Friday, December 7, 2007

Know your onions? The French do!

These are my wife's favorite soup bowls and the ones we use on Christmas Eve
The latest copy of Cook's Illustrated landed in my mailbox today, and I was interested to note that there is an article about French Onion Soup. This is something of a tradition in my wife's French-speaking family, to be served on Christmas Eve. Amusing isn't it that I, an Englishman, a "rosbif" as the French snidely say, am the designated French Onion Soup maker in a family of French origins. Truth is that I am simply so good at it!
The process of putting that rich silken concoction on the table starts at Thansgiving. We take the turkey carcass and throw it in the biggest pot we have in the house, which is the turkey deep-fryer pot (yes, deep frying a turkey really works, doesn't result in a greasy bird and saves a considerable amount of time, providing you follow sensible precautions and don't burn down the house or garage. It should always be done outdoors!).
But in this case I use the pot on top of the stove. In go the usual complement of onions, carrots and celery and enough water to fill the pot almost to the top. Then I fire up the heat and bring the whole mess to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and let it cook until it reduces to perhaps a gallon, which may take all day and all night. This year it took 2 days on very low heat. By the time it's fully reduced that stock can just about stand up by itself, it's so thick and full of gelatin from the mass of bones. I fact, if you refrigerate it, the chilled consistency will be akin to jello.
You will often see the term demi-glace used to describe a thick rich beef stock. Demi glace means half frozen, in French, of course, which refers to the very solid texture derived from the high proportion of gelatin in the stock, when it is chilled.
In so many restaurants what passes for onion soup is a pitiful thing, consisting of a mass of quickly sauteed onions drowned in an over-salty beef broth, usually from a can, or heaven forbid, some instant thing called Au Jus mix! (Don't get me started on the mispronunciation and misuse of that term). Onion soup should NEVER be made with 100% beef broth! A mixture of chicken and beef broth is acceptable but the poultry should always predominate, by at least 2:1.
Obviously you don't need gallons of stock for onion soup on Christmas Eve, unless you're feeding 30 or 40 people, which is why I reduce it to a manageable gallon or so, because that's about all the room I have in my freezer.
Speaking of Christmas, it looks like I will be cooking breakfast at my hotel on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year's Day and all the days in between, because all my cooks want the same week off and I'm trying to be Mr. Nice Guy, which may wear thin by New Year's Eve! Mind you, these days, I can barely manage to stay awake until midnight on New Year's Eve. All seems rather pointless at my "mature" age.
I will take the stock out of the freezer on the morning of Christmas Eve and throw it in a pot on the stove over low heat. No need to thaw out in advance. One of the the tricks with onion soup is to start out with a lot of onions, because they will reduce considerably in mass with the slow cooking that carmelization requires. Carmelization is simply the slow extraction of the natural sugars in onions and browning that sugar over heat. Don't try to make this process easier by using sweet onions like Maui or Walla Walla. They will simply make the soup too sweet instead of savory-sweet
You will need a heavy gauge pot, aluminum or copper-bottomed stainless steel. I put a splash of vegetable oil in the pot and turn the heat to high. When the oil begins to smoke I throw in all the onions. Quantity is not that important. If you wind up with too many carmelized onions, use them in something else. The onions will start to brown immediately. Stir them constantly for a couple of minutes to prevent burning. Despite what I may have said elsewhere carmelizing is not a euphemism for burning. After a couple of minutes turn the heat down to very low and let the whole mess do its work, stirring occasionally. The onions need at least an hour to release their sugar and turn sweetly brown. I quite often let them cook for at least a couple of hours. When they are reduced to a beautiful brown tangled mass of tangy sweetness, I throw in a handful of flour to create a simple roux amid the onions, with the oil that's already in there. I let that cook over low heat for a couple of minutes to let the rawness cook out of the flour, as always with a roux. Then I add a cup or so of white wine, maybe a splash of brandy (optional), a little thyme and a bayleaf or two, letting that cook together for another couple of minutes. Finally in goes the stock. Note, once again, this is a poultry stock not beef! Beef stock overwhelms the delicate flavor of the onions.
Again I turn up the heat to medium so that the mixture can come slowly to a boil, because a roux will not do its thickening work unless the liquid at least simmers. You don't want a really thick onion soup, but you do want body so there is just enough roux here to provide that, but no more. Once the soup has simmered for a few minutes and the roux has done its work, a little salt and black pepper is all that's needed to finish it. A slice or two of fresh baguette, brushed with melted butter and toasted in the oven floating in the bowl and topped with freshly grated Gruyere cheese melted under the broiler and you have a masterpiece, a meal unto itself.

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