French Onion Soup from Scratch

Dear Friends,

In addition to me, there are two foodies in my family – my niece,  Heidi, and my nephew-in-law, Phillip. Heidi has been at it for years (her cakes look professional), but Phillip is just starting to explore cooking. I love his enthusiasm and envy the discoveries that are yet to come.

Remember the first time you tasted French onion soup and wondered whether you could make it at home from scratch? I was reminded of that when Phillip shot me this email: “My next mission is French onion soup…in a bread bowl. Any tips for either of those things?”

As a restaurant critic in the early 1980s, when “Continental” cuisine was still rampant, I ate dozens if not hundreds of bowls of French onion soup. The ones I remember most fondly are those I ate in France and California and, of course, the ones I made at home.

I learned that homemade stock is essential for great onion soup, and that the sliced onions must be caramelized (cooked long and slowly) before adding them to the pot. Nice but not essential is toasting the crowning croute in the oven until bone-dry so it floats long enough to hold up the cap of cheese. And I learned that the cheese (Gruyere, not mozzarella) should be shredded rather than sliced so that the melted cheese may be spooned up more easily.

The most surprising thing I discovered, though, after downing all those bowls of beefy soup, is that French onion soup sometimes is made with chicken stock rather than beef. After tasting a bowl at a French restaurant in Los Angeles once, I actually came to prefer the chicken version.

It’s easier, too. Although homemade stock is better, a credible version may be made with canned chicken broth. My favorite recipe, from “Bistro Cooking” by Patricia Wells, is below, followed by Julia Child’s comprehensive beefy version from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”

About that bread  bowl: Just buy soup bowl-sized  round loaves of sturdy bread such as sourdough and cut one-half-inch off the tops.  Hollow the middle, leaving one-half inch of bread  around the walls. Brush the insides with melted butter or olive oil and bake the empty bread bowls at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes. This will help prevent the soup from soaking through the bread too quickly. If you plan to fill the bread bowls with Julia Child’s soup, skip the 20 minutes of baking at the end and just melt the cheese topping under the broiler.

SOUPE L’OIGNON PIED DE COCHON
(From “Bistro Cooking” by Patricia Wells)

  • 1 very large white onion (not sweet), thinly sliced (about 6 cups, Jane estimates)
  • 2 cups dry white wine such as Chardonnay
  • 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 6 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
  • 6 slices crusty baguette
  • 2 cups freshly grated imported French or Swiss Gruyere cheese

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Combine the onion, wine and butter in a 9-by-12-inch baking pan and braise uncovered in the oven until the onion is very soft and most of the liquid is absorbed, about 45 minutes. Remove onions from oven and increase the temperature to broil.

Meanwhile, bring the stock to a simmer in a large saucepan.

Evenly distribute onions among six deep, round soup bowls. Pour in the simmering stock. Place a round of bread on top of each. Evenly top with the grated cheese. Place soup bowls on a baking sheet and slide under the broiler. Broil just until the cheese is melted and nicely gratineed (browned), 2 or 3 minutes. Serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.


SOUPE A L’OIGNON GRATINEE

From “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”

  • 1 1/2 lbs. (about 5 cups) thinly sliced yellow onions
  • 3 tbsp. butter
  • 1 tbsp. oil
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. sugar
  • 3 tbsp. flour
  • 2 quarts boiling beef stock
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth
  • Salt, pepper to taste
  • 3 tbsp. cognac
  • 2 oz. Swiss (Gruyere) cheese, cut into very thin slivers
  • 1 tbsp. grated raw onion
  • Rounds of hard-toasted French bread Croutes; see below)
  • 1 1/2 cups grated Swiss (Gruyere) cheese
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil or melted butter

Croutes:

  • 12 to 16 slices of French bread, 1-inch thick
  • Olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, cut

Combine onions, butter and oil in a heavy, 4-quart saucepan. Cover and cook slowly for 15 minutes. Uncover, raise heat to medium and stir in the salt and sugar. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onions have turned an even, deep golden brown. Sprinkle in flour and stir for 3 minutes.

Off heat, blend in the boiling beef stock. Add wine and season to taste. Simmer partially covered for 30 to 40 minutes more, skimming occasionally. Correct seasoning.

For the Croutes: Place bread in one layer in a roasting pan and bake at 325 degrees for about 30 minutes, until thoroughly dried out and lightly browned. Halfway through baking, each side may be basted with a teaspoon of olive oil; and after baking, each slice may be rubbed with cut garlic.

Just before serving, preheat oven to 325 degrees and bring the soup to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in the cognac. Pour soup into six to eight individual soup pots. Stir in the slivered cheese and raw onion. Float the rounds of toast on top of the soup and top with the grated cheese. Sprinkle with the oil or butter. Bake at 325 degrees for 20 minutes, then brown for a minute or two under a boiler. Serve immediately.


HELP YOU COOK

Those adept at chopsticks should consider buying a set of jumbo chopsticks at an Asian grocery store. They’re one of the handiest tools in the kitchen. My Japanese in-laws keep a set of foot-long chopsticks by the stove and use them to stir soups, lift foods from water or broth, turn chops and chicken while frying, and on and on. A set of long tongs is almost as useful for those who haven’t mastered the technique.


THE MAILBAG

From Cindy:
Regarding grapefruit and drug interactions — I take statin drugs, so took to heart the popular warning not to indulge my love of all things grapefruit. That was until I spoke to my doctor about the particulars of my drug interaction risks. With his guidance, I am able to enjoy a small grapefruit (or half of a larger fruit) for breakfast every few days during their season because I take my drug in the evening. However, I am to avoid grapefruit juice because of the volume of the problem compound in a 6-ounce or larger glass. Please recommend that grapefruit lovers ask their doctors for specific advice before giving up this delight entirely. I am ever so glad I did.

Dear Cindy: Thank you so much for this information. Grapefruit lovers – talk to your doctor before giving up this seasonal pleasure.

From Jane Schopper:
My husband and I have lived in Texas for over 30 years but grew
up in the Akron area.  I wondered if you by any chance have the Bavarian Haus recipe for Pork a la Bavarian?  I see where the
sauerkraut ball recipe is in your book.  I’ve been using one from a
long-closed Chicago restaurant for years that is excellent, but I’ll give the Bavarian House one a try.  Thanks for your response and happy eating!

Dear Jane: Sauerkraut balls in Chicago? I thought they were purely local. Sorry, but I don’t have the pork recipe you’re seeking. If someone who does have the recipe sees this and shares, I’ll pass it along.

From Fran:
My favorite thing at the Akron City Club was the house salad. The light dressing and cheese topping were great but not filling.  Any chance of getting the dressing recipe? Thanks.

Dear Fran: We can ask. If anyone has that recipe, would you share?

From Becky R.:
I would love to have a recipe for Dirty Rice (mentioned in last week’s newsletter). Whenever I’m in the mood, I have to pick up a box at the store; homemade would be so much  better.

Dear Becky: As I wrote last week, Paul Prudhomme’s recipe is the gold standard. On his website, www.chefpaul.com, the New Orleans chef writes, “This recipe was named not for real dirt but for all the little bits of ground meat that give it its color. If I had to list the dishes in my very favorite meal, this wonderful Louisiana specialty would definitely be included…”

Here’s the version I use (he has several), from his first cookbook, “Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen”:


DIRTY RICE

Seasoning mix:

  • 2 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 1/2 tsp. sweet paprika
  • 1 tsp. dry mustard
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. dried thyme leaves
  • 1/2 tsp. dried oregano leaves

Rice:

  • 2 tbsp. chicken fat or vegetable oil
  • 1/2 lb. chicken gizzards, ground
  • 1/4 lb. ground pork
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped onions
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped celery
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped green bell peppers
  • 2 tsp. minced garlic
  • 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 1/3 lb. chicken livers, ground
  • 3/4 cup uncooked converted rice

Combine the seasoning mix ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

Place fat or oil, gizzards, pork and bay leaves in a large heavy-bottomed skillet over high heat; cook until meat is thoroughly browned, about 6 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the seasoning mix, then add the onions, celery, bell peppers and garlic; stir thoroughly, scraping pan bottom well. Add the butter and stir until melted.

Reduce heat to medium and cook about 8 minutes, stirring constantly and scraping pan bottom well. Add the stock and stir until any mixture sticking to the pan bottom comes loose; cook about 8 minutes over high heat, stirring once.

Stir in the chicken livers and cook about 2 minutes. Add the rice and stir well. Cover pan, reduce heat to very low and cook 5 minutes. Remove from heat and leave covered until rice is tender, about 10 minutes. Remove bay leaves and serve immediately.

Makes 6 side-dish servings.

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