Onion soup comes from good stock

October 16, 1994|By Kim Pierce | Kim Pierce,Universal Press Syndicate

Beloved for its restorative properties, onion soup is to France what chicken soup is to America.

"Onion soup is . . . rich without expense, savory without complication, and, best of all, comforting," wrote John Thorne in his 1979 "Treatise on Onion Soup."

The French have cherished onion soup for centuries, but, according to food authority Waverly Root, "apparently no region lays claim to it."

Or perhaps every region. Chef Laurent Champalle recently reeled off eight regional variations, from Alsatian onion soup with beer and sour cream to onion soup Champenoise, which uses a whole bottle of champagne.

Classic onion soup starts with sliced onions that are sauteed until they turn brown and sweet. Then comes rich stock, most often beef, but sometimes chicken, veal or a combination.

Slices of toasted French bread are floated in the liquid, then it's draped rim to rim with a Swiss cheese such as Gruyere or Emmentaler, although some evidence suggests Parmesan may have been the historical cheese of choice.

The whole affair goes under a broiler till the cheese browns and, without a lick of French, you understand immediately from the look and aroma what "gratinee" means.

Great onion soup, say experts, hinges on two components: quality stock and yellow onions.

"An onion soup needs to be made with a good stock base," says restaurateur Guy Calluaud. "The yellow is really the right onion to do an onion soup. . . . I think the rest of them would be too sweet."

4 But the type of stock is a matter of preference.

"You use part of chicken stock and part of beef stock," says restaurateur Pascal Cayet.

"Chicken stock is always a little bland. . . . The beef stock gives it a bit more flavor."

It's also important to caramelize the onions patiently.

"That's what makes the soup dark and gives it its color and flavor," Mr. Cayet says.

Cooks in a hurry may substitute canned stock, although purists shudder at the suggestion. Frozen homemade stock, available at upscale groceries, might be a less offensive option. And if you don't have broiler-proof soup bowls, melt the cheese onto the toasted bread, then slip the slices of bread into each bowl.

With candlelight and a little imagination, you can almost envision yourself in some Paris bistro slowly sipping your soup in the hours before dawn.

French Onion Soup

Makes 6 servings

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons butter (divided use)

2 pounds yellow onions, thinly sliced

1 1/2 quarts brown stock (see note)

salt and pepper

1 medium loaf French bread

3/4 cup grated Gruyere or Parmesan cheese

Heat oven to 300 degrees. In a large saucepan, melt 1/4 cup butter and cook the onions very gently, stirring frequently, until they are a deep golden brown, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Add the stock, salt and pepper and simmer 10 to 15 minutes.

While soup is simmering, slice the bread and bake on a baking sheet until dry and lightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes.

Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter.

Set 2 or 3 slices of bread in individual heated soup bowls and pour the hot soup on top. Cover the soup with a thick layer of cheese and drizzle melted butter on top. Broil until browned. Serve at once.

Per serving: calories, 643; protein, 20 grams; fat, 23 grams; sodium, 2,066 milligrams; carbohydrates, 88 grams.

Chabrot Auvergnat

(Soup With Wine

From Auvergne)

Makes 6 to 8 servings

4 tablespoons butter

1 pound yellow onions, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons garlic, chopped

1 cup sliced leeks, white part only

1/4 cup tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped

salt and pepper

1/2 to 1 teaspoon crushed dried thyme

2 to 3 bay leaves

1/2 to 1 teaspoon allspice

1 tablespoon sugar

1 bottle gamay wine (divided use)

1 gallon brown stock

12 to 16 slices of French bread, toasted or grilled

12 ounces grated Swiss cheese (about 3 cups)

Melt the butter in a large saucepan; add the onions and cook gently, stirring occasionally, until they are brown and caramelized. Add the garlic, leeks and tomatoes and cook gently for 1 to 2 minutes. Add seasonings and sugar.

Add 1/2 bottle of wine and scrape all the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Simmer until reduced by two-thirds.

Add the stock and simmer for 1 1/2 hours to reduce by half. Add the remaining wine and adjust seasonings.

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Place 2 slices toasted bread in oven-proof soup bowls and pour the soup over the bread. Sprinkle cheese generously on top and place bowls in oven just until cheese browns, about 10 minutes. Serve at once with more grated cheese and bread on the side.

Per 1 of 8 servings: calories, 591; protein, 19 grams; fat, 23 grams; sodium, 1,517 milligrams; carbohydrates, 49 grams.

+ (Source: Laurent Champalle)

Onion Soup Champenoise

Makes 4 to 6 servings

4 tablespoons butter

1 pound yellow onions, finely sliced

salt to taste

1/4 teaspoon cayenne or to taste

1/2 teaspoon crushed thyme

2 bay leaves

1 bottle champagne

4 cups brown stock

12 ounces brie (about 3 cups), cut in small pieces

1 cup port

4 egg yolks

8 to 10 slices French bread, toasted or grilled

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