I made this last night, and this morning my entire apartment smells like onions. I think even the cats smell like onions. I have showered, shampooed, put on clean clothes, and driven 30 miles to work, and I can still faintly smell onions in my hair, on my breath, oozing out of my pores. None of this should deter you, however, from making this French onion soup recipe, because it’s relatively easy and quite delicious. Let us give thanks, once again, to Jack Bishop, who published this in Vegetables Every Day. We shake our fingers at him slightly for using cognac—which required visits to several liquor stores before we could find a small enough bottle for our budget (I ended up with an adorably small bottle of Hennessy containing exactly half a cup)—and for not being very clear on what to do with the bay leaves we put into the soup (more on this later), but overall we are pleased. I couldn’t eat this too often, because hey, it’s basically just a big steaming bowl of onions, even if glorified by cheesy toasts, but with a nice green salad it made a rich, yet simple, Sunday supper. Plus, you get that nice fancy-pants feeling that comes from making something at home that you are accustomed to eating only in restaurants.
Funny story about these onions: I got them at the farmers’ market, where I had remembered buying them in 1-pound bags for $1 apiece. So I got three bags and brought them home. And after I had sliced up about a bag of them, weeping copiously, I started to think, “Wow, this is a heckuva lot of onions.” Luckily, at this point I thought to check the label on the bag, which stated that it contained 2½ pounds of onions. No wonder A had complained so much about having to carry these onions around the farmers’ market, considering he had actually been lugging 7½ pounds of them. So we have a few spare onions on our hands. (Do you have onion recipes? Send them hither!) I’m just glad I didn’t try to put them all in the soup. (I was on the phone with K when I made this discovery, and she reminded me of the time when she got her terminology confused and used an entire head of garlic instead of just a clove.)
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 pounds yellow or red onions, halved and sliced thin
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup cognac
5 cups chicken, beef, or vegetable stock (I use homemade chicken stock. Jack recommends homemade beef broth as traditional, but says not to use canned beef broth because it’s just too salty, though canned chicken or vegetable are OK. Personally, I think if there’s any way you can make some homemade broth of any kind, you should go for it, because this soup is just basically onions and broth, so the quality of the broth matters. But maybe now that I have my chicken-broth-making skillz, I’m just becoming a big fat Stock Snob.)
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs fresh parsley
freshly ground black pepper
6 thick slices French bread, toasted
8 ounces Gruyere cheese, shredded (about 2 cups)
1. Heat the butter and oil in a large soup pot (Jack asks for a heavy casserole or Dutch oven, but I just use my Revere Ware kettle) over medium heat. When this is warm, add the onions and cook them, stirring often, until they wilt and start to brown. (Jack said this should take about 10 minutes, but my onions must have been incredibly juicy, because they let off an incredible amount of liquid and became nice and soft and broken down, but stubbornly refused to brown for at least 20-25 minutes, until all the liquid had finally cooked away. I think this probably made them turn out even better, but it made the cooking take a lot longer than the recipe instructed. I think the pan may have been too crowded for them to brown properly.) When they look a little brown, add the teaspoon of salt, raise the heat to medium-high, and continue to cook them, stirring more often, until they're nicely browned (Jack said 15 minutes, but again, it took me a little longer). When browned bits get stuck to the bottom, scrape them off with the spoon and mix them into the onions, because browned flavor is good here.
2. Add the cognac to the onions and simmer until the liquid evaporates, about 2 minutes. Mmm, alcohol and onions. Add the stock, thyme, parsley, bay leaves, and black pepper. Here is where Jack confused me, because there was never an instruction to remove the bay leaves at the end, as is usual (who wants big leaves floating in the soup?). And he never says what to do with the thyme and parsley—chop it? Or leave it whole and then remove that, too? Because I like herbs with onions, I went ahead and minced the thyme (I also used a lot more than two sprigs—more like a couple teaspoons) and the parsley (about a tablespoon).
4. Bring the soup to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the flavors have blended, “about 10 minutes” (a little longer is OK, depending on how much prep you have to do for the cheesy toasts).
5a. Traditional method, requiring use of overproof bowls: Preheat your broiler, set 6 ovenproof soup bowls on a rimmed baking sheet, ladle the soup into the bowls, float a piece of toasted bread in each bowl, sprinkle 1/3 cup Gruyere over each bowl, and place the baking sheet in the oven until the cheese browns.
5b. Handy Bookcook detour method, for those who don’t have ovenproof bowls (or aren’t sure if they do): slice up the French bread (my baguette was very thin, making the resulting slices more like croutons, so I did more than 6) and put it on a baking sheet under the broiler for a minute or so on each side just to toast it, then put Gruyere on each piece of bread and broil it until melts and gets a little brown. Then just ladle the soup into bowls and float the little cheesy croutons in the soup. Or, if you're making leftover portions and don't want the croutons to get soggy, store the croutons in a plastic bag and don't add them to the leftover soup until you're ready to eat it.
Serves: 5-6 (Jack says “6 as a first course or for lunch”; we were eating it as a main course for dinner, so we got 5)
Time: 1 hour