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Mealtime: French Onion Soup 

click to enlarge French onion soup - ANDY BRUMBAUGH
  • Andy Brumbaugh
  • French onion soup

What's better on a cold winter night than a steaming bowl of French onion soup? With roots in ancient Rome, the dish became popular in the United States in the 1960s thanks to Julia Child. With rich, luxurious flavors created from simple ingredients, this restaurant favorite is worth making at home.

The only difficult part is the long, careful process of caramelizing the onions. You want the natural sugars in the onions to brown and sweeten, but you don't want the onions to burn. It is a tricky balancing act that creates something truly magical. I used a mixture of sweet and yellow onions, with a couple of shallots thrown in to add depth of flavor.

While the onions were caramelizing, I jazzed up a store-bought beef broth by simmering it with parsley and mirepoix — a mixture of carrots, onions and celery. This makes store-bought broth taste more like homemade. If you want to make a vegetarian soup, use vegetable broth instead of the traditional beef.

Once the onions are caramelized, it's a simple matter of deglazing the pan with dry white wine (you could also use water with a little apple cider vinegar, but using wine is the traditional method, and the alcohol cooks off), then simmering the onions in the broth. Finish the soup with a crispy piece of toasted French bread and lots of melted cheese. (The traditional cheese is Gruyère, but I used a mixture of French Comté and a cheddar/Gruyère blend. You could also use Swiss.)

Stick in a spoon and scoop out a piece of bread with a bit of broth — and, of course, that ooey-gooey cheese — and you can enjoy this restaurant classic without ever leaving home. 

Ingredients

click to enlarge Ingredients for French onion soup - ANDY BRUMBAUGH
  • Andy Brumbaugh
  • Ingredients for French onion soup

(Serves four)

  • 4 pounds onions (a mixture of yellow and sweet)
  • 2 shallots
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 6 cups beef broth
  • 1 cup mirepoix (equal parts celery, carrot and onion, finely chopped)
  • ¼ cup chopped parsley
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 French baguette
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 2 cups shredded Swiss, Gruyère, or Comté cheese, or a mixture

Directions

  1. Peel the onions, cut in half and slice into thin half-moons. Peel and thinly slice the shallots.
  2. In a large, heavy Dutch oven (at least 5 quarts), melt the butter and olive oil. Add the onions and shallots. It will look like there are too many for the pot, but as long as you can stir a bit, your pot is big enough; they will cook down a lot. Sprinkle with salt.
  3. Cook onions over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and lightly caramelized, but not burnt. This will take anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour. Don't rush it.
  4. While the onions are caramelizing, put the broth in a large saucepan, along with the mirepoix and parsley. Simmer until the onions are done.
  5. When the onions are nicely caramelized, sprinkle with flour and stir to coat. Add the wine to deglaze the pan, scraping up any bits stuck to the pan with a wooden spoon. Using a sieve to strain out the mirepoix and parsley, pour the broth into the pan with the onions. Add the bay leaf, Worcestershire sauce and thyme, and simmer for at least 15 minutes. The longer you can let it simmer, the better — in fact, you can even make this soup a day or two ahead of time, and top with cheese and toast right before serving.
  6. While the soup is simmering, slice the baguette into rounds and brush lightly with olive oil. Rub each piece with the clove of garlic, then broil until toasted, about two to three minutes.
  7. To serve the soup, ladle into broiler-safe bowls or crocks. Top each bowl with a bit of cheese, then a slice or two of bread (enough to cover most of the bowl), toasted side down. Add remaining cheese and broil until cheese is bubbly, about two to three minutes.
  8. Serve hot, being careful not to burn your mouth on all that melted cheese.

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Mealtime