When in doubt… go French! And (always) use stock!
Our Professional Kitchen Techniques lecturer always says that a French onion soup is only as good as the stock that goes into it. He is also saying the same thing about risotto. And he is right. In both cases.
As a self-declared Italophile, I knew little about the classic French cuisine before enrolling to study Culinary Arts. And I had never given too much thought to stocks or sauces. I mean, I might have occasionally boiled some carrots, an onion and (if found in the fridge) a celery stick in the water that I needed for risotto. Or – most of the times – just used either water or shop-bought vegetable stock. But the main reason for doing so was that of avoiding those stock cubes that I deeply hate.
However, my feelings for stocks have changed from “I don’t care too much really” to “I can’t live without you” on a full day session on stocks and sauces in school. On that particular day I learned how important stocks are in the professional kitchen and how they can enrich a dish and take it to a completely different level. A good stock always adds a unique depth of flavour to soups, stews, sauces and many other dishes. It could really make the difference between an average dish and an outstanding one. On the first weekend after that lesson I went to the butcher’s and bought a bag of bones. Roasted them in the oven, then slowly simmered them with some onions, carrots, celery sticks and herbs. It was my first home-made beef stock. I needed to understand it. I needed to see how it develops, how it changes in colour, becoming clear and rich and full of flavour. It took me almost the entire day – but it made me happy. The next day I made this French onion soup for a couple of friends coming over for dinner. And the soup made them happy in return.
There is only a handful of ingredients in this classic French onion soup, and I believe that this is what makes it even more special. All that it really needs is a bit of time. Ok, and possibly a few tears. But you have to allow the onions to cook slowly, over a very low heat, in order to release their full flavour. Rush them and you’ll get a messy thing with a burnt taste. Then you will have to add the wine and cook it until the alcohol is evaporated. The stock is added the last, and bringing the soup back to boiling could take some time. Then you’ll have to simmer it for another half an hour or so. The entire operation may take up to 2 hours, so keep that in mind if you have guests for dinner.
Now, to end the story about stock. Obviously one doesn’t always have a full day to spare on standing by the stove, skimming and guarding a huge pot of boiling bones. What you can find in the supermarkets does a rather good job – and for a fair price, so there’s no need to go all the long way. For that reason, I’ll spare you of the lengthy discussion on how to make the perfect stock at home, and I’ll move on to the recipe for this beautiful onion soup.
- 50 grams unsalted butter
- 850 grams onions, thinly sliced
- 3 garlic cloves, chopped
- 2 liters beef stock (use vegetable stock for the vegetarian option)
- 250 ml white wine
- 2 fresh bay leaves
- 3 springs of fresh thyme, plus extra for serving
- black pepper
- 12 slices of baguette
- 150 grams Comte cheese, grated
- Melt the butter in a heavy-based saucepan on low heat.
- Add the chopped garlic and sliced onions and continue to cook over low heat for about 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- When the onion becomes golden brown and begins to caramelise, add the wine and allow it to boil until the alcohol is evaporated. Continue to gradually add the stock and bring the soup to boil.
- Add the bay leaves and the thyme and season with salt and black pepper.
- Cover the pan and continue to simmer for 25 minutes.
- Before serving remove the thyme springs and the bay leaves.
- Divide the soup into 6 warm bowls.
- Preheat the oven at 180 C.
- Arrange the baguette slices on a tray and top them with grated cheese. Place the tray in the oven (use the broiler function if available) and remove it when the cheese starts to melt.
- Place two baguette slices in each bowl and garnish with thyme.
- Serve immediately.