22Feb2011

Soupe a l’oignon gratinèe

All I can say is that two things had to happen for me to be intrigued by onion soup: first, I recently went to Montreal where I felt like everywhere I turned, restaurants were advertising soupe a l’oignon gratinèe.  It seemed a shame to waste one of my eating opportunities in this great culinary city on something so pedestrian as onions in broth, so I begged off.  Then comes the second thing that had to happen to make me want to make this soup.  Upon returning home, I plodded down to my basement to check out the dry-goods rack that houses our storage potatoes, squash and onions, and I was met with an unavoidable truth: my onions were past their prime.  They were sending up green shoots – searching for light and the chance at a new life.  Something had to be done.  When faced with a cellar full of sprouting onions, I chose to not turn to the compost heap – no! – but to the cooking pot, and make me some magic.

You see, now that I have experienced the glory of onion soup, I have to say the process of cooking down massive amounts of onions falls into a culinary category I like to call cooking alchemy.  It is simply a magical process – much like when you cook down quince into its rosy hue (using acidity and astringency to conjure up the color pink).  If you cook them gently, slowly, and with butter, onions will sublime into a soft, silky umami lovefest – very much unlike their previous selves; sharp, caustic, breath-ravishing beasts that make you cry.  I am happy to report I will never look at onions the same way, and feel a little embarrassed that it has taken me so long to come to this place of acceptance of the humble l’oignon.

So, with 5# of sprouting, wizened, sad little alliums, and only 4 other ingredients (plus salt & pepper), I succeeded in making, quite possibly, one of the best soups of my life.  I am not kidding.  It is that good.  Here you go – have fun, shed some tears, feel good making something amazing from something you were about to throw away, pour yourself a glass of wine and revel in your genius – and don’t forget to share!  Bon appétit!

Soupe a l’oignon gratinee

  • 5# onions (I had red ones, a lot of recipes say to use yellow), sliced thinly
  • ½ stick of butter (¼ cup)
  • 1-2 quarts beef stock
  • 1 T. flour
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • baguette toasts (optional)
  • soft cheese like gruyère or swiss, grated (optional)

Peel onions.  I also removed the cores that were sprouting – worried that they’d make the soup taste “off”.

5# sliced onions, ¼ c. butter, beef stock – and, of course, a glass of wine to sip while cooking!

Melt your butter over medium heat in a nice heavy-bottomed pot, big enough for all those onions – this is an 8 quart pot.

Add onions to pot and melted butter and stir around to coat onions.
They quickly start to reduce their volume.

After about 40 minutes of gentle cooking and stirring, your onions will look like this, and your house will have the glorious smell of butter and onions!  Here they are, onions with their new persona – nothing at all like their former selves.
Amazing what a little heat and butter can do!

Add 1 T. of flour, and stir onions to incorporate the flour into them.
There on the right burner is beef stock coming up to heat, ready to add.

Onions with flour added look glossy like this.
Cook the onions with flour for about 3 minutes or so.

Gently pour in your beef stock, stirring to loosen any stickiness from the bottom of the pan.  I only used a quart, as I wanted a thicker soup.
Use as much stock as you need to get the texture you desire.

Add bay leaf to soup, bring to a simmer, cover and let flavors mellow for about 20 minutes.  Season to taste with black pepper and salt.  I like the cauldron effect here.  Very alchemical.

The soup is ready to eat!  Remove bay leaf before ladling soup into bowls.  If you wish to do the classic gratinèe treatment, preheat oven broiler, slice baguette into thin rounds, coat in olive oil and toast 6″ under broiler – flipping to evenly toast both sides.

Place soup in oven-proof dishes, top with toasts and cheese, place bowls on a baking sheet to catch any oozy cheese.  Move oven rack so that it is about 8″ from broiler,
and place sheet with soups under the broiler.
Keep an eye on it, check every 3 minutes or so until desired toastiness.

Et voilà! Soupe a l’oignon gratinèe!  Served here with a lovely radicchio and watercress salad lightly dressed with a sherry-shallot vinaigrette.  Onion soup pairs nicely with a great salad like this, the vinegar cutting the richness of the soup perfectly.
Of course, don’t forget to pair with a nice pinot noir as well!

Some further thoughts on this recipe:

  1. With a tiny bit of research, I have discovered that Julia Child was inclined to add white wine (when you add the stock) and even a little cognac (just before serving).  Truly inspiring, and not a bad idea at all!
  2. If you wish your onions to have a more browned flavor, you can add ¼ tsp. sugar at the beginning – this helps to caramelize the sugars.
  3. This soup keeps and reheats quite nicely!
  4. This soup would be completely off the hook if you used homemade beef stock.  That is what I am going to try next!
  5. I will never ever again pass by a restaurant in Montreal at lunchtime that is offering soupe a l’oignon gratinèe!

4 Responses

  1. Jacqueline says:

    thanks for such a great tutorial. next bag of onions i see on sale, is destined for this recipe. unfortunately, i don’t have 5# of my own like you!

  2. Mara says:

    You are very welcome, Jacqui! Actually, several recipes I consulted suggested using anywhere from 1.5 up to 5 pounds of onions, just depends on how many you have and how much stock you want to use. It is one of those great peasant-y dishes that is meant to use stuff you have in the kitchen, and will taste great with whatever proportions you use. I’d say to not let yourself worry about the onion amount, simply use whatever onions you have and give it a whirl! Enjoy!

  3. Julie Rubaud says:

    Thanks for the reminder of what to do with all my onions in the cellar! I never have the temperature down there cold enough for onions to be happy past equinox.
    One of my favorite memories is helping my brother-in-law, who is a chef, make onion soup for his and my sister’s entire village in France one New Year’s Eve. It’s the traditional thing to eat at midnight, soaks up the booze really well! They have a village wide party for every season and this is what they serve for the winter party, after a full on meal, of course, that goes from 8:30 to about 11. Then there is an hour of dancing, midnight hits, everyone kisses, and huge trays topped with bowls of soup come out…..pretty beautiful.
    One trick I learned from him is to toast the flour in the oven until it is browned. It adds a whole other level of flavor – maybe it’s just one of those chef-y things that you don’t really need to do at home, but his soup is just amazing! Thanks for the great post – Julie

  4. Mara says:

    Julie, thanks so much for your great story of making french onion soup with your family! It does sound like a wonderful tradition – I like that it’s eaten right after midnight, sounds like a perfect time for some nourishing onion soup!

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