French onion soup was the last meal Julia Child ate before she died in 2004. Perhaps it was a premonition, the earthy flavors of concentrated onion-root wafting from the underworld and foreshadowing her descent.
And while it generally won’t kill you, a good batch of French onion soup can induce a lot of tears before it takes you to heaven.
Like many French recipes Child helped popularize, French onion soup is a simple dish, essentially a fancy version of peasant food commonly made with inexpensive, locally available ingredients.
Legend has it that King Louie XV invented French onion soup after arriving at a hunting cabin and finding only onions, wine and butter. But the reality is that these ingredients were what stocked the average farmer’s larder on an average winter day.
“I didn’t have to go to the store for anything,” said my friend El Camino, who made French onion soup the other day. “It worked out great.”
The price tag makes homemade French onion soup a good option when money is tight, and its rich, warming and concentrated flavor makes it good wintertime food. All things considered, now might be a good time for some French onion soup.
El Camino traded with a farmer friend for a big batch of organic onions. He packed away the good ones for storage, removed the softer specimens, and ended up with 14 pounds, which he decided to preserve as frozen portions of French onion soup.
“I ran out of tears,” he says of his adventure cutting all those onions.
According to El Camino, the secret to good French onion soup is to slowly oven-roast the onions in butter. This gently concentrates the sweetness of the onions without burning them. Doing so in the oven, and not the stovetop, slows the process and provides some cushion against over-browning, as you don’t have to watch it like a hawk like you do when browning onions on a stovetop.
“I tasted the onions after a few hours, and they were sweet like fruit,” El Camino said. “I couldn’t believe it. I kind of wish I’d served it like that, but I kept going ’til it was mahogany brown, like it says in Cooks Illustrated.”
He served his soup oven-baked with a slice of bread and sliced Gruyere on top, in individual clay pots he scored at Goodwill that morning.
When I tasted his soup, the bottom dropped out in my mouth. I was tasting the sweet fragrance of the earth, first concentrated into the form of onion bulbs, and concentrated again into the brown broth.
I enjoyed the bread and cheese in creating the finished presentation of the dish, but at the same time they were a bit of a distraction. The onion soup itself was the soul in that bowl, and that’s where I really wanted to focus.
The recipe El Camino used was a modified version of a Cooks Illustrated recipe that, as is the way of that magazine, is detailed to the point of being micro-managerial.
You can find the Cooks Illustrated recipe that El Camino did wonders with at cookography.com. But I’m partial to an old James Beard recipe that’s nearly the same at heart, right down to caramelizing the onions in the oven rather than on the stovetop, but is more conversational and less like a laboratory protocol. The recipe is called “Onion Soup without Tears,” because the onions are only cut in halves, and not laboriously sliced or chopped. This minimizes the cook’s exposure to the onion fumes. Beard suggests:
“Set the oven to 400 degrees. Peel the onions [4 medium sized, yellow] and cut them in half from tip to root, then lay them in a roasting tin and add the butter [2 tablespoons], salt and some pepper. Roast until they are tender and soft, and toasted dark brown here and there. You might have to turn them now and again.”
One note: The only thing I would add to Beard’s recipe is to back the temperature down to 250 or 275 once the oven is pre-heated, and slowly caramelize the onions at that temperature.
“Cut the onions into thick segments,” the recipe continues. “Put them in a saucepan with the wine [1 glass, white] and bring to the boil. Let the wine bubble until it almost disappears (you just want the flavor, not the alcohol), then pour in the stock [6 cups, beef or vegetable]. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 20 minutes.
“Just before you want to serve the soup, make the cheese croutes. Cut the loaf into thin slices and toast lightly on one side under a hot grill (broiler). Turn them over and sprinkle with the grated cheese. Get the soup hot, ladle it into bowls and float the cheese croutes on top. Place the bowls under a hot grill (broiler) and leave until the cheese melts. Eat immediately, whilst the cheese is still stringy and molten.”
El Camino added thyme to his soup as well, and I’ll vouch for that being a good thing. There are a lot of variations on the simple equation of wine, onions and butter. It’s a good thing winter—and onions—lasts so long.
Ask Ari: Down on the farm
Q: Dear Flash,
About eight years ago my wife and I bought some riverfront property. Rather than build a McMansion on the property, we wanted to become farmers. We really tried to do everything right. We made a buffer next to the river and have enhanced riparian vegetation to prevent erosion of the farmland. We pay a living wage and provide a product—fruit—that the local community seems to appreciate.
By buying the land and farming it we have saved it from one kind of development but created another. I’m sure some folks paying big bucks for a guided fishing trip have commented, “What kind of trash would build a place like that?”
The answer is white trash trying to farm. Now comes the Big Sky Rivers Act. If this becomes law in its present form we no longer control the destiny of the land near the river, which is the only land we can build infrastructure on. To do anything on this land, we would have to apply for a variance to an as-yet-to-be-determined local government official.
I had a previous life where I dealt extensively with regulators and government officials and I guarantee you don’t want your destiny determined by government officials making political decisions. It’s also possible that if our infrastructure were damaged, we would not be able to rebuild it. What’s a poor farmer to do?
A: My understanding is that The Big Sky Rivers Act, which would call for buffers of streamside areas and protections to riparian habitat immediately adjacent, would exempt areas that have sewer or onsite wastewater management facilities, existing structures and agricultural uses. But this is an important point and bears watching as the bill continues to be crafted. While some forms of agriculture, like raising livestock, can threaten water quality with runoff, small family farms like yours can and should be an important component of riparian habitat.
Send your food and garden queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.