Life's too short to eat bad food - Me

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic - Arthur C. Clarke

Monday, February 25, 2008

Happy is said to be the family which can eat onions together. -- Charles Dudley Warner

Call it French Onion Soup or Soupe à L’Oignon Gratinée, it is simply a great soup - perfect for a meal on a cold winter night. I have written of my love of soups before, and I am sure I will again, but this soup has a special place in my heart, because it is always my example when discussing the topic of the recipes.

I have been blessed in the past six months to receive three wonderful cooking related books, each of which discusses the concept of a recipe. First, Jacques Pepin's Chez Jacques, a lengthy but elegant dissertation on the recipe, including the observation that: A recipe is a teaching tool, a point of departure. Then there is Michael Ruhlman's brief but equally elegant observation that "Recipes are not assembly manuals." Finally, the is the delightful John Thorne, who opined that "Matt takes a recipe as being instructions for making a dish, where, as often as not, its nuts-and-bolts aspect (which some might say is its only aspect) rarely holds my attention."

These writers sum up my feelings on a variety of levels. The bottom line for me is that a "recipe" is someone's opinion. Here is where Onion Soup comes in - if a recipe were more than simply someone's opinion, there would only be one recipe for French Onion Soup. It's a great example of the variations that can occur; from simplicity to gussying the concept up like a tart.

So, before we get to my opinions, let's deal with some facts and some conjecture. The facts, or at least as we know them. Onions are an ancient food. They were most certainly eaten in their wild form, and have likely been domesticated for more than 5000 years. References exist in ancient times from China, Sumeria and Mesopotamia. Soups made of onion are documented as far back as the Roman Empire.

Onions and radishes were fed to my forefathers as they built the pyramids, and rubbed on Gladiators for strength. By the Middle Ages the main foodstuffs were beans, cabbage and Onions - no mention of meat, fish or fowl. So, while onions were enjoyed by the upper classes, they also remained a inexpensive food for the lowest of the low.

That leads to my conjecture: despite the legends about the various Kings Louis of France, this had its origins as a peasant dish - a way to use up stale bread and readily available onions. That's why I eschew ingredients such as veal stock, champagne or fine cognac.

Here is where opinion comes in. The five basic ingredients of French Onion Soup are: the liquid, the onions, the cheese, the bread and the flavorings. Let's start with the liquid. Most likely the available liquid would have been either the cooking liquid from a previous meal or just water. I have made good ones with water, acceptable ones with canned low-sodium chicken stock (sorry Ruhlman) and barely passable, but edible ones with soup base. For myself, I generally prefer an unassuming homemade beef or chicken stock. In this case I used turkey stock made from the Thanksgiving carcass.

The onions: Many recommend sweet onions such as Vidalia or Maui's. Pooh on them! As many authorities, particularly Russ Parsons, have pointed out, the difference in sugar content between Vidalia type onions and other harsher onions is minimal. The real difference is that sweet onions have less of the sulfur compounds than other, sharper onions. During cooking, these sulfur compounds cook off. Parsons even suggests that the sweet onions are less sweet after cooking than regular onions. So, at about a third of the cost, I'll take yellow storage onions.

The cheese: Usually recommended are Gruyère and Emmenthaler - both are excellent choices. But, in my effort to be frugal in the manner of a peasant housewife I must admit that deli provolone makes a decent topping. I will say that my favorite is also my favorite swiss style cheese: Jarlsberg. I love its nuttiness, and it makes a great Reuben. The main thing to remember is that it is onion soup garnished with cheese, not the other way around.

The bread: It has to be good white bread - no Wonder Bread - but it doesn't have to be expensive artisanal bread. I almost always have homemade, but most supermarkets have decent bread these days from baguettes to wider Italian type loaves (no seeds please). The important thing is that the bread get stale in a day or two. You can dry it in the oven at low temp to finish the job, but don't toast it. I have great results with either straight dough or sourdough.

The flavorings: Salt and Pepper. I have used some thyme on occasion, but found it unnecessary. As to liquids, I usually deglaze with a higher acid white such as Sauvignon Blanc. Cognac as a finisher just seems wrong, but a decent not-too-expensive California Brandy works for what I want.

That's my opinion!

A final note: There are no photos of those beautiful mahogany onions after slowly cooking. The camera needed recharging at a most inconvenient time!


Ann said...

French Onion Soup is such a simple dish... and so easy to get wrong. It's taken me years to get mine up to the level I want. Enjoyed reading your post!

Jack said...

I love French Onion Soup so hard... it really is worth working at. Really caramelizing those onions and using a great stock seem to be the key things, for me. It should be dark, rich and sinful!

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Arthur C. Clarke

Life's too short to eat bad food -