Friday, January 6, 2017

The Best French Onion Soup

We are in the middle of a very cold stretch here in the Pacific Northwest. It's like Seattle woke up one morning and decided to channel the artic. It's been bitter cold but surprisingly relatively dry (read: no snow). So, as you can imagine, the kids were delighted to wake up early one morning back in December to an actual snow day, complete with no school and everything. Filled with the eagerness that comes early in the season, we were gloved and hatted and out the door in all our snow gear by 7:30 AM to hit it hard. The kids made a few runs on our sled down the slope of our street before shifting their attention to snowman and snow fort building with their dad.

I excused myself along with the littlest (who was finding his snow gear far too difficult to maneuver) and headed indoors and tend to breakfast. The others long outlasted us and it was nearly an hour later when they came bursting through the door, starved and soaked to the bone by the snow-turned-rain that was falling from the sky. Boots were kicked off, mittens and coats strewn carelessly about as they expressed loudly their ravishing hunger. We ate breakfast - Dutch Babies - and warmed ourselves together as we watched the landscape outside our windows transform from white back to green. It was a quick little tease of snow and, by the end of the day, the roads and sidewalks had mostly reappeared, leaving just a few dirty brown remnants of our winter storm. Well, except for our snowman, that is.

Throughout the days that followed, we made bets each time we left the house on whether Mr. Snowman would still be with us upon our return. Much to our surprise, he was quite the stubborn little guy and kept us company for quite some time, thanks to the persistently low temperatures. Eventually his head fell off and melted away so we adjusted his accessories, moving the carrot nose down a hump and kept our bets going. The temperatures stayed unusually cool and day after day he kept watch over our front yard. All the while, we kept bundled inside, running our gas fireplace constantly and sending off checks for our insanely high utility bill. Almost a full two weeks later, I went to get the mail and noticed the very last of him was melting away, leaving just a singular shriveled carrot in the middle of our lawn.

Cold is as cold does and this frigid weather has definitely got me thinking about bundling up and being cozy which of course involves cooking some of my very favorite soups. There is something so incredibly satisfying and comforting about being warmed from the inside. Chicken and Dumpling, Creamy Pumpkin, Spit Pea with Ham.... But none of these comes even close to topping the deliciousness that is French Onion.

Whenever I think of French Onion Soup, I always think of Red Robin - you know, the chain restaurant with the juicy burgers, endless fries and always-out-of-tune Happy Birthday serenades on your day of honor. This is probably the last place on earth that should come to mind at the mention of French Onion Soup but some memories are engrained in us forever and I will always correlate French Onion Soup with Red Robin (which is a place that admittedly I kind of love but mostly for their bottomless steak fries). In this particular memory, my family has gathered there to joyously celebrate the half birthday of my mother. Her name is Robin which I don't think is the reason we go there to celebrate but seems like a relevant detail to share all the same. Birthdays (and half birthdays!) are very important in my family and even now in our adulthood, we dine together frequently to honor each other's aging.

My sister and I are attending the same college, a private Christian university 80 miles south down the I-5 corridor from our hometown. We've (mostly) flown the coop but still jump at any opportunity to meet up with our parents and younger brothers for a meal. My mom is perusing the menu and her eyes immediately fall on the French Onion Soup. I see this happening across the table from where I am sitting. She obviously wants the soup. She's drooling over just the idea of it as she reads the description. But she is trying to talk herself out of it.

"Why?" I wonder aloud.

She pauses momentarily and then tells me about the little "rule" she and my dad have - how she doesn't order anything with onions unless he is ordering it as well. I guess these are the sorts of tricks a couple of decades of successful marriage teach a person: lovers don't let lovers eat onions alone. Or maybe more accurately: lovers don't let lovers eat onions period.

This little "rule" is exclusively for breath purposes, I believe. You see, my dad is very sensitive around odors. Two of his most common phrases that I recall from my childhood were "Why are there SEVEN toothbrushes in the bathroom when there are only FOUR kids?!!" and "Something stinks in here!" These are the things that really got his goat. In a household of six people, there was always some unwelcome smell coming from somewhere. To this day I can still count on him emptying my trash for me when he comes to visit. His nose has super powers. And I love him still.

All this to say, I can understand why my mom might have experienced some hesitancy around ordering the soup. But it was her half birthday after all and so my sister and I eventually talked her into getting it (sorry Dad). It was the right choice. Her face said it all. She enjoyed every last drop of that savory soup (except for the one bite she shared with me). And thanks to that fateful day at Red Robin, I got my very first taste of French Onion Soup (because goodness knows it was never served at home!)

The soup never sounded very appealing to me before - a soup sporting only onions? It doesn't really sound very appetizing. But oh! The flavor those onions take on when caramelized and soaked in beef broth with a dash of sherry! And nothing, no nothing, beats the finishing touch of a toasted slice of baguette smothered with melted and bubbling gruyere cheese. I'm so glad I talked my mom into ordering the soup that day. For both of our sakes.

My version is fairly traditional except I've added a handful of sautéed mushrooms for good measure. Feel free to omit them if you aren't a mushroom fan (though you might be sorry). If you don't have six diners eating, fill just as many bowls as you need and set aside the rest of the soup and toppings for tomorrow. It makes the BEST leftovers - just reheat under the broiler topped with a fresh slice of baguette and melted cheese.

The Best French Onion Soup

2 Tablespoons butter
4 large yellow onions, halved and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
½ teaspoon sugar
1 ½ cup chardonnay or other white wine
6 cups beef broth
5 springs of thyme
2 bay leaves
4 ounces crimini mushrooms, sliced
1 French baguette
1 clove of garlic, cut in half
6 teaspoons sherry, divided
1 ½ cups (6 ounces) grated gruyere cheese

In large Dutch oven or stock pot, melt butter over medium heat. Add onions and saute, stirring occasionally until softened (about 15 minutes). Add salt, pepper and sugar and stir. Continue to saute onions stirring every 5 minutes or so until browned and caramelized (about 30-40 minutes). Reduce heat as needed to prevent burning. Add wine and increase heat to boiling, stirring onions to deglaze pan. When wine is nearly evaporated (about 10 minutes), add beef broth, thyme, bay leaves and mushrooms and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes to infuse flavor of herbs. Remove bay leaves and thyme sprigs.

Preheat broiler. Slice baguette on the diagonal into ½ inch slices. Arranges slices on a rimmed baking sheet and toast briefly under broiler, about 1 minute per side. Rub toasted bread slices with cut side of garlic clove.

Pour 1 teaspoon sherry into six oven-safe bowls. Ladle soup over sherry and then arrange 2 bread slices on top of each bowl. Sprinkle each with ¼ cup of grated cheese. Place bowls on rimmed baking sheet and place under the broil for about 4 minutes or until cheese is bubbly and lightly browned.

Serve soup immediately with glasses of chilled chardonnay.

Serves 6

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posted by kelsie