If we can cook it, you can cook it!

French Onion Soup, the ultimate slow food that can’t be rushed.

           Over the holidays, when we were snowbound and had plenty of time to make lunch, I jumped at the opportunity to make French Onion Soup—or at least, some poor misguided soul’s idea of onion soup.   The recipe, clipped from a magazine I’ve since tossed, claimed you could enjoy France’s gift to soup tureens everywhere in 30 minutes.  Tasting nothing like any version of onion soup, foreign or domestic, that I’ve ever had, this flour-y insipid brew was a huge disappointment and a waste of time.  Some things should never be rushed.  French Onion Soup is one of them.
         There’s a lot of lore behind the soup.  Some of it revolves around a bistro called “Au Pied de Cochon”, which was located just outside Les Halles, the once famous and now defunct meat and vegetable market in the center of Paris.  The restaurant served as an intersection of people going to work in the market who, in the pre-dawn hours, started their day at “Au Pied” and a posh crowd who flocked there after a late evening out.  Mingling with the butchers and market workers, the glam crowd tucked into bowls of “Soupe a l’Oignon Gratinee”.  Les Halles closed in 1974, replaced by a ugly mall.  From everything I read, the bistro’s food has gone as far downhill as the neighborhood.  Coasting on its now 35 year old reputation, “Au Pied de Cochon” is one tourist trap to avoid.  But there’s really no need to when you can make spectacular onion soup at home.
        There’s surprising uniformity in recipes for French Onion Soup. The only dissent is whether to use beef or chicken stocks.  I go for beef.  I like the heartier flavor. And I believe the original “Au Pied” recipe, made so close the meat market, used beef in its stock.  However, both Larousse and Patricia Wells, the brilliant American transplant who writes and cooks there, swears by chicken stock; vegetarians can likely use vegetable stock.  The important ingredients are the onions, the ‘croute’ and the cheese that tops it.        
        According the Larousse, the word “soupe” originally referred to the slice of bread, ‘la croute’, that was put in the bottom of bowl and the contents of the cooking pot, “la potage”, was then poured over it.  “Soupe” and “Potage” are now synonymous but, because of the presence of the bread, French Onion Soup is always referred to as “Soupe a l’oignon gratinee
My choice of onions for this soup are the sweetest you can find: Vidalias are perfect.  When my parents lived in Atlanta, stockings-full of Vidalia onions would make their way north.  I do mean stockings-full.  My mother’s method of keeping onions was to tie them individually in old sheer nylon stockings in a kind of chain.  You’d lop one off as needed.  It worked but it was a relief to not have hose hanging in the kitchen when Vidalias finally became widely available here in New York. 
The most important thing here is to cook the onions to a point at which they virtually melt and caramelize. This has to be done slowly, as slowly as possible.  Exercising great patience shouldn’t be too hard.  Aside from an occasional stir, you can pretty much leave them on low for an hour and they’ll very gradually take on a golden tone.  I’d say the whole process from slicing the onions to putting the soup on the table is a 2 hour deal.  And worth every minute.  Here’s the recipe:
** There was a period of time when I made onion soup so often, I stocked both our kitchens with individual Apilco Lion Head crocks.  They are wonderful for pot pies and get a lot more use than I imagined. 





4 thoughts on “French Onion Soup, the ultimate slow food that can’t be rushed.”

  • You're spot on with your recipe and comments about onion soup. We invented a fabulous twist at our Wine Bar/Restaurant in Montréal "Le Carafon". While we were finishing the interior prior to opening, some innocent American tourists wandered in, thinking we were open. It was lunch time, so I offered to feed them; offer eagerly accepted. It was Soupe à l'Oignon gratinée. JUst about to plonk it under the salamander when I realised I had forgotten to include the obligatory dash of brandy in the lunch portions I had just taken from the big pot. Lifted up the baguette slice and chucked in a teaspoonful. This worked so well that it spawned the subsequent practice of having a kitchen spray bottle of cognac at hand, and each baguette got a wee whoosh just before the gratinating process. it saved a hell of a lot of brandy, and the effect was miraculous. As you plunged in through the melted cheese the aroma of vapourised brandy was intoxicating! Far greater effect than ten times as much dumped into the soup. Try it, your guests will love it. And, by the way, I still believe the best topping is a good Cheddar. Canadian is excellent, though you poor yanks don't have anything resembling real hard Cheddar unless it is imported. Sorry about that; you just don't have the knack for good cheese. Simon Stracey

  • Our cheese problems stem from the fact that absolutely everything in this country has to be pasteurized. There's no raw milk allowed and not even imported cheese can pass muster here unless it tows the line. But fortunately, there's enough good imported Gruyere and Emmenthal that we can make a good gratinee. Although, on your advice, I'll try some Canadian cheddar. I just got some marvellous New Zealand Cheddar which was a special at Whole Foods.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.