Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Romanian's French Onion Soup

It's a bit of a running joke in my marriage that I like onions and garlic. Now, when I say I "like" them, you might be tempted to think that I sort of enjoy them, or that I appreciate a well-placed sliver of red onion, or that I think roasting some garlic for an hour and then pureeing it into the hummus is a good idea. And while these things are true, it's more accurate to say that I'm obsessed with these sulfurous bulbs. After all, growing up my father used to make a salad out of white onions alone (seriously -- I'll post the recipe one day), and one of my favourite snacks to make for myself was to rub a raw garlic clove all over a piece of toast until it disappeared, and then to butter the toast. Romanians, like Iranians and Indians, often have raw onion as a side dish; this is either a nicely washed green onion or a wedge of white onion, either of which is dipped in salt and eaten raw.

Given this upbringing, it's no surprise that given any recipe, I regularly double the onions and triple the garlic. I love the intensity of flavour this brings, and I regularly change even Indian recipes. (In the back of my animal brain is a suspicious little voice saying the recipe-writer must have adjusted the onion and garlic quotients down to suit Western tastes, as with the spice...)

Last night, feeling a bit of a cold coming on in the late November chill, I decided to make some French onion soup. Things started out just fine. I had an easy recipe by Richard Olney, but although he gave specific instructions for how many onions were needed, I couldn't help but keep slicing and slicing and slicing... needless to say, gently frying this mass of onions, waiting for the sugars to caramelize and for the slivers to turn a deep brown was an even greater pleasure than eating the eventual soup. One of my recent food reads has been Coleman Andrews' Everything On the Table: Plain Talk about Food and Wine, and at one point in the book he writes about falling in love with cooking when he realised the magic of frying onions, the superb power to transmute a substance into something delicious and luscious using only the application of heat. Making an onion soup means reenacting the first step of civilisation.

Olney's recipe also calls for a bit of tomato paste, which I haven't seen elsewhere. It's unexpected, gives a certain richness and depth and heartiness to the soup, but it also makes it unlike any other French onion soup I've had before. Because I am also obsessed with tomatoes (any good Romanian should be), I like the result, but I also initially found it too sweet. So I checked what Mark Bittman and my fancy and mostly-useless 1997 Joy of Cooking had to say about French onion soup, and wound up adding a pinch of dried thyme and a glug of cognac to brighten the soup a bit. The result was wonderful -- I had two bowls last night and ate it for breakfast again this morning. We served it with croutons (just bits of stale bread fried in some butter), but this morning I had crackers and brie as a side dish. The soup is so heavy and thick that it doesn't really need extra cheese and bread in it!

How to do it: thinly slice four or five medium to large onions. (You should have about a mixing bowl's full.) Take the pot you'll make the soup in (I like a cast iron Dutch oven), heat three tablespoons of clarified butter or ghee until it's very hot, toss in the onions, then reduce the temperature a bit. Do not leave the stove! Keep stirring the onions for about half an hour, until they become brown. Not golden... brown. Be patient. Put a podcast on or something. Savour it.

When they are ready, throw in four or five cloves' worth of chopped garlic, about a teaspoon of salt, and give your arm some exercise grinding pepper over the whole thing. Lots of pepper. Stir and fry for another minute or two -- the onions are only getting sweeter.

At this point, pour in about five cups (or a bit more) of beef bouillon. Now, if you have the real homemade stuff, I'm sure that's great. I rarely cook meat, and so I never do. What I love though is Better Than Bouillon beef base, the organic kind. It takes up almost no space, tastes better than canned or liquid broths I've tried, is less salty, and is much cheaper in the long haul. (I get it in the supermarket, and stock up when it's on sale.) Add a large tablespoon of tomato paste. And simmer gently, covered, for twenty minutes.

Finally, add a pinch or two of dried thyme, and throw in some cognac -- why not? -- but heat the soup for a bit to boil off the alcohol. And serve, in all its oniony goodness!
The base recipe is from: