Friday, October 12, 2012

Famously French Onion Soup...

Mon Amour de la soupe à l'oignon

The title of this week’s blog translates to “My Love of Onion Soup.” Yes my friends, I have a little obsession with French Onion Soup. You may have noticed that I am a bit picky when it comes to food, and I will admit it... there are certain dishes that I stand firm on how they are prepared. One of them is French Onion Soup. Growing up in St. Louis, I spent many hours shopping at a department store called Famous Barr. Now, it’s one of many mercantile establishments that have succumbed to the conglomerate known as Macy’s. Back in the day, most department stores had restaurants in them so that the ladies could luncheon while they shopped. One of the popular dishes this St. Louis shopping destination offered was their “famous” Famous Barr French Onion Soup. I can’t tell you how many bowls of this luscious, warming, gratin-ish soup I consumed with my mom and friends. It was rich, deep and comforting. I came across a recipe a while ago that comes as close as I can remember, and I think I’ve nailed it! The flavors grab you by the salivary glands and take you to your happy place.

It’s a fairly easy recipe, and the secret is the slow-simmering cooking process. It does take some time, but the end result is simply wondrous! My recommendation is to use a food processor, otherwise, get your onion goggles out and prepare for a good cry.

While I was processing the onions for our dinner, I had visions of the Julie & Julia movie, where Meryl Streep’s character Julia Child was practicing her knife skills with a burlap sack filled with onions. The scene: Julia Child’s kitchen table is piled high with a mountain of chopped onions. As she continues to practice, her on-screen husband, Stanley Tucci portraying Paul Child, walks to the kitchen door, stops immediately, grabs his eyes and cringes from the painful fumes powerfully emanating throughout the kitchen. When their brief conversation was over, Julia asks Paul, “Where are you going? “His response... “Away from here!” That scene cracks me up every time I watch! I can honestly say that if it wasn’t for the invention of the food processor, I don’t think that I would have the stamina to do this dish... Onion fumes burn! Even after using my Cuisinart, I was almost overcome with the fumes emanating straight up through my nasal passages and into my eyes, as I was placing the onions in to the stockpot. The fumes coming out were nuclear, and it took me about five minutes to recover. Yeow!

So, back to the soup... ah, the lovely, earthy nectar I call soup... This particular recipe is so dynamic, after making it yourself; I believe you’ll never desire any other. Unfortunately, the only way to enjoy this classic soup is to make it yourself. Since the Macy’s take over, the old-fashioned department store eateries are, tragically, a thing of the past. It’s really a shame, because of the tradition of mothers and daughters, and fashionable ladies dressed in their best, sitting down for light lunch between hunting for shoes, accessories and cosmetics has vanished. I have so many memories of spending the day with my mom or friends shopping. The camaraderie outweighed anything else.

Famous Barr's French Onion Soup
4½ hours | 40 min prep
SERVES 16, 4 quarts

5 lbs onions, unpeeled
1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
1 ½ teaspoons black pepper, freshly ground
2 tablespoons paprika
1 bay leaf
7 (16 ounce) cans beef broth, divided (6 cans and 1 can for thickening)
1 cup dry white wine
3/4 cup all-purpose flour or instant flour (such as Wondra)
caramel coloring (optional) or Kitchen Bouquet (optional) - I don’t do this particular step
French baguette
Swiss cheese or gruyere cheese

Peel onions and slice 1/8 inch thick, preferably in a food processor. Melt butter in a 6-quart (or larger) stockpot. Add onions; cook, uncovered, over low heat for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. (The long cooking time makes the onions mellow and sweet.) Stir in pepper, paprika and bay leaf; sauté over low heat 10 minutes more, stirring frequently. Pour in 6 cans broth and add wine.  Increase heat and bring to a boil. Dissolve flour in remaining 1 can of broth. Stir into boiling soup. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered slowly for 2 hours. Adjust color to a rich brown with caramel coloring. Season with salt. Refrigerate overnight. To serve, heat soup in microwave or on stove top. If desired, pour into ovenproof crocks or bowls. Top with a slice of bread and a sprinkling of grated cheese. Heat under the broiler until cheese melts and bubbles, about 5 minutes. Leftovers can be frozen.

I’ve altered the recipe somewhat based on what I remember from the original soup. 

Couple of things:
  • I prefer to use sweet or Vidalia onions.
  • I make the soup early in the morning and let it simmer all day long. If you can, refrigerate overnight, although after cooking, the aroma fills the house and temptation sets in.
  • I slice my French baguette about 1 and ½ inches thick and toast in oven. Once the bread is crisp and a little browned, I let it cool to room temperature to get nice and hard.
  • I skip the caramel color or kitchen bouquet options – it’s already a lovely deep rich color.
  • I use the oven proof crocks
  • I fill crock with soup, top with slice of toasted bread and a small mountain of cheese before putting under the broiler.
The last line of the recipe reads leftover soup can be frozen. That is so very true-- there is something even more comforting about pulling out a container of this elixir when you’re not in the mood to cook!  

One of the things I love most about this dish is when the cheese melts; it climbs down the side of the crock and crisps up so beautifully. After all the soup is gone, and the crock is empty, my last step is to pick the intensely flavored baked cheese off the sides. It totally adds to the whole experience!

This is a filling soup, almost a meal in itself. I served an arugula salad drizzled with olive oil and white balsamic vinegar on the side. For dessert, our neighbor Tricia brought over a homemade Pumpkin Pie. It was totally satisfying. We even had to wait a while before digging into Tricia’s awesome pie.

I will say living in Florida, the tropical heat sort of “lets the air out of the tires for me “when it comes to soup. Let’s see, our weather... Hot, Hotter and Hurricane Season! All my life, I’ve consider soup to be warming and comforting, sort of like a giant hug, and hot soup on a hot day, well-not so refreshing, more like stifling. However, after working for one of my restaurant clients, who makes won-der-ful soups, my interest for liquid hugs has been re-sparked. Since it’s October, and much of the U.S. is in fall season mode, I had to make it for us. So glad I did, because every spoonful is a scoop of happy memories.

Until next time...

May life be as delicious as your dishes!
SRQ Foodie

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