French Onion Soup

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I’m trying to cook as many traditional French meals as possible while I’m here.  My most recent conquest was french onion soup and it was a total hit.  I honestly don’t know why I’ve never tried making it before — it’s totally delicious and surprisingly good for you.  I always assumed that rich, creamy flavor came from loads of cream and butter, but in fact it’s really all from the slow caramelizing of the onions.  Excellent!

As with all of my homemade meals in Paris, I had to be a bit creative with my ingredients.  I was able to find most of what I needed for this soup at the market, but I had to use beef bullion cubes instead of beef broth.  Honestly, I’m really a firm believer in making and using your own stocks and broths whenever possible, but since that wasn’t option in this case, I was hoping for a box of organic broth.  No such luck.

There are many reasons to make your own stock — using the whole animal, keeping ancient cooking traditions alive, having total control over flavor, and extracting the deep nutrients found in organic animal bones.  Don’t let a bone go through your kitchen without turning it into a stock (or freezing it to add to the pot next time you make stock)!  I make mine in big batches using whatever bones and vegetable scraps I have on hand and freeze it to use later.  In my opinion, homemade stock is the most important foundational ingredient for any soup or stew.

Here’s what I ended up with for my onion soup — a relatively modest group of ingredients for such a tasty dish!

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Start by peeling and slicing your onions and putting them into your pot along with 3 – 4 cloves of diced garlic.  I used six medium onions for this recipe and it made enough for five servings of soup.  Drizzle your onions with olive oil, add about 1.5 tablespoons of butter and 5 bay leaves, and start cooking (note – I think you could certainly skip the butter if you are dairy-free).  Cover your onions and let them cook on med/low undisturbed for about 15 minutes.

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After the onions have “wilted” you should uncover them, turn the heat up slightly, add 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of sugar.  You’re about to start caramelizing your onions and the dash of salt and sugar help them develop a richer flavor. Cook the onions on medium heat for the next 45 minutes and stir frequently (be sure to scrape off the dark patches that stick to the bottom and mix them in with the onions).  The trick to this soup is to give your onions time to cook down really slowly and develop that deep caramelized flavor.  They should develop a golden brown color and rich salty/sweet smell as they cook.

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When your onions are fully caramelized sprinkle them with about 3 tablespoons of flour and stir constantly for a few minutes while the flour cooks (it’s ok for things to look a bit lumpy while this is happening).  Once the flour has cooked away add about 3/4 of a cup of red wine.  The onions will turn a beautiful purple color as the wine is mixed through.

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Now it’s time to begin adding your stock slowly to the onions.  I used about 2.5 cups of beef broth in this recipe, but you can add more or less to reach your desired consistency.  You should also add salt and pepper to taste here and then let the soup simmer for about 30 minutes.

Traditionally this soup is served in small crocks with melted cheese covering the top.  Since I don’t have an oven in my Paris apartment I improvised with cheesy toasts (amazingly everything tastes better with cheesy toasts!).  I pan fried my toasts in olive oil and melted some comte cheese on top.  They were delicious floating in the onion soup.

There is something incredibly comforting about this soup.  It tastes like nourishment and family to me. These were nice feelings to evoke on a chilly night in a new city – especially as we tried to digest all that happened in Boston this week.

Onions are incredibly nourishing, so these associations make sense.  Onions are part of the allium family (along with garlic, leeks, scallions etc.) and have strong immune-boosting properties thanks to their high levels of antioxidants and vitamin C.  The compound in alliums, allicin, has been shown to reduce cholesterol production (helping to lower cholesterol) and decrease blood vessel stiffness (helping to reduce blood pressure).  Onions also offer some important minerals — most notably, chromium, which helps control blood sugar levels, and quercetin, which has anti-carcinogenic and anti-inflammatory actions.

So, there are many great reasons to incorporate more onions into your diet and give french onion soup a try!

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  1. Emilie says

    Zoe- I just made this recipe today… despite living in France for over 4 years it was my first onion soup as well! Your recipe was great and very simple to follow. I added a bit of dry sherry to the onions while they were caramelizing which added a nice acidity. Thanks for the amazing recipes!!! Keep them coming!!! Also… is there ANY way to teach us how to make croissants at home?

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