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Soupe à l’oignon gratinée (or not)

French onion soup without the gloppy gratin

Sometimes it pays to think out the recipes you read before you try them. For example…

I love and miss French onion soup from my pre-kosher days (that would be up to about age 19, long, long ago…) Can’t be helped, though–if you keep kosher, beef stock does not combine with Gruyère. And I’ve never actually tried making it at home before, because, if you go by a traditional, official kind of recipe like the one published in the LA Times below, it’s a 3-hour ordeal.

RECIPE: Soupe à l’oignon gratinée – Los Angeles Times.

Total time: 3 hours  Servings: 8  Note: Adapted from Comme Ca.

  • 8 large yellow onions, halved and sliced lengthwise into 1/4 -inch strips
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
  • Salt
  • 2 2/3 cups water, divided
  • 2/3 cup dry Sherry
  • 5 cups chicken broth (with as little sodium as possible)
  • 2 2/3 cups beef broth
  • 8 sprigs fresh thyme and one bay leaf, tied together
  • Fresh ground black pepper
  • 1 loaf French bread
  • 1 pound Gruyère, grated

Pretty onerous just on the ingredients (lot of salt in them thar vacuumpaks of stock), not to mention the bread. The Swiss cheese, oddly enough, is a lower-salt cheese than most, about 120-150 mg sodium per ounce as compared with, well, anything else at 180-210. It makes up for the lack of salt with a huge OD of saturated fat–and 2 ounces per person’s got to be a lot, really, just for melting on top of soup. It would be another matter if this were a legitimate fondue, or a sumptuous grilled cheese on really good toasted pain levain, and you were actually going to eat it all, but if I recall correctly, you aren’t.

Because I never had French onion soup at home, I never had to face the task of scrubbing baked-on cheese off the rims of the bowls afterward. Maybe 1/3 of what was sprinkled on ended up stuck like Swiss barnacles to the bowl, which seems like a waste, especially if you shell out for real Gruyère.  The rest turned into goop that sank to the bottom of the bowl and stretched up for yards on the spoon only to stick to the front of your teeth. Or blouse.

Plus at home there’s all the rooting around in the cabinets hoping your soup bowls are the kind that can survive the broiler and that your oven mitts (and guests) can Survive The Gruyère.

But the real cruncher here is time.

The LA Times instructions don’t even include the time it takes to sliver 8 very large onions, but you should, because it’s not trivial: 20-30 minutes, plus crying time. Heat the oven to 400 degrees (15-20 min, they also forgot this bit, but maybe while you’re crying over the onions). Stew onions with butter and 1/4 t salt in lidded casserole in the oven until the onions are softened and a light golden-brown, about 1.5 hrs, during which you’re supposed to stir every 15 minutes (!) Take the casserole out and cook further on the stove top until the onions are a deep golden-brown and just begin to stick to the bottom of the pot to form a crust (10 min? 15? 20? more?–from the experience below, I’d say at least 20, maybe even 30). Add half of the water and cook until the water has evaporated, about 8 minutes (so specific?). Add the sherry and keep stirring until it has evaporated, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the remaining water, broth and the thyme bundle, bring to simmer (5-10 min) and simmer 40 minutes (why 40? who knows?). Slice and toast the bread. Fill 8 oven-proof soup bowls, lay the toasts on top of the soup, sprinkle the grated Gruyère evenly over the tops and place the bowls under the broiler just until the cheese is bubbling and begins to brown in places (5 minutes?). Serve immediately.

TOTAL TIME: At least 3 hours, probably more like 3 1/2.

KLUTZ FACTOR: HIGH–lot of hot transfers of heavy casserole dish, finding and broiling ovenproof soup bowls, transferring to the table without spilling…not to mention serving “immediately”.

Then there’s…(you knew this was coming)

Nutrition per serving: 490 cal; 27 g protein; 36 g carb; 3 g fiber; 26 g fat (15 g sat); 78 mg. cholesterol; 808 mg. sodium.

Wow! Am I wrong in thinking that almost no soup should be this much of a labor of love, not to mention love handles? For this much time, fat and salt, I’d demand at LEAST grilled marinated lamb. Or a good runny camembert, a perfectly ripe pear, some excellent sourdough toast and a half-glass of something complex and interesting in the way of wine.

Maybe it’s as delicious as promised. But all those hours, all that stirring, not to mention all that fat and sodium and cholesterol, just for a bowl of onion soup and a slice of toast with melted cheese? Is it any wonder Lipton’s is popular?

Still…Can we do better with the onion soup itself? Maybe as in, vegetarian but still opulent, and furthermore without the heavy-duty time and calorie burden? Let’s try, anyway.

The first objections I have are eight huge onions and 8-10 cups of salted broth. Do I want to make anywhere near that much onion soup? Do I have that many takers in my house? Unfortunately not. One huge onion just for me, then. Maybe my husband and daughter, but only if it’s obviously fabulous. In which case, I won’t really want to share with them.

The main thing here is getting the flavor out of the onions–you want to caramelize them thoroughly and evenly without breaking down their aromaticity too badly. But I personally think baking them slowly in a big oven for an hour and a half just to start to do that is insane. Even if we’re talking about eight big onions.

My first attempt at shortening this recipe did not go badly, exactly, but it didn’t get me soupe à l’oignon either. I decided to brown the single big onion in a frying pan with a little olive oil for about 15-20 minutes, and it was big enough that when I added my standard microwave vegetable stock (onion, carrot and celery wilted in lidded pyrex bowl 5 min on HIGH, water poured over, garlic and dill added, nuked another 5 min) I decided to add the single onion to the whole bowl of soup, carrots, celery and all (about 6-7 cups).

Result: the soup wasn’t very brown, and the onion flavor seemed only about half there. More like an onion-leaning vegetable soup. Surprisingly, the carrot and celery weren’t adding to the flavor. It wasn’t terrible, and I used it as the base for tomato vegetable.  I decided to skip the cheese–it really wouldn’t have done me any big favors here, given that the soup itself wasn’t really right this time. Conclusion: I probably didn’t brown and extract the onion to the degree it requires, and probably it should have gone for 2-3 cups of liquid, not 6 or 7.

But I still don’t want the big 3-hour thing. And I do want soupe à l’oignon, even if I skip the cheese or just eat it on toast separately. So I thought about it again.

This time I slivered a big onion, put it in a pyrex bowl with a half-teaspoon of sugar, a pinch of salt, and a shaving or so of butter (more classic northern French than my usual olive oil), put a dinner plate on for a lid, and microwaved it 5 minutes on HIGH. The sugar and butter were in hopes that they’d encourage the onion to start caramelizing in the microwave, but it just didn’t happen. At 5 minutes, I could see the onion was wilted but still whitish, and the aroma was definitely half-cooked onion, not long-stewed. No great surprise, no great breakthrough either, but still–a quick start on stewing anyway, and it hadn’t lost all its potency flavorwise in the microwave (garlic sometimes does).

Frying pan–another teaspoon of butter, heated this time to the point where it turned definitely brown and fragrant, then the onions, which sizzled, and I tossed the pan, put a lid on, and turned the flame down. The browned butter isn’t a ton, but it seems to make a positive difference if the smell is anything to go by. We’ll see in 15 minutes or so.

.  .  .  .  .

“And time began seriously to pass.”–Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (which I like even better than The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

.  .  .  .  .

Well. Not done in 15. About half-brown. Stir, lid back on the pan, heat still low, another 15–stir again. This is getting a little tedious, right? 10 or 15 more… Brown, browner, brownest–sticking (gently, not nastily) to the nonstick pan, making a dark caramel, finally. Add half a cup of water, stir gently, turn up heat, let cook down further until almost dry but not quite. Good. Glug of red wine, same deal, but something possessed me to throw a pinch of thyme on the onions at this point and I also put a couple of whole cloves on the side, just touching at the edge of the liquid. Wine boils off, cloves still at the edge, a little more water to unstick it all, ok. Big clove of garlic grated on the mass of very brown onions, simmer 1-2 minutes. Starting to get thick again–spoon the cloves back out, dump the whole thing in the original pyrex bowl, add another bit of water to the pan to rinse out the last onions and caramel into the bowl, add enough water to make about 2 cups in all, cover with the plate, microwave 3 minutes on HIGH (would have been 4 but I started to hear the plate rattle).

To my great surprise, the onions had swollen back up and filled the bowl to the edge of the liquid. Which was dark, and fragrant, and rich. Like… like…soupe à l’oignon. Enough for two people. With a hint of sweetness in the savory–3 or 4 cloves would have been better than 7, I think to myself, but it’s not bad at all even so. It doesn’t need much in the way of salt–a shake or so at the table is fine. And it goes nicely with toast and a smoked gouda, and it’s not a huge mess.

True, it took a full hour, start to finish. Browning that much takes time and patience, which I don’t have in great abundance most days. But it’s still 2-2.5 hours down from tradition, massively less salted (is that even English? probably not), and no beef stock in sight. And no goo stuck to my teeth, my shirt, my hair, or my dishes. And it was actively good. Pretty too, if you count that sort of thing.

If you still want the toast-and-cheese experience, two or three alternatives to broiling and juggling the soup bowls:

1. Toast the cheese on the bread in your toaster oven, serve separately or float on the soup, eater’s choice.

2. Make bruschetta with non-cheese (or at least not exclusively cheese) toppings. Like tapenade. Muhammara. Caponata. Boursin. Grilled mushrooms and Gruyère or Jarlsberg or baby Swiss.

3. If you must have cheese glooped directly to the soup, use the microwave for 30 seconds to 1 minute instead of the broiler. It won’t be quite as romantic, but it will melt. Keep the cheese off the rim. And more bowls can survive the microwave than the broiler. Put on some accordion music, pour the wine, and put out an extra basket of crusty bread.

Microwave-Assisted Soupe à l’Oignon, Gruyère Optional

Serves 2 -3 (can scale up if you add a bit of extra microwave time in steps 1 and 4)

  • One huge onion (4-5″ diameter) or 2-3 medium (3″ diameter) ones, peeled and chopped into thin wedges or as you prefer
  • ~ 2 t. butter
  • 1/2 t. sugar (or less)
  • small pinch of salt
  • big pinch of thyme leaves
  • 1 big clove garlic, minced/mashed/grated
  • 3-4 whole cloves kept at the edge of the frying pan OR stuck into a big scrap of onion to cook in and then pluck out
  • ~1/4 c. red or white wine and/0r sherry for extracting flavor in the pan
  • 1 c. water for extraction in the pan + 2-3 c. more water for bringing up the final soup

Garnishes/accompaniments (optional): sourdough and/or French bread slices, toasted separately with Gruyère or other meltable cheese, or served with other toppings as desired.

1. Chop the onion and mix with a few shavings of butter. Sprinkle on the sugar (now optional, in my view). Microwave it in a pyrex bowl with a lid about 5 minutes on HIGH, until translucent.

NOTE: If you scale up, you’ll need to add a minute or two to the microwave time to make sure the larger amount of onion is all wilted.

2. Brown 1 t. butter until visibly darkened and fragrant in a nonstick pan, add the onions, toss to coat, turn the heat down low and put a lid on, stirring every 15 minutes for about 30-45 minutes, until the whole mass is definitely brown (not “golden”) and is starting to stick to the pan.

3. Pour on a half-cup or so of water, cook down with the lid off and the heat turned up to medium until it’s almost boiled off. Add the wine or sherry and the garlic and thyme, and put 3-4 cloves at a cleared edge of the pan, just touching the liquid, so you can fish them out again. Boil down to near-dryness again. Add another half-cup of water and simmer down 1-2 minutes, scoop the cloves out, and pour the onions back into the big pyrex bowl with their liquid. Rinse the browning out of the pan with another bit of water and add it to the bowl, then bring up with enough water to make about 3 cups total.

4. Cover and microwave on HIGH 3 minutes or until hot through and the onions have expanded.

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