On a cold, gloomy day there really is nothing better than a bowl of rich, fragrant french onion soup. Thankfully, we live in San Francisco, so we have plenty of opportunities, even in the middle of summer, to enjoy this delightful treat. And it couldn’t be easier to make — one of the simplest dishes to prepare, using simple ingredients and simple techniques.
The recipe below is a fairly traditional preparation, although note that if you wanted to make this dish in the true French style, you would make your own compound stock from scratch — a hugely labor intensive process. In any case, the key to this soup is using good quality stock, so if you can make your own, it will really shine through. If not, try to buy the stock from the frozen section of your specialty grocery store (whole foods has some good ones), rather than the wax boxes or the cans. Its a bit more expensive, but it makes a world of difference.
Also, note that you can use any combination of beef stock or chicken stock and red wine or white wine, depending on your mood. The traditional beef stock with red wine makes a very rich, decadent broth, great for a cold winter day. If you’re in the mood for a lighter broth, perhaps on a warmer day, you can use chicken stock with white wine. My favorite is a nice pinot noir with a combination of both beef and chicken stock — the result is a well-balanced, not-too-rich broth that still fills me up.
5-6 big sweet onions (Spanish or vidalia both work well)
half a stick of butter (optional, could be replaced with olive oil, or a combination of both)
1-2 cups red wine
2 cups good quality beef stock
2 cups good quality chicken stock
choice of fresh herbs (the only essential herb is thyme, but a bouquet garni with bay, rosemary, sage and thyme is great)
loaf of country-style bread (batard, french baguette)
cheese combination of your choice (the classic is gruyere or fontina, but provolone is my favorite)
salt and pepper
Coarsely chop the onions. Easiest way is to first trim the ends off, then halve lengthwise and slice into semicircles.
Heat the butter (or olive oil, or a combination) in the bottom of your heavy bottomed pot. Add the onions, and some salt to help them break down, and cook for 45 minutes or more, until soft and sweet. The onions will start to brown after a while — this is good. Try to leave the onions for a long time between stirring, so they can begin to form a nice brown crust on the bottom of the pot. To aid in the caramelization, you can add a tablespoon of white sugar.
Depending on the water content of the onions, they may release enough liquid to create their own broth, which will be the start of the soup base.
After the onions are soft and sweet, deglace the bottom of the pan with a little wine, scraping up any brown bits. Add the rest of the wine, and let it cook off for a few minutes. Add the herbs, chicken and/or beef stock, salt and pepper. Cook, uncovered, for about 20-30 minutes, until the broth is rich and fragrant.
While the soup is cooking, cut the bread into thin slices and place on a baking sheet. Brush on all sides with olive oil, and then toast them under the broiler for just a couple minutes (watch carefully!), until each side is just slightly golden brown. Also, shred or slice the cheese at this point.
Remove the herbs, and ladle the soup into oven-proof bowls. Top with slices of toasted bread, and cover with the cheeese. Place under the broiler for just a minute or two, until the cheese on top is melted and browning.
Serve it up! This soup goes wonderfully with a glass of nice red wine.