08 February 2009

French Onion Soup

Lately, I have been contemplating French Onion Soup. This is not a dish I consider lightly. I have tried every worthy seeming recipe I can find, played with many styles (including vegetarian), and have decided that frankly, the classic version as interpreted by me, is hands down the best and only way. That sound pompous, to be sure, so try it.

I first fell in love with French Onion Soup back in the late 80's. There is this little French Bistro here called Cafe Du Berry. I used to go there for lunch when I worked at OPB across the street. I loved their French Onion Soup. I haven't been there in 20 years and I've often thought of going back. I think instead, I wish to keep the memory (that showed itself to be the seminal moment in soup appreciation for me), unchanged.

The most important elements in this soup are beef stock and yellow onions.  These are the two ingredients in which there can be no deviation. When you do, the soup is significantly inferior.

Now, there are two approaches to this soup. One is to use purchased broth. I will entertain this, as I use it when I have the craving, and making my own doesn't fit the time schedule. The other, is to make your own stock. This is my preferred method, as I enjoy extracting flavour from the morrow of the bones. However, with a little doctoring, purchased broth can be excellent too.

Here are the recipes for the stock:

2 quarts beef broth (Pacific is good)
2 cups water
4 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
1 T. beef base (recommend Superior Touch)

Next, the homemade variety. Remember, you should make this in advance, portion and freeze. That way, you almost always have it on hand. Makes 1/2 gallon to 3/4 gallon.

7 to 8 lbs. beef bones (shank, short ribs, oxtail)
2 onions, quartered, skins on
2 stalks celery, chopped coarse
2 carrots, chopped coarse
several whole peppercorns
6 cloves garlic, halved, skins on
4 bay leaves
small handful fresh thyme sprigs
1 1/2 gallons water
sea salt

Note: You may still want to add the concentrated beef base in this version as well. It depends on how meaty your stock turns out. My most recent batch needed a little kick in this way. I served it first without and was not the only one disappointed. This stock needs to be rich and beefy.

Preheat oven to 400 Degrees F. Roast bones for 1 hour. Add vegetables and roast 30 minutes additional. Pour off any excess fat. Transfer to a large stock pot. Add seasonings, herbs, water, and salt to taste. Bring to a boil, and immediately reduce heat and simmer for about 4 hours, occasionally skimming fat. Be careful to ensure that you do not continue to boil, or you will lose too much volume and "burn" the flavour. Strain, discarding the solids. Allow to cool at room temperature, uncovered. Cover, and refrigerate over night. Remove any fat that has separated on top, portion and store the extra broth for another time and use.

For the soup (serves 4 to 6)

4 T. unsalted butter
5 lbs yellow onions, sliced 1/8" thick
2 1/2 quarts of homemade stock or purchased recipe
1 cup dry white wine
2 T. cognac (you may substitute with brandy or sherry if necessary)
sea salt
1 clove garlic, peeled and halved
olive oil
good Artisan bread (a French Batard or Como style is great)
cave aged gruyere cheese, shredded (about 1/2 cup per serving)

Using 2 large Dutch Ovens or Sauté pans, divide butter and melt. Add onions between two pans and cover, cooking slowly until translucent, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove lids, add about 1/4 tsp sea salt to each and brown, stirring frequently until dark, 45 minutes to 1 hour. I do not recommend the oven method of browning onions. I find the flavour is not as nuanced. 

Meanwhile, in a large pot bring stock to a simmer until reduced to 2 quarts, about 45 minutes. If using purchased recipe, strain and return broth to pan. Add wine and cognac and continue simmering 45 minutes. Add onions and simmer 20 minutes longer.

During the time the onions are simmering in the broth, place bread slices, brushed with olive oil on a rack and bake in an oven preheated to 400 degrees F for 15 minutes, turning over 1/2 way. Rub with garlic clove.

Lay bread over soup in oven safe bowls and add cheese.  Place bowls on a sheet pan and broil in upper third of oven until cheese is beginning to brown and serve immediately.

Try this with a Pinot Gris or, for something a little more exciting and playful, I like it with champagne.

Recently, I served this for some friends with a Domaine De Martinolles-Blanquette De Limoux, Le Berceau. This Brut is an excellent value and I found it particularly delicious when paired in contrast to the umami of the soup. 

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