Hardly anything I can think of trumps the utterly simple deliciousness of a well-prepared French onion soup. Similarly, I can think of nothing utterly worse than a thin, flavorless ill-prepared version. Like all dishes with very few ingredients, the key is making each one count. For an exquisite French onion soup it boils down to three things: a top-quality, rich dark beef stock, long, slowly simmered caramelized onions, and Gruyere or Comte cheese for topping. Therefore, if at all possible make your own stock, don’t rush the onions, and go for the best quality imported cheese you can afford. Processed Swiss will work in a pinch but the flavor and color will be diluted. Aside from its heady layers of sweet onions marrying with nutty, bubbling cheese and a rich broth, this is an ideal soup for entertaining (such as New Year’s Eve or Day!). All of the components can be made ahead and put together at the last minute before serving, and I’ve never met a soul (French or otherwise) that doesn’t love the stuff.
(Adapted from pre-published pages for The French Cook: Soups and Stews, Gibbs Smith, Fall 2014)
Soupe a L’Oignon Francaise
French Onion Soup
(Makes 6 servings)
Special equipment: Six 1 1/3 cup oven-proof bowls or ramekins
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 large sweet onions (preferably Vidalia), or substitute regular white onions, peeled halved and thinly sliced (about 6 cups)
3 cloves garlic, smashed and finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, chopped
3/4 cup good quality white wine (suggest Chardonnay)
1/2 cup dry vermouth
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
4 cups best-quality, unsalted beef stock (preferably homemade)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the croutons and cheese garnish:
12 slices 1 or 2 day old French baguette bread, cut into 1/2”-thick slices
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups grated Gruyere or Comte cheese
In a 5 1/2 quart Dutch oven or similarly sized soup pot, melt the olive oil and butter together over medium high heat. When melted, add the onions, garlic and a generous dash of salt and pepper. Stir to coat. Continue cooking another 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until all of the onion “water” is cooked off and the onions have become quite soft. Add the thyme and continue cooking. The onions will start turning golden and caramelizing in 10 minutes. This is what you want. Taste and adjust salt and pepper as needed. Increase heat to high, add the wine, stirring to pick up any brown/caramelized bits and reduce by half. Add the vermouth and also reduce by half. Sprinkle the flour evenly over the soup, and stir to mix into the onions, cooking for one minute. Add the beef stock, stir. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer, cooking another 15 minutes, uncovered. Meanwhile, turn the broiler on high. Arrange the croutons in a single layer on a baking sheet. Drizzle each side lightly with olive oil and rub it into the bread. Place the sheet on the top shelf and broil until just golden on each side, turning once. You can stop here and store the soup separately from the garnishes overnight in a refrigerator or continue to finish the soups. To serve, taste the soup again, and adjust seasoning if necessary. Ladle boiling hot soup into each bowl/ramekin. Top each with 2 or 3 croutons and about 1/2 cup grated cheese. Arrange on a baking sheet and broil until the cheese is golden and bubbly, about 4 to 6 minutes. Serve immediately with fresh thyme sprigs for garnish if desired.
Bon appetit et Joyeux 2014!
The chilly nights and brisk days of fall bring with them the siren call for some serious comfort food. Truly, what makes better comfort food than a really excellent mac ‘ n cheese? I love to marry disparate cheeses in a creamy bechamel, melt them down, stir them into some pasta, and bake. The key is to use cheeses that pair well – one or two nutty, another one or two perhaps slightly sweet, or even a nice, mild blue cheese. You want to stick with cheeses with a nice melt factor and the best quality you can afford.
This recipe is a delicious way to use over left-over cheese and it truly warms the heart and soul. It comes together quickly. Grate/chop the cheese while the pasta cooks, prepare the bechamel base, whisk in the cheese, toss and bake. Twenty-five minutes later you have a steaming casserole custom made for cheese lovers. Or, prep ahead, refrigerate overnight and bake it off the next evening. With a side of steamed or roasted asparagus, it makes a dreamy, seasonal spring meal.
Mac ‘n Cheese Dreams
1 pound shell pasta, #50 size (I like De Cecco’s conchiglie rigate)
Cold water to cover
3 tablespoons kosher salt or sea salt
1/2 cup coarsely chopped Morbier
1/2 cup coarsely chopped Brie, rind removed
2 cups grated Gruyere
2 cups grated Muenster
For the cheese sauce base/bechamel:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons All Purpose flour
4 cups (1 quart) skim milk
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste (Note: season according to the saltiness of the cheese. Better to add more later if needed once the cheese has been added).
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
For the bread crumbs:
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup plain bread crumbs
kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375F degrees. Generously butter a large baking dish (I used a 4.5 liter Corningware baking dish). Bring a large pot of cold water combined with 3 tablespoons salt up to a rolling boil. Add pasta and stir to blend. Reduce heat to medium high and continue cooking until the pasta is al dente, 10 – 11 minutes. Drain well in a colander. Set aside.
Meanwhile, prep the cheeses and set aside. For the bechamel, melt the butter in a large sauce pan over medium heat. Once melted, whisk in the flour and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, for about 2 minutes. Pour in the milk all at once and bring up to a boil over high heat, whisking constantly. Season to taste with salt and ground black pepper and add the thyme. Once at a boil, reduce to medium heat and whisk in the cheeses, in batches, until thoroughly combined and melted. Add the cooked, drained pasta to the cheese mixture and stir well to coat. Pour the mixture into the buttered baking pan. Set aside briefly.
In a separate saute pan, melt the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. When melted, add the bread crumbs and stir to coat. Cook for about 1 minute or until the bread crumbs are just golden. Crumble the bread crumbs evenly over the top of the mac ‘n cheese. Bake in the center of the oven until golden and bubbling, about 25 – 30 minutes. Allow 5 minutes to rest before serving. Sprinkle with some fresh chopped parsley if desired.