French Onion Soup

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The other morning we woke up to a fog advisory in San Francisco. Fog, so thick we needed the news to tell us it was unsafe on the roads. Hemmed in on all sides by fog there was really only one thing to do – make soup. The rich savory kind that drives away the cold and the fog. Never mind that it was sunny again by the afternoon – it was a day for French Onion Soup.

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I’ve only ever made one recipe for French onion soup and while I don’t really follow it anymore, the base of my soup is the Barefoot Contessa recipe. It’s rich and hearty and deeply colored and I see no reason to find a different option. At the end of the day, onion soup is really onions and stock – always use stock, never water. With so few ingredients it makes a big difference. Of course, the soup I make also has another key ingredient – alcohol.

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No, the final product won’t get you tipsy but adding alcohol to dishes is often a great way to punch up the flavor. When it comes to flavor compounds, some of them dissolve in water but others dissolve in alcohol. So adding some booze, especially to dishes with an onion or tomato, will bring those extra flavors into your dish. Then turn up the heat and let it boil for a few minutes and the intoxicating part is gone, leaving only the delicious flavors. Plus the alcohols have their own flavors – brandy and white wine add some sweetness and sherry adds a subtle tang that complements the other flavors.

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Of course, it’s also a nice side benefit that you end up with a half bottle of wine that just needs to be sipped along with your bowl of soup. That plus some cheese toast is the only reason I need to stay off the roads. Thank you fog.

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French Onion Soup
Inspired by the Barefoot Contessa’s French onion soup

Makes about 8-10 bowls worth

4 tbs or half stick of butter
8 onions, cut in half and sliced into half moons
8 cups of stock*
1 tbs soy sauce** and Worcestershire sauce
1 cup white wine
¼ cup sherry or Shaoxing rice wine
¼ cup brandy
2-4 tbs kosher salt
1 tsp hot sauce
Parmesan shavings, for topping the bowls

In a large pot combine the onions and butter over medium low heat. This is the step that takes a while so get yourself comfortable somewhere near the kitchen.

Set a time for 10 minutes and when it goes off give the onions a stir. About 30 minutes in some of it will start to stick a bit to the bottom and brown. When that happens scrape the bottom of the pan with a spatula to get up all the browned stuck-on stuff off the bottom. It helps to scape some of the soupy onions over the browned bits to get them off the pot but it’s important to clear the bottom every 10 minutes so the delicious-caramelized-brownness doesn’t turn into burned junk.
The whole process takes the better part of an hour and a half but you’ll know you’re getting close when the whole bottom is browned after those 10 minutes. I generally let the happened twice and scrape it up before I call the onions done.

Once the onions are caramelized add the stock, soy or Worcestershire, brandy, sherry, and wine to the pot and turn the heat up to medium high. Let the soup boil for a few minutes and then turn it down to a simmer. Taste it and add the hot sauce and as much salt as it needs.*** Once it’s seasoned, let it simmer for about 15 minutes so the flavors can meld. Then serve it hot with some parmesan on top. Cheese toast floaters are also great if you have the time to put them together.

*Use whatever kind you like, chicken, beef, vegetable just don’t use water. It makes up so much of the recipe and it pays to use something with flavor.

** I prefer to use dark soy sauce here but if you don’t have it regular will work just fine.

*** Normally I advocate salting during the process, not after the cooking part is done but in this case the onions are going to concentrate in flavor a lot while they cook so salting what you think it needs at the beginning could result in a very overly-salty dish at the end. Anytime you’re going to cook something down, it’s best to salt at the end and simmer it a bit after the salt is added to avoid making it too salty.

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