Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Lonesome Road Kitchen Challenge: French Onion Soup
Cold... icy... snowy...you need comfort and you need it now.
You need homemade soup.
A soul-satisfying, steaming bowl of fragrant homemade soup made with lots of TLC, what better way to celebrate the cozy cocooning of the long winter months?
If you're like me, you love to experiment with all sorts of new ideas, but mastering the classics is a challenge in its own right. To make it even more compelling, sometimes the classics become a little... cliched. Rushed. Or pushed aside in favor of a trend. Morphed into something they were never meant to be: overly processed, lacking in fresh quality ingredients and unrecognizable in their current state.
Who hasn't had a cup of the local restaurant's version of French Onion Soup of the Day? A salty brown liquid tinted with caramel coloring, with giant hunks of tough old onions and pre-made onion-powdery croutons from a resealable bag with a shelf life of three years?
You deserve better. Reacquaint yourself with the real French onion soup, an old favorite that, when made as it should, will warm your tummy and your heart and make you wonder why you ever settled for less.
First of all, start off with the best beef stock you can. That is, make your own. It's not difficult. Get a couple of large beef soup bones at the store, and add some celery stalks with fresh leafy tops, a couple of cloves of garlic, an onion (peeled and quartered) and a large leek; parsley and black peppercorns. A couple of medium-sized carrots are nice, too, but keep in mind that carrots do make a stock or broth taste a little sweet.
If you're really trying to be frugal, freeze leftover beef bones from cooked bone-in roasts and steaks to use later for your beef stock.
Cover the whole tasty melange with 8 cups of fresh water and let it simmer, partly covered, for as long as you have time. The longer the better, but even a little bit is preferable to using store-bought stock. A couple of hours is a good place to start.
If you have an extra day, let the finished stock cool down and store it overnight in the refrigerator so you can skim off any fat that will rise to the top. Carefully strain it and discard the vegetables.
The difference between "stock" and "broth?" Generally, stock is made with meat and bones; broth is made primarily with meat only.
The next thing to remember about making fantastic homemade French onion soup is to slowly and patiently caramelize the onions.
Thinly slice two large yellow onions and three small leeks (white parts only). Many people add garlic to French onion soup, but I prefer adding leeks, with their complex flavor somewhere between onions and garlic, and their amazing aroma. Heat two or three tablespoons of olive oil in a large soup pot and add the onions and leeks, cooking over medium-low heat until evenly browned (not burned).
When onions are perfectly caramelized (about 30 to 40 minutes), add six cups of beef stock, two bay leaves, 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves, and salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. I know that many people add adventurous seasonings to French onion soup, but I like to keep it simple and let the flavors of the homemade beef stock and richly caramelized onions shine through.
Simmer everything together for at least an hour, then add three tablespoons of sherry or dry white wine and let the alcohol cook off a bit. (The wine is totally optional but adds so much to the flavor of the finished soup, in my opinion.)
Discard bay leaves before serving.
To serve, either spoon the French onion soup into ovenproof crockery bowls and top with a slice of toasted French bread smothered in cheese (preferably Gruyere, Fontina, Provolone, and a sprinkle of freshly grated Parmesan). Briefly broil until cheese is bubbly. Or, if you don't have ovenproof soup bowls, you can simply broil the bread and cheese on a baking sheet and drop into the hot bowl of soup.
Another option, if you're serving several people, is to pour the soup into a large ovenproof casserole dish and cover the top with toasted French bread slices and cheese, then briefly broil until cheese is bubbly.
Makes approximately five to six servings.
Soup, bread and cheese... what could be more gratifying on a cold winter day? Even better that it was created with love in your own kitchen from first-rate ingredients and techniques!