The Comforting Sort

Oh dear, where has the time gone? I could swear that the last time I checked it was still the day before Valentine's day... February is another one of those incredibly hectic months. I don't quite understand why though, it may have to do with the fact that Valentine's Day brings an onslaught of customers to the restaurant after a relatively dead post-holiday period, and it gets everyone running around like headless chickens. To top it all off, February is when I start planning my garden, celebrate my mother's birthday, and attempt to get all my papers ready so I can file my income tax returns...

I don't know if you've missed me, but I sure missed you. Just in case you were worried that I'd succumbed to a February Funk, don't. I was just a little too busy to sit down in front of the computer. I have thought of a few recipes, though -I did have to eat after all. Actually, I am rather partial to the month of February. While winter is often dark and dreary in many parts of the continent, Montreal usually experiences beautifully sunny winters. Bone chillingly cold, but bright and sunny. It's the ideal sort of weather for enjoying a bowl or cupful of soup in front of the window, gazing onto people scurrying on the sidewalk and birds scampering on the balcony ledge.

Any soup will do, but there is something particularly satisfying about a bowl of French onion soup; it seems to embody winter fare in a nutshell: it's hot and comforting, filling, and absolutely delicious. I have previously written about a 'shortcut' to onion soup - granted it wasn't a real shortcut, since you still had to make the onion marmalade. What follows is a 'proper' recipe; it will seem like a lot of work, and I won't deny that it is. However, the biggest chunk is the chopping, and the rest is just keeping an eye on a slow pot. The resulting soup is well worth the effort, better than what you will find in most restaurants, and for the vegetarians out there, something you can actually eat.

Classical onion soups rely on a hearty beef broth for flavour, but this recipe does not. The real secret to a scrumptious onion soup is in the slow caramelisation of the onions. You can use a beef or veal stock if you like, but if the onions are properly browned, you can get away with using water. I do like to add beer in my onion soup for extra flavour and oomph. While it isn't a classical ingredient, it isn't uncommon either: the first time I had onion soup with beer, I was ten (which was eons ago.) Whether or not you choose to add the beer is up to you, however,  if you do, I strongly advise that you go for a full-bodied beer or ale, something along the lines of an amber to brown beer or a cream ale. I am tempted to try a stout, but I'm worried that others would find its addition too intense for the soup. One last tip, do not over-salt the soup: the combination of onions, beer, and toasted cheese makes for a voluptuous mouth-feel, and too much salt will over-stimulate your taste buds. In fact, I like to use flavoured salts for this soup (such as a herbed low-sodium mix): these often contain powdered seaweed, carrots, and/or celery, which make up for the initial lack of saltiness.

French Onion Soup
Yields 6 to 8 portions

6 medium sized onions (about 1kg/ 2lbs)
2 leeks
1 head of garlic
1 tsp dried thyme
2 bay leaves
1 tsp sugar
1½ tsp salt
pepper to taste
2 Tbs each butter and oil
250-500mL/ 1-2cups beer, optional
white wine, optional
2L/2 quarts water, or stock (unsalted)

Peel and trim all the vegetables, wash if necessary.
Finely slice the onions and the leeks, about 5mm/¼" thick. Mince garlic.
In a large soup pot, melt the butter and oil over medium-high heat. Add the vegetables and herbs.
Cover the pot, and let the onions sweat for about 10 minutes.
Remove the lid, the onions should have wilted and rendered quite a bit of water. 
Add the salt and sugar.
Let simmer uncovered until most of the liquid has evaporated, and the onions begin to caramelise, about 20 minutes.
Lower the heat to medium, and let cook for another 20 minutes, stirring the onions every now and then.
If the onions stick to the pot, remove from the stove, and let cool for a few minutes. Stir about, the onions should come loose. Return to the stove, and cook until the onions are a nice dark golden hue. There should still be quite a bit of juice left in the pot.
Add a generous splash of white wine and the beer, if using, and bring back to a quick simmer. 
Note the onions' level in the pot: add enough water or stock to double it.
Simmer for another 5 minutes.
Check the seasoning, and serve.

French onion soup is typically served in oven-proof bowls, and topped with cheesy croûtons. However, you do not need to go out and buy onion soup bowls if you do not already own some: simply pop the bread and cheese in a toaster or an oven, and place on the soup before serving. Make sure you use a hefty bread for the toast: a day-old crusty multi-grain or whole wheat country loaf will hold up to the soup even when it is soaked through. Toast the sliced bread before sprinkling with cheese, and returning it to the toaster. While any cheese with personality will taste lovely -I used a 5 year old Cheddar- there is a reason why French onion soups are typically made with gruyère (Swiss cheese): as you can see from the pictures, the Cheddar completely melted and soaked into the bread. Swiss-type cheeses are made with cooked curds, so they won't liquefy completely when toasted. If you are set on using Cheddar, combine it with a little mozzarella to give it extra body. The soup will keep in the fridge for about a week, but can be kept in the freezer.

Bon app'!

En français


  1. Mmmm...I *heart* French onion soup!! Looks sooo good!


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