Sunday, 1 February 2009

Soupe á l’onion pas typique (A different onion soup)

Imagine a bistro in Paris—the late night meals in cramped, lively rooms that even now are conjured up in sepia tones—and French onion soup seems to play as iconic a role as the nicotine-stained mirrors and clinking wine glasses.

Fittingly, Julia Child, that great lover of Paris and its food, is said to have eaten French onion soup at her last meal. And the proprietors of French restaurants—eager to appeal to memory and imagination alike—wisely place Soupe á l'onion gratineé on the menu.

It was surely not coincidental that my first restaurant meal after moving to Paris began with a bowl of French Onion Soup. But whether it was an overload of expectations, or just an overdose of salt in the kitchen, the supposedly famous version served at Aux Pieds des Cochons was less than the sum of its parts.

And so it was elsewhere—indifferent bread, cheese more notable for its generosity than taste, broth that was dark and salty rather than meaty and savoury and onions which would have benefited from a further 30 minutes on a low, slow heat. I began to wonder whether it was simply the melted cheese, not so different from an open-faced toasted sandwich, which accounted for its appeal. Or perhaps it was the bowls, ovenproof white china with small lions-cum-handles on each side.

I thought of making it at home, where I could ensure the quality of the ingredients and be more judicious with the cheese, but never got further than looking at some recipes. The chief barrier was the beef stock, available here either in a cube or after a six-hour ordeal of boiling and skimming beef bones.

But a few Saturday nights ago I arrived home well after dark, my park-walking, cafe-sitting and shoe-browsing having consumed far more time than expected. I had planned to use up leftover bread by making a panade, a savoury bread pudding of sorts layered with slow-cooked onions, grated Gruyere and some chicken stock. But the baking time alone was over 60 minutes, and I wanted to be sitting down with a glass of red wine before the hour was out. A quick search revealed a soupier, unbaked panade, with slow-cooked onions simmered with stock, ladled over garlic toast and finished with cheese.

Homemade chicken stock added depth without overwhelming the onions, which were unctuously soft and sweet. The raw garlic on the toast was sharp and bright, and by the second bowl I managed to distribute the cheese so that it formed small, creamy globules rather than long, pizza-like strands.

Unlike at Aux Pieds des Cochons, there’s no one in my kitchen to rustle up onion soup at any hour of day or night. But in any case, what French chef would concede that a dish which is so typiquement francais could possibly be improved upon? Perhaps, though, they'll lend me some of those bowls.

A Different Onion Soup

Adapted from Skye Gyngell, A Year in My Kitchen
Serves 2, can easily be doubled
Total time: 50 minutes-1 hour; Active time: 25 minutes

Olive oil
3 medium onions
2 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
3-4 cups chicken stock, not from a cube
1 clove garlic
4 slices day-old country bread
Fresh-grated Gruyere or Emmenthal, anywhere from a few tablespoons to a heaping handful depending on taste

Film a large, heavy skillet with olive oil and warm on a low heat. Slice the onions in half, then cut into very thin, long strips. Toss to cover with oil, salt and pepper generously and allow to cook gently. Stir every few minutes, adding a tablespoon of water if there is sticking. Continue until the onions are silky-soft and a warm, golden brown, between 30 and 40 minutes. When the onions are nearly finished, heat up the stock, along with the thyme and bay leaf, in a saucepan. Spoon in the cooked onions and simmer, allowing about 10 minutes for the flavours to merge. Adjust seasoning. Toast the bread on both sides, then rub with a cut garlic cube.

Put the bread at the bottom of two deep soup bowls, tearing into large croutons if desired. Pour over the onion stock and sprinkle with cheese.

No comments: