London - Jan. 28, 2011 - All I wanted was a bowl of French onion soup. I was walking the streets around St. Lawrence Market in Toronto one evening during squall season, and the wind was particularly bitter. I slipped into one of Canada's top restaurants, hopeful for a hot bowl of soup and a glass of wine.
"French Onion Soup", the menu said. It truly called to me, for reasons that should be obvious - soul-warming broth, mounds of sweet, caramelized onion, and a crouton topped with hot, gooey cheese. I placed my order.
Much to my surprise, two servers dressed in black swiftly approached the table. One set a white bowl before me with five small, unrecognizable bits, while the other gently poured a beautifully clear consomme from a teapot. All I remember hearing was "duck gizzard" and "duck tongue", and before I knew it they disappeared - Matrix style - back to the kitchen.
Alarm bells went off. Unlike some people who were raised eating offal and consider organ meat to be a routine element of cuisine, I was raised on traditional, mainstream food. I glanced up in time to see a couple of chefs snickering at the pass, obviously amused by my reaction.
I braved my way through it. After all, I am a self-professed gourmet cook who loves adventures in food, so shouldn't I seize an opportunity like this? "Not bad," I confessed, but mocking me from the centre of the bowl was a lone, wine-poached pearl onion. This chef has a sense of humour.
The psychology of food is a powerful thing, and sometimes overcoming an aversion to unique offerings is challenging. Everyone should try the deconstructed version once, but in the meantime I offer this wonderfully classic recipe for a bowl of French onion soup - one that we can all take comfort in on these cold winter nights.
French Onion Soup (serves 6)
8 cups thinly sliced yellow onion
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/3 stick unsalted butter
8 cups beef broth or stock
1 cup dry red wine
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons cognac
Salt and pepper to taste
6 slices of toasted French baguette (at least 1" thick)
3 cups grated Gruyere cheese
Heat the oil and butter in a heavy-bottomed stock pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onions, stir to coat, and reduce heat to medium-low. Do not add salt at this stage.
The onions must caramelize, and this can take approximately 40-45 minutes dependent on your pot and heat element. What we're looking for is a deep, golden brown colour, which is essential to the soup.
Stir the onions occasionally, making sure they don't burn or stick to the pot.
When the onions are caramelized, turn the heat to medium-high and add the wine, scraping the fond from the bottom of the pan. Simmer and reduce the liquid by approximately two thirds.
Add the beef broth, thyme, bay leaf, salt and some freshly cracked black pepper. Bring the soup to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cover for approximately 30 minutes.
Taste and season with additional salt if required, and stir in the cognac. Ladle the soup into oven-proof bowls, top each with a slice of toasted baguette, and pile on the grated Gruyere cheese.
Put the bowls on a baking sheet and place under the broiler for 2-3 minutes until the cheese is melted and slightly golden. Watch like a hawk to avoid burning.
Serve and enjoy.