We love Julia Child because she relishes making hoity-toity French food, but brings it down to earth, pun intended. When she drops a chicken on the floor or licks her fingers we know she’s one of us.
I’ve made her French onion soup for years and while she’s specific about process, ingredients are straightforward. As she said, “Onion soup is simply a large quantity of sliced onions slowly cooked and browned in butter, then simmered in beef bouillon.”
Not a refined soup, it’s meant to be full of oniony character, chunky and rustic, kind of like Julia herself. Caramelized, softened onion imbued with the subtle flavors of bay, sage and thyme, toasted bread and melted cheese on top – comfort food in a bowl. This soup is of winter’s landscape. Onions, lots of them, a stock of your choice, beef, chicken or vegetable, and but of course a smidge of wine. Use onions from nearby, a locally/regionally produced cheese, and make your own stock if possible. Another mostly local meal.
Plus, French Onion Soup is a great way to have a party meal, any meal, that’s easy on the pocketbook. The cheese topping is potentially pricey, though you need very little, and onions and elbow grease for chopping come pretty cheap. After that just time is required to let it all simmer into a pièce de résistance.
One more thing, onions, Aliums, are full of anti-oxidants. (Check out links and info at end of this piece for more about the Allium’s nutritive benefits.)
I use Julia Child’s recipe from The French Chef Cookbook (a rumpled little paperback I’ve had forever) and I feel free to adjust it as needed. It calls for a cup of red or white wine. I’ve often used red which ‘colors’ the soup. For that reason I use white wine if I have it. Taste is great either way.
The work for this soup comes at the very beginning when, with tissues nearby, you roll up your sleeves and peel and chop a big pile of onions, a mountain of onions when you’ve finished chopping five or six of them. They diminish in volume significantly during cooking. This recipe makes 4 – 6 servings.
(I’m always grateful to have fresh herbs in the garden, especially mid-winter. Bay and rosemary are thriving in spite of recent cold snap, thyme and sage are sad looking, but new growth is coming even now and I foraged enough for this soup. More about Herbs and Herb gardens coming soon.)
Julia Child’s French Onion Soup: Melt 3 T butter with 1 T olive oil in 4-quart pot/ Add sliced onions and stir to coat/ Cover pan and cook slowly for 15 or 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft and translucent/ Remove lid, turn the heat up to medium and stir in 1 t salt and ½ t sugar/ Stir together and sauté another 20-30 minutes, stirring frequently/ Onions will gradually turn golden brown/ Lower heat, add 3 T flour and a bit more butter if needed/ Cook together for two minutes/ Remove from heat and stir in 1 cup of hot beef, chicken or vegetable stock along with 1 C red or white wine, 1 bay leaf, ½ t sage, salt & pepper to taste/ Stir with a whisk to blend everything and then add remaining 7 cups of stock (which could be diluted with water)/ Simmer for 30 – 40 minutes, taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
That’s it. OK to make it a day ahead of time. Like many soups it gets better after sitting a few hours or a day.
To serve: Ladle into a bowl and enjoy as is, or give it a French accent: nearly fill oven-proof soup bowls with the hot soup, place a toasted slice or two of bread, preferably French, on top of each and top that with a handful of grated cheese. Place bowls on a cookie or baking sheet under a broiler for two or three minutes. Watch carefully while cheese melts. Remove from oven and serve with more bread, a green salad or fruit and a sip of wine.
The cheese topping is the opportunity for a Pacific Northwest touch (or skip the cheese entirely). Julia suggests Parmesan and/or Gruyere which are local if you live in France. If there’s a locally made cheese that you like, try it. I used Mt. Townsend’s Trailhead with a little parm mixed in; Beecher’s jack or cheddar would be good; Sea Breeze’s Vache de Vashon or their Alpine goat cheese; Port Madison’s Goat Farm & Dairy is a source of excellent local cheese available at Farmers Markets most weekends. Though not traditional with this onion soup, goat cheese would be something to try. Goat Cheese and Onion are delicious together in a tart – it ought to translate to this soup as well. If anyone out there tries it, let me know.
Alliums’ Health Benefits:
Many onions are chock full of anti-cancer chemicals. However, certain varieties are particularly high in these compounds as well as more effective in inhibiting liver and colon cancer cell growth.
According to a new study by Cornell University food scientists, led by Rui Hai Liu, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of food science, shallots, Western Yellow, pungent yellow and Northern Red onions are higher in anti-cancer chemicals than other varieties tested. Furthermore, Liu found that shallots and Western Yellow and pungent yellow onion varieties are particularly effective against liver cancer cells, while pungent yellow and Western Yellow varieties have the greatest effect on colon cancer cells.
“Our study of 10 onion varieties and shallots clearly shows that onions and shallots have potent antioxidant and antiproliferation activities and that the more total phenolic and flavonoid content an onion has, the stronger its antioxidant activity and protective effect,” says Liu.
Onions are Beneficial to Health, Vegetarianism & Vegetarian Nutrition