Monday, December 27, 2010

French Onion Soup

Although the centerpiece of the Bolek Christmas dinner is the standing rib roast, the dinner always begins with french onion  soup.  There are a wide variety of onions that could be used for the soup ... such as yellow, red, or sweet.  Generally, I am a big fan of a particular sweet onion, the Vidalia, which I strive to use whenever I make french onion soup.

So, as the story goes, a farmer named Moses Coleman "discovered" the Vidalia onion in 1931.  Coleman was surprised to find that his onions were sweet (which, probably, was due to the fact that the soil in that particular area of Georgia has a low sulphur content).  Over the years, farmers in Georgia continued to plant the sweet onion, which began to develop quite the reputation.  In 1986, the Georgia State legislature passed a law -- aptly named the Vidalia Onion Trademark Act -- that trademarked the "Vidalia" onion.  Later, the federal government enacted a federal marketing order, which added certain restrictions and requirements on the growing of Vidalia onions.  As a result, a  true "Vidalia" onion is a sweet onion grown within a designated area in the State of Georgia.  These onions are very sweet, due to the low amount of sulfur in the soil. 

The problem is that Vidalia onions are only shipped between April and the early fall.  So, when Christmas time rolls around and I want to make french onion soup, I have to use "regular" sweet onions, which, in all honesty, do the job just as well as Vidalia onions. 

When making the soup, I usually use Anthony Bourdain's "Onion Soup Les Halles" recipe as a guide.  Bourdain's recipe is very interesting, because it uses both port and balsamic vinegar.  These two ingredients together provide a sweetness to the onion soup.  However, Clare is a vegetarian and the recipe's use of bacon and dark chicken stock makes the soup very unfriendly to vegetarians.  So, I've modified the recipe by taking out the bacon and substituting vegetable stock for dark chicken stock.  The soup may not end up as dark and subtle as that made by Anthony Bourdain when he worked at Les Halles, but it does create a tasty french onion soup that everyone, carnivore and vegetarian, can enjoy.

One final note, the cheese you use should be Gruyere cheese, as that is the traditional cheese used in french onion soup.  You can usually find Gruyere at Whole Food Markets or similar stores.  

Adapted from Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook
Serves 12

18 tablespoons of unsalted butter
15 medium sized Vidalia or sweet onions, sliced thinly
8 tablespoons of port
8 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
3 quarts vegetable stock
1 big bouquet garni (4 sprigs flat parsley, 8 sprigs fresh thyme and 4 bay leaves)
24 baguette croutons
18 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated

1.  In a large pot, heat the butter over medium heat until it is melted and begins to brown.  Add the onions and cook over medium heat until they are soft and browned (at least twenty minutes).  The onions should be an even, dark color.  But, realistically, when you are working with a large amount of onions, it is very difficult to get the onions to a dark color.  So, when the onions have become really soft, it is okay to go on to the next step. 

2.  Increase the heat to medium high and stir in the port and balsamic vinegar.  Deglaze the bottom of the pot, scrapping the brown bits and incorporating them into the liquid.  Add the vegetable stock and bouquet garni.  A bouquet garni is basically 1 sprig of parsley, two sprigs of thyme and a bay leaf.  However, I usually use several sprigs of parsley, even more sprigs of thyme and three to four bay leaves. to give a little boost to the flavor of the soup.

3.  Bring the soup to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer, and season with salt and pepper.  Cook for about forty-five minutes.

4.  Remove the bouquet garni.  Ladle the soup into individual oven-safe bowls or crocks.  Float two croutons in each bowl and place a heaping (but even) amount of cheese on top.

5.  Place the bowls or crocks into an oven preheated to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.  Leave the bowls in the oven until the cheese melts.

Making french onion soup is not easy and I still have to work at making this soup before I can say that I've mastered it.  While my french onion soup would probably not make the menu at Les Halles, it is well liked by my family and friends.  And, in the end, that is what really counts....


For more information about Vidalia onions, check out the Vidalia Onion Committee or Wikipedia.

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