Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Simply Delicious: French Onion Soup

The lunches of my youth, growing up as I did in a small town in Central Oregon, where the annual summer festival celebrated the potato and crowned a potato queen, were a typical smorgasbörd of the times: bologna sandwich on white bread alternated with tuna fish, with cottage cheese and potato chips on the side.

Soups, which occasionally made an appearance at lunch or dinner, were from the good folks at Campbell's, usually chicken vegetable or Scotch broth (my mother's favorite). Dave wooed me with his doctored canned tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. I didn't learn to make a pot of soup until college, when I ran a coffeehouse in the basement of the university's Koinonia center. Mind you, I didn't cook the soups, but had a crew of volunteers I'd wrangled from friends and staff who would make the day's offering in a five-gallon pot.

The soups—and the price, which was just a couple of bucks for a big bowl of soup and a slice of "peasant" bread—attracted a large, regular following, running the gamut from Jane's potato-lentil to Ed's split pea to Mike's startlingly good beer cheese. Robert's French onion was always a huge hit with its rich, beefy stock and chunk of cheese-topped bread. I had a file of all of their recipes, since on occasion I had to pinch hit as chef du jour when one of my cooks couldn't make it in due to colds, flu or a raging hangover (it was college, after all).

I still make my favorites now and then, and have added a killer black bean soup, curried squash and a few chowders to the mix. My friend Kathryn recently reminded me of my soupy beginnings when she mentioned a particularly amazing yet simple French onion soup she'd made recently from a recipe by Jacques Pepin. Since we've no doubt got a few days left of rain, I thought it might be appropriate to share it.

French Onion Soup
Adapted from Jacques Pepin

1 lb. onions, quartered lengthwise and sliced thinly crosswise
2 Tbsp. butter or margarine
8 c. chicken stock
3-4 cloves garlic, minced fine
3 sprigs fresh thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
3/4 lb. Emmenthaler, Gruyère or Jarlsberg cheese, grated
Baguette, sliced crosswise into 1/2" thick slices, toasted

Preheat the oven to 425°. Place 6 small oven-proof crocks (1 1/2 c. capacity) on a cookie sheet. Place 2-3 slices baguette in each crock. Sprinkle 1 or 2 Tbsp. cheese on top of bread.

Melt butter or margarine in Dutch oven or soup pot over medium-high heat. Add onions and sauté till golden brown, stirring frequently so they don't burn, about 15 min. Add chicken stock, garlic and thyme and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 10 min. Remove any twigs of thyme and add salt and pepper to taste.

Fill the crocks to the brim with the soup. Sprinkle each crock with 1/2 c. cheese, pressing the cheese onto the rim so that it will form a crust. Put the cookie sheet in the oven and bake 30 min. until the cheese is golden, puffed and crusty.

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