Monday, July 19, 2010

When Life Gives You Onions...

Like most everyone else, I love summer foods. All the fresh vegetables and fruits, the burgers and salads, the al fresco dining—among the best moments of any summer. At some point during the season, though, I inevitably begin to experience a kind of weariness when it comes to the usual fare. Not wanting to heat up the place too much by baking or turning on a hot oven, perhaps something hearty from the stovetop was still possible.

And that was where I found myself today. I had seen some really nice looking Vidalia onions at the market over the weekend and I couldn’t resist bringing them home.  Real Vidalias (grown in a few very specific Georgia counties, the vegetable equivalent of an AOC for the French) are generally available April thru November, so I could even consider that I was still eating mostly seasonally with my slightly untimely meal. And while they are a lovely addition to most any recipe that calls for onions, these sweet gems are for me the basis for one of my favorite dishes of all time—French Onion Soup.

I kind of consider myself a connoisseur of a good French onion gratinée because I’ve been a lifelong sampler of this classic soup. I don’t ever recall anyone in my family making it, certainly not my mother or her mother and I can’t see my paternal grandmother making it either. Instead, French onion soup was a kind of treat that I’d order from restaurants when we at out. And thusly, I’ve had the best onion soups in the world (my own, thank you very much, plus one in France, obviously) and the worst (places where I should have known better than to even think about ordering it, including London) plus everything in between. Granted, what suits my palate may not be to your taste, so my opinions are clearly subjective, but I’ve found that the finished products I enjoy most are those that have the simplest and highest quality ingredients.

I use Julia’s recipe, plain and simple. (And never fear, I don’t have any aspirations to be Julie Powell so no worries this is going to become some kind of food blog!) The only reason I can imagine using any other formula or buying canned onion soup (perish the thought!!!) would be a food allergy or condition. And I say that because this dish is so clean and elegant, like most of the best dishes are, that anyone can make it successfully—even me.

Now to be fair, I do make a few small tweaks to the recipe of “the great one” aka,Julia Child. I don’t make many meat dishes so making stock hasn’t happened for me, though someday it may—but that means I use stock from the box. I do, however, doctor it up with a bay leaf or two and some ground thyme while it simmers. Otherwise, I follow her method to the letter, right down to using extra dry vermouth instead of white wine. (Consider that when Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in the USA very few people consumed wine the way we do now, so the original recipe uses 1 cup of vermouth, which would have been present in many liquor cabinets.)

And that’s basically it. Onions allowed to cook and then caramelize to a “dark walnut color” (yes, the first time I made it I actually looked at my bag of walnuts to gauge the caramelizing level…don’t judge!) with a little sugar and pinch of salt. A bit of flour and then add the beef stock that has been simmering away with the bay leaf, vermouth and thyme and you’re good to go. Tonight I started early so I was able to let the soup really simmer—for over 2 hours—and that resulted in a very rich, velvety consistency.

Because of the heat and humidity, I opted not to go full gratinée with putting the cheese-covered bowl under a hot broiler. I did, however, have some perfect croutons from day old Wave Hill bread and by putting those in the bottom of the bowl and dusting the top with an earthy, finely shaved Gruyere cheese, it was all just fine.

There is so much to love about this simple creation—the shiny onions as they caramelize and pick up bits from the bottom of the pan; the beefy richness of the broth; the subtle layering of flavor from the thyme and bay. When combined, these basic ingredients are greater than the sum of their parts.  I could wax rhapsodic about my soup for a bit longer, but the delightful aroma wafting from the kitchen means,  pun intended, soup’s on!

Consult your copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking for the recipe, or here’s an online version from a food blog I thoroughly enjoy called, happily, Gratinée. Magnifique, non?