Thursday, December 1, 2011

If You’re In France, Is It Still Called French Onion Soup?

I adore ordering French Onion Soup Gratinée on the rare occasion when we go out to eat at a nice restaurant. My love of FOSG came from childhood when we’d go to fancy restaurants and I felt oh so grown up ordering it! The problem is, rarely do I get what I ordered these days. What comes looks like FOSG but once I dig through that beautiful lid of browned and bubbled cheese, I am left disappointed by the salty, brown, usually flavorless broth filled with strands of onions underneath. What’s a girl to do? Learn to make her own of course!

I started by going straight to the master, or in this case mistress, of French cuisine, Julia Child. I liked the soup it produced but it was missing the depth of flavor from my childhood memories. Then I tried Alton Brown’s recipe and again, I liked the soup it produced but it was too much sweet, not enough savory. After trial and error took place several times, I finally hit upon the perfect soup by combining the two recipes.

FOSG is a labor of love and one of those soups that tastes BEST the day or two after it is made. I use sweet or yellow onions but NEVER Vidalia Onions (because they are just too sweet for this dish). I use Beef Stock, NEVER Consommé which is a soup in its right, typically is made by adding a mixture of ground meats, together with mirepoix, tomatoes, and egg whites into either bouillon or stock that is simmered for a very long time during which, if done right, the soup is clarified. It is a clear soup and wasted in this recipe. Most important in this recipe is that you use ingredients you know you like the flavors of and adjust the soup to your personal liking.

4 lbs onions, peeled and sliced –I prefer yellow, sweet or a combination
2 T olive oil
2 T butter
1-2 T sugar (optional)
2 T flour
½ t dried thyme
pepper to taste
1 ½ C apple cider or pressed apple juice
2 C dry white wine
2 nips cognac
6 C beef stock
2 cloves of garlic peeled & smashed

Peel and slice 4 pounds of onions. If you only have access to Vidalias, I suggest using 50/50 with yellow onions. I do not like white or red onions in my soup but if you like it, go ahead and use those. Uniformity of slicing is not important. You do not want them paper thin, nor do you want ½ inch thick slices, I find about a ¼ inch thick slice works best. I prefer to use a large skillet to caramelize the onion slices, I feel it works better than attempting to do it in the soup pot because it allows for better evaporation of the liquid the onions give off during this part of the process. Remember, you are cooking 4 pounds of onions all in one pan!
It takes a good 45 minutes to an hour to cook the onions. I place my skillet over medium heat, allow it to warm up then put my olive oil and butter in, once the butter melts I add all the onions and salt them liberally. It takes about 10-15 minutes for the onions to break down enough so you can stir them around. After than initial stirring I leave them alone in 20 minute increments to do their thing, stirring each time the timer goes off. In fact, during the long cooking period, I go do other things so I am not tempted to stir, poke or mash the onions.

I do not take my onions to a deep mahogany brown but rather a light caramel. If they “burn” it’s not a disaster but I just prefer them this way. If you are having trouble getting your onions to caramelize, sprinkle them with a tablespoon or two of white sugar and that should solve the problem. If they caramelize well on their own, I skip adding the sugar.

Once my onions are at the proper color, I sprinkle the flour, dried thyme & a few twists of black pepper over them, stir it in and kick the heat up to high and when the onions get a little darker & the flour disappears (about 1 minute) I add one cup of wine and stir constantly, scraping up the bits on the bottom for about 2 minutes or till you have a thick syrupy mass in the pan. I pour the mixture into my soup pot, if the skillet isn’t totally clean, don’t panic we’re going to take care of that. Add about 1 cup of the beef stock to the soup pot and stir well. This is a good time to point out that this is NOT a thick soup, the flour helps to create a silky mouth feel.

Now that it’s empty Keep your skillet on the high heat and use 1 1/3 cups of the apple cider/juice to deglaze the pan all the way. Cook and stir the juice for about 2-3 minutes, once the pan is completely deglazed, you are looking for a 50% reduction in the juice but not a thick syrup which can happen in the blink of an eye if you are not paying attention. Dump the contents of the skillet in the soup pot followed by the rest of the stock, 1 nip of cognac and another cup of wine. Drop in the 2 cloves of garlic and set the pot to simmer uncovered for about 2 hours, stirring occasionally. If you were to taste the soup at this point, it will be very weak, almost watery. Slow simmering will take care of that.

At the two hour mark is when I generally start tweaking the flavors. I like to develop a nice rich soup, not too sweet. I have simmered this soup as long as 4 hours to get the flavor I want. If I am close and not serving the soup till the next day, I pop it in the fridge and tweak it again as I heat it up the next day.

Tips to adjust the flavor:

Not sweet enough? Add more cider/juice

Not savory enough? Add the other nip of cognac

Missing that acidic twang? Add more wine.

Did it reduce too much? Add more stock.

Of course you can adjust salt and pepper but be careful with the salt, especially if you are making this ahead as the salt will develop more over night.

For serving I top my ovenproof crocks of hot soup with garlic "croutes" that I also make the day before. ¼ - ½ inch slices of French bread, dressed in olive oil baked at 325* on a sheet pan for 15 minutes a side. While still hot and toasty I rub one side of each toast with a clove of garlic. It’s also yummy using pumpernickel or seedless rye bread! I float two on the top of the soup and cover with an ample amount of Gruyere and Mozzarella cheeses and put under the broiler till the cheese is melted and bubbly and brown but not burnt. Alternatively you can float croutons on top to cover with cheese but put enough in to create a shelf. If you use the croutons, you can use a mix of all the breads I mentioned above (heaven!!!)