So now that you’ve finished dying eggs naturally using onion skins, what do you do with all those onions? Make French Onion Soup, bien sûr!
French onion soup in France is served as the traditional French farmer’s breakfast or the end of the day repast for the late night café and theater crowd. It was made famous in the great open market of Les Halles in Paris where hungry truckers converged from all over France with their fresh produce. On my first visit to Paris in 1966, I made a late night visit to Les Halles with some friends to savor the tradition and practice my very rusty college French. The truckers and waiters in the little café we “invaded” were quite friendly and chuckled as they good heartedly corrected my pronunciation. Needless to say, je parle français bien mieux maintenant. Les Halles was torn down in 1971 and replaced with a modern shopping area, the Forum des Halles. But I digress, we are here for the food.
My favorite recipe is from Bernard Clayton, Jr.’s The Complete Book of Soups and Stews with some variations. It is from a restaurant near the Halles Metro station. M. Calyton’s version uses a hearty homemade beef stock which is time consuming to make. I found that either Swanson’s or College Inn Beef Broth produces a good result, just reduce the salt. The low sodium broth didn’t produce the hearty broth that’s needed to compliment the flavor of the caramelized onions and the cheese.
You will need some “special” equipment for this soup: individual oven-proof bowls, enough to hold 1 1/2 to 2 cups. I have the bowls with a handle and a lid that serve double duty for baked beans, and other soups and stews. You will also need cheesecloth for le sachet d’épices, that’s a spice bag for you Americans ;-), and butcher’s twine or some other cotton twine. Those items can be found in the gadget aisles of most large grocery stores.
Soupe à l’oignon des Halles
- 4 tablespoons of lard, butter or bacon fat (rendered from a pound of bacon).
The French use lard. I have used both bacon and butter. My family prefers the butter verion.
- 2 tablespoons of oil, preferably peanut.
For those with peanut allergies, you can substitute 2 table spoons of a good quality canola oil. Please, no olive oil.
- 2 pounds of yellow onions, peeled (but you’ve already done that ;-)), cut into quarters lengthwise and slice across thinly. That’s about 7 to 10 onions depending on their size.
I use red onions as part of the 2 pounds Vidalia and Spanish onions are too sweet for this soup.
- 2 teaspoons salt.
I use half, especially if not using low sodium broth
- 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoons sugar
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
I use more. 😉
- 3 tablespoons of flour
- 1/2 cup hearty red wine to deglaze.
Le sachet d’épices
- 2 Bay Leaves
- 8 black peppercorns
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 4 or 5 sprigs fresh flat leaf (Italian) parsley
- 1 cup of onion for garnish
- 10 tablespoons of cognac, or other good brandy, to embelish
- A baguette of French bread cut into 10 1/2 inch slices for croutons, cut to fit top of individual bowls
- 20 slices Gruyère or Swiss cheese, 4 inches square, 1/8 inches thick.
Heat the lard or butter and the oil in a large (4 to 5 quart) sauce pan over mdium heat and drop in the onions. Add the salt and stir to coat the onions with the fat. Cover and “sweat” for 15 minutes, stirring frequently.
While the onions are “sweating”, in a large pot (4 quarts), heat the beef stock and keep very warm. Make le sachet d’épices by cutting a large square of cheese cloth, about 8 inches square. Place theBay leaves, peppercorns, thyme, and parsley in the center. You can fold over the edges, making a packet and tie it with the twine or tie the diagonally opposite corners together tightly, making a sac. Set aside
Taste a bit of the onion to determine the sweetness. A summer onion, freshly harvested is full of sugar, but a winter onion has far less and may need help with the addition of a pinch of sugar. The soup needs a touch of sweetness but use the sugar sparingly.
Uncover, add the garlic and cook over medium, heat until the onions are a deep golden brown. This will take about 20 to 30 minutes with frequent stirring and scraping the brown residue off the bottom with a wooden spoon.
Sprinkle in the flour, stir and let cook for about 3 minutes, stirring constantly.
Deglaze the pan by pouring the red wine into the pot, scraping up the brown particles with a wooden spoon. Cook the onions and wine over medium-high heat to reduce the wine by half, about 5 minutes.
Blend in the hot stock, drop the sachet d’épices into the pot, partially cover and simmer over medium-low heat for 45 to 50 minutes. Taste for seasoning, being aware of the onion’s sweetness, or lack of it.
While the soup is simmering prepare the croutons. Cut the slices to fit into the sop bowl. Butter and bake the bread in the oven until toasted and brown. Turn the pieces over and brown on the other side. If the bread is not toasted it will soak up the soup like a sponge.
Preheat to oven to 375° F. Place hot water in the bowls to warm them before the soup is ladled in; pour out the hot water.
Place the bowls on a cookie sheet, it will be easier to get them in and out of the oven if they are all clustered together.
Place a tablespoon of chopped onion into the bottom of each bowl and fill it to the brim with hot soup.
The cognac may be poured into the soup now, or, if there is a break in the crust, spooned in when the bowls are out of the oven,
Place the crouton on top and layer two slices of cheese, overlapped and beyond the edge of the bowl. The cheese will melt, sealing the soup completely. If the cheese doesn’t fit patch with small pieces. The soup is just as delicious partially covered, it just isn’t as attractive.
Place the bowls in the oven and bake for 10 to 15 minutes at 375° F., or until the cheese has melted.
Turn on the broiler. Broil until the cheese is bubbly, golden brown about 1 to 2 minutes.
Serve with chunks of French bread and a robust red wine.
Warn your guests that the bowl are very hot. I provide thick cotton napkins or pot holders.