Bread, Cheese, and Tears

paint soupAfter an incredibly long summer the temperatures are dropping at night and the rains are moving in.  On several late night walks with Lucky – we go very late – he has no social skills around other dogs – I’ve heard invisible geese passing overhead and taking turns telling each other adventure stories to pass the time. I like this place where I live, this place directly under the migratory path of geese, this place where the temperatures drop, the trees turn golden and nature announces the passage of time.

Last year at this time we just returned from visiting one of our daughters.  She lives in Arizona.  Despite our northern expectations of autumn we spent the week wearing shorts and tee shirts and sitting outside at lunch.  You could close your eyes at one of the restaurants where we were eating and – but for the fragrance of the French Onion Soup my son-in-law ordered – not know that it was fall.  For lack of hearing geese telling stories and there being no leaves to rake, French Onion Soup had probably been added to the menu to denote the progression of the season.

The soup was one of the restaurant’s fall specialties and it was relatively expensive. Onions being plentiful and cash being short, French Onion soup was once the food of the poor and in the mid-1700’s Parisian street vendors sold a highly concentrated, inexpensive onion soup called ‘restaurant’ (meaning to restore something).  The soup was advertised as an antidote to malaise and physical exhaustion. This prompted the use of the modern word restaurant to denote eating establishments.

French Onion soup is simple and quick to make.  There are recipes that would have you caramelizing onions all day, but give this 35 minute version a try.  It is terrific.

The hardest thing about making onion soup is having to go out and buy oven proof mini soup tureens.  They can be found however, for around three dollars each and can become the vessels of wonderful memories.  I found some in the grocery store for two dollars.

Here we go:

Ingredients: (Serves about 8 so adjust)

1 ½ tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil

4 tablespoons of butter

9 medium onions peeled and sliced in thin circles

Ground black pepper (beef stock is already salted, so add salt with a little caution)

4 teaspoons of chopped fresh thyme

1 Bay leaf

¾ cup dry sherry or red wine or if you’re adventuresome, halve any of these with a substitution of 50% cognac.

Two 32 ounce cartons of beef stock

8 slices of crusty bread cut thickly and of a size to cover the top of your bowl (and if you’re a real carb fan cut an extra piece to put in the bottom of the bowl to hide under the soup)

Thick slabs of Gruyere cheese to place over the top of the bowls and hang over with enough enthusiasm to have a bit of the cheese melt down the sides)

An extra piece of fresh thyme to put on top as a garnish (if melted cheese over bread isn’t tempting enough)


To a deep pot over medium heat, add oil and 3 tablespoons of the butter.  Into this melting mixture throw in the onions as you slice them (if you can see the pot through your tears).  When all of the onions are in the pot add 2 teaspoons of thyme and ground pepper and a little salt (about a ¼ of a teaspoon just to get the onions doing their chemical thing – you can add more salt to taste later).

Stir the onions frequently until they are caramel colored and tender (about 15 + minutes).

Add the bay leaf, the remaining tablespoon of butter, the sherry or wine or sherry-wine- cognac mix and deglaze the drippings (a fancy way of saying “scrape the particles cooked to the bottom of the pan”).  Add the two cartons of beef stock and bring to a quick boil.  From here on out you can either immediately proceed with putting the soup in bowls and adding the bread and cheese and broiling or let it simmer another hour or so to bring out even more flavor – this is a great next day cook-it-even-more soup.

Put the baking bowls on a cookie sheet. Pour the soup into the bowls. Float a piece of thick cut bread large enough to cover the bowl (the more crust the better) on top of the soup.  Cut a thick slice of Gruyere (some might like the addition of parmesan – experiment) large enough to mound on top of the bowl (grated cheese is okay but I like the look of a big irregular slab) and place the soup under a hot broiler until the cheese melts, browns a little on the edges and bubbles off the sides.

This is a great soup to build a ritual around:

  • The soup you always served the weekend before Thanksgiving
  • The curl-up-with-candles-and-watch-an-old-movie-on-a-cold-winter-night-soup
  • The annual shopping with friends at a farmers market for some of the ingredients on Saturday morning soup
  • The gathering and chopping and crying and laughing with family and friends over onions in the afternoon soup
  • The discovery of the best red wine to go with soup
  • The I don’t have hardly any money but I want to feed my friends something they’ll remember forever-after soup.

Enjoy “soup à l’oignon.”  Holger Langmaier (2)

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