Monday, May 21, 2012

Post Paris Pleasures - Making French Onion Soup

Bonjour! My recent trip to Paris was – in a word – magical. There was something almost surreal about turning a corner and seeing the Eiffel Tower standing before me.  After a lifetime of seeing this image in books, movies and magazines, it took me a moment to understand that I was really there. In fact, it’s much bigger in person! But Paris was full of moments like this, from seeing the Mona Lisa to strolling up the Champs Elysees to attending Mass at Notre Dame. More than any single experience, the best part of Paris was just being there. Taking it all in and loving it all. I found the Parisians to be very kind and accommodating to this American with limited working knowledge of their language. It is a remarkable city with so much to offer. As long as one’s eyes are open, art and beauty abounds within every vision. You cannot escape it.
I had the pleasure to be there with a group of students, staff and faculty from Wayne State University. Every person in our group had a wonderful time and came home with their own treasured memories of our nine days in Paris. One of my goals for this trip was to experience as much of the Parisian cuisine as possible, and I did. Some of the meals I enjoyed were formal and elegant, while many others were enjoyed casually in a café or bistro. People eat leisurely in Paris, without rush or pressure – very unlike our American method. Food is savored, appreciated and enjoyed.
Soup is a common item on café menus, and I often saw “soupe a l’oignon,” or what we would call French onion soup. Regardless of what you order, everything comes with lots of wonderful bread – I’ve never seen so many people eat so much bread! But if I had bread that delicious at my disposal every day, I’d eat a lot of it, too. I sampled a number of onion soups in Paris, and they were all very good. So, when I arrived back home I thought I would keep the Paris vibe alive by making a pot of this rich, robust soup. I don’t know when I’ll get back to Paris, but I can always let this soup and my memories transport me to the "City of Lights" whenever the need arises. Bon appetite! 

French Onion Soup
2 TBSP olive oil
2 TBSP butter
3lbs onions (I used regular yellow cooking onions, but you could use red, white, Spanish, Vidalia, etc.)
Salt and pepper
1 quart (4 cups) beef stock
½ cup sherry (optional – can replace with stock or water)
4-5 sprigs fresh thyme
2 beef bouillon cubes
French bread
Granulated garlic or onion
Herbes de Provence
8oz Gruyere cheese, shredded

Peel onions and cut in half and then slice, creating crescent shaped pieces. In a large pot or dutch oven, heat olive oil and butter. Add sliced onions and salt and pepper. Toss to coat onions with oil butter and seasoning. Over medium/medium-high heat, cook onions – stirring regularly until they are caramelized. This may take close to 30 minutes. The onions will sweat out much of their water and then they will slowly begin to brown. It is IMPORTANT that you allow the onions to become a deep, golden brown. This will bring out the natural sweetness in the onions. Once the onions have caramelized, add the beef stock, sherry and sprigs of thyme. Stir, cover pot and allow to simmer for 20 minutes.
While the soup is simmering, prepare the croutons. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut bread into slices about ¾ of an inch thick. Depending on the bread you are using, make sure you have enough to cover the top surface of the bowl/crock you will be putting the soup in. Lightly butter the tops of the bread slices, sprinkle the granulated garlic or onion and herbes de Provence over the butter. Put bread on a baking sheet and place in oven for 10-12 minutes, or until toasty brown. Remove bread from oven and allow to cool.
Return to the soup. You may choose to add the bouillon cube(s) here, depending on your own taste. Remember that the cubes (or I use a beef soup base) will also add saltiness to the soup. Pull out the sprigs of thyme and let simmer another ten minutes.
Grate cheese using the large holes on a box grater. Figure on using about two ounces of cheese per bowl. Set grated cheese aside. Turn the broiler on in your oven. Give your soup a final taste test for seasoning. Ladle soup in bowl, top with crouton(s) and lay the Gruyere cheese over the croutons. Adjust oven racks so the bowls will be about six inches under the broiler, put bowls on a baking sheet and put in oven. Keep an eye on them – it should take about four minutes for the cheese to melt and just begin to brown. Remove bowls from broiler immediately and serve. Enjoy!

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