and this is my own creation-developed over decades of dinking around with it. And I confess it will probably be a bit different next time I make it as I generally cook without measuring things – cuisine Au Seat of Pants!
So, what are the key elements of a great onion soup besides, of course, onions?
Well, I used to eat at an Indian place which had a great chef and his favorite phrase was: “It’s all in the gravy.” Of course, in so many cases, he’s spot on – it’s all about the gravy or in this case broth! In the case of this onion soup, the level of salt is critical and the broth must be very rich. This might not be the best recipe to eat for those on carefully balanced salt diets – ok?
I do not (and I’ve said this in an earlier piece) make beef broth. I HAVE baked beef bones when they were a giveaway item and then turned them into broth. I found it to be not very rewarding and have learned to fake it. If you read my piece on saving $$, you will know that I make all my own chicken broth from warehouse rotisserie chicken bones. Bones, skin and water – that’s it ….. (I didn’t say so, but I put the skin in because it’s well seasoned – adding flavor, AND because the fat that comes out of the skin makes a cool airtight seal when it’s bottled up – thus enhancing the life of the stock until you’re ready to use it. Within reason! When ready to use the stock you just take a spatula and scrape it off!)
So – got some good chicken broth- what else? By the way I don’t vouch for this recipe if you’re using wimpy chicken broth from a store bought carton – if you do that you’re going to have to fiddle with the broth until its flavor is considerably enhanced. But I’ll give you some ideas on that……. Wait for it………
A long, LONG time ago I read and collected an article on onion soups – French Onion, White onion – and several others-I may still have it somewhere? But what STUCK in my porridge-like brain was that the article SAID to use greens water to enhance the broth. So-to be clear about that, I usually have a carton in my freezer with the water in which, or over which, I have boiled/steamed one or more of the following: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower. I am sure you could use the water from collards or kale but I don’t cook the former and I don’t steam kale. My preference would be for Brussels sprouts.
Now, in this context, greens water does not include green beans, or peas or any non-cruciferous vegetable. To be absolutely accurate, ARUGULA is cruciferous but isn’t suitable for this purpose-so don’t twitter about my meaning – you get the photo!
So, now we have chicken broth and greens water – terrific – all we need is some onions, a bit of beef stock paste and some booze and we’re off and running.
One more thing. I am a squirrel when it comes to things with flavor. If I have a bit of good gravy left over, I don’t throw it out; I put it in a tiny container (they are cutely called TAKE ALONGS), and pop it into my freezer. THEN when I’m going to make this particular soup or other RICH casseroles – out they come to get incorporated into what I’m making like the luscious little flavor enhancers that they are!
S, we’ll get to the topping later – let’s get down to the soup itself.
I just went on a big cruise and one of their “SIGNATURE” dishes is F O SOUP. (Not to be confused with PHO which is a horse – er soup of a different color!) F O! It was nothing to write home about at all!
There are only two of us here – (one’s a pirate and he loves my onion soup), so I don’t make a huge amount. You can double quantities if you have a boat full of your own bandits.
2 large onions
2 cloves garlic
1 quart of good chicken broth. (Mine has no salt!)
2 cups or so of greens water (as outlined above and this does have salt).
2 tablespoons of beef broth concentrate/bouillon (Knorr, Better than Bouillon, Tones-all good.)
A few grinds of pepper
1/3 cup of ruby port (or medium sherry or even marsala would do)
2 tablespoons brandy (cheap variety works here)
2 tablespoons of butter and a tablespoon of cooking oil (not EVOO) OR 2 tablespoons bacon drippings*
1 tablespoon molasses
Any flavor boosters you have in your pantry like leftover dark sauces, gravies. Failing that, have handy some soy sauce, and Wooster sauce (i.e. Worcestershire sauce).
Note that this list does not contain salt per se: that’s because my greens water will have been salted and the bouillon is also! It’s best to adjust for salt at the very END when using salty components!
* I can feel the reverb from the universe at my mention of bacon drippings; if I had stipulated two tablespoons of butter would you be shrieking? I have a container of bacon drippings in my fridge and often use it to start dishes instead of butter – both are animal fats and the bacon has great flavor! Butter burns more easily…… AND FAT is not the ISSUE if you don’t eat carbs with it! In this case we will, but I had to put that out there! I lived on bacon and butter and cream for two years and lost a bunch of weight! Well, a few other things, but you know what I mean!
Now we make the soup:
FIRST: Peel your onions, cut them in half and slice them very thinly. In this soup we want the onions to provide their flavor but not need a lot of chewing. Here’s my pile of slices from two onions which I sliced up at less than 1/8 of an inch. And the shallots are wanting to be diced small.
Heat a decent sized pot with your butter/oil or bacon drippings but keep it on low: caramelizing onions is a slow process. If you burn the onions, your soup will be a trash can item, so don’t try to rush this. I have an induction cook-top and set the temperature to 140F and let the onions, shallots and garlic cook with an occasional stir for at least 45 minutes – rush about – do things and stir occasionally! IT HELPS to stir the molasses into the onions at this stage – it gets the browning going. (Note – it is true that a small amount – 1/4-1/2 teaspoon of baking soda accelerates the browning, too, but I did not do that in this instance.)
Once your onions are brown and soft, add the stock, bouillon and greens water; let the mixture come to a simmer for five minutes or so to reduce and get stronger.
Taste: it’s good.
Next, add in the ruby port (or sherry) and taste again… wow, that tastes much better.
Next, add in the two tablespoons of brandy-subtle but even better.
Now check the strength of the broth and the seasoning. For me this still did not have enough VAVOOM!
So, this is where I adjust the broth until its super rich. I added:
2 tablespoons soy sauce (the full strength sodium variety)
Another tablespoon molasses-(dark and a little bit sweet – that sweetness enhances the soup!)
1 teaspoon Worcester sauce.
NOW I check the sodium level. I still needed 6 turns on my salt grinder and pepper.
Then we do the Pirate taste-“here taste this hunny” and – Bingo – this gets the thumb in the air!
Your personal preferences for “dark, rich and salty” may well differ from mine – but I have found this general approach to get rave reviews from people.
At this point I should really add a caveat: I have come to learn that I am somewhat of a “supertaster.” If I go out and eat something – and like it – I can generally discern what is IN IT by tasting it. At one point I cooked regularly with a gourmet who would make something and say: “there’s something missing”… what is it? It was almost always a shortfall in three things – wine, salt or sugar; by adding relatively small amounts of these items it always “came right.”
SOOOOOO – it’s possible that if you go through the above process you might not be able to discern noticeable differences. My apologies for that.
NOW – before you eat this – stick it in the fridge for two days and let it brew. Like a casserole, it will get better with age, so this is a great make-ahead for special “feed people” days! I got mine out last night (see below) and with all the goodness from my original chicken broth and all the onions, it was completely set like gelatin!
Now, we’ll finish with the all important cheesy bit.
The classic method for serving this is to drop a lump of bread on top of each serving, then sprinkle it with cheese – preferably Gruyere (named after the town of Gruyères in Switzerland,) which is, in fact, a Swiss cheese! (But you’re cheese makers and you KNOW that!)
Then, you stick the whole thing under the broiler. Yikes!
I rarely have this cheese (except when I made an awesome batch myself), so, generally, I use a dry cheddar. It all depends whether you want to be authentic and spend the $$ on this brand of cheese. For me this is not about the cheese, but the soup itself.
Anyway, in my experience, although this is a visually appealing method, I dislike it. You end up with a bowl of soup, topped by a yellow tarp which is hard to penetrate and which frequently ends up with your shirt being decorated with soup and cheese. I also fear for my lovely porcelain soup bowls cracking under the fierce heat of a broiler and ruining the whole concoction. SO this is what I do!
I take sliced baguette or reasonably thickly sliced bread and toast it on one side under said broiler. Then I turn over the slices and cover them with my cheese and toast them again until the cheese is melted.
THEN I CUT THEM INTO BITE-SIZED PIECES!
I place these into my soup bowls and pour the hot soup over them. If you are desirous of the tarp effect, top the soup with some freshly grated parmesan. This gives the same mouth effect as the traditional version without the challenge of trying to break up bread and cheese to get it into your cake-hole!
I did not do a final assembly to photo for you on this occasion – and here’s why. I decided that this was going to be the Pirate’s lunch (he goes to work every day with two meals; he admits to being a spoiled brat and quite often has a crowd asking for shares.) So, I packed the soup in one container and these jolly cheesy bites in another. He will heat up his soup and croutons and just drop the one into the other for eating – bet you never thought that FO soup could be a “packed lunch,” eh?
Well there you go! Just look at the color of that soup!
P.S If you have a carton of this soup in your fridge (or cubes of it in your freezer), you can knock up a really great brown gravy toute-de-suite! I did this yesterday by taking my soup and thickening it with a little cornstarch and a dollop more port. NUM to the MAX.
Similarly, if you freeze some and want to make a quick casserole with red meat, you can throw a container of this into your slow cooker with a few veggies and you’ll love the result!
Well here endeth this lesson and – as always – thanks for reading!
* About the author:
Maggie Parkinson is the author of the low-carb cookbook: Carb-Less in Seattle. We did an interview with her in 2013 (click here). Since then, she has moved from Renton to Poulsbo, Washington where she and her husband (The Pirate) built a beautiful home with gardens and an orchard.
She has given us several fabulous (original!) recipes including Pizza, Saag Panir, Pear & Fig Bread, Fromage Fort, Easy Bechamel Sauce, Macaroni & Cheese, Stretching the Waistband of Your Food Budget and Leftovers-Waste Not/Want Not So Much. Her expertise as a cook makes her tips invaluable to us and we hope you enjoy them as much as we do.