Classic French Onion Soup: The Perfect Winter Lunch
January 15, 2015
I belong to both a food co-op and a produce club in Whitehorse, but even so I can never be sure I’ll get staples like onions or garlic in any given week. Last week I ran out of cooking onions and stocked up at the grocery store, then bingo! we received another kilo the very next day in the produce club order. So my charming roommate Hector made onion soup.
I first ate classic French onion soup, the kind you finish in the oven with a crust of bread and melted, gooey cheese on top, at a tiny restaurant in St. Adèle, a small, snow-billowy village in the Laurentians near the Chantecler ski resort. I was eleven. My parents had taken my older brother and me on a ski trip, just the four of us, leaving the three younger ones at home in Toronto with a babysitter.
It was a trip of many firsts: first onion soup; first ham and gruyère crêpe, cooked on an open griddle right in front of us by a bearded French guy in a blue stocking cap; first run on a BIG mountain (Mont Tremblant), where we got lost at dusk on the wrong side of the mountain and skied down a rock-littered slope in the twilight, our metal edges sparking every time they hit a rock; first time on a chairlift; first time I successfully parallel-skied. “A breakthrough!” said Dad.
My grandmother Mimi met us for dinner at the resort with her companion, “The Judge.” She noted that John and I didn’t speak much French. Dad whispered, “Tell her, 'Vous êtes très belle,' so I did. The Judge said, "Bravo!" but Mimi pursed her lips. “You told her to say that.” Oh well, Dad. We tried.
Later my parents went out to dance and sent us to a party for teenagers downstairs, where I caught a glimpse of a cousin of some French friends of the family and fell in love, enchanted by his perfect teeth and the way his hair flopped down over his forehead. John and I hung out for a bit and drank some ginger ale, then we got into our duffle coats and walked across the frozen lake to look back at the lights of the hotel, blazing against the sky, shining on the snow. We were on the brink of something big: our new teenaged life.
Hector consulted Joy of Cooking for his soup, I shouted down instructions from my office upstairs, and the house filled with the rich, sweet, buttery aroma of caramelizing onions. (How many of our mothers, faced with the imminent arrival of their hungry husbands, put on a couple of onions to brown in butter before he came home to buy time while she figured out what the hell she was going to cook? My Mom: “Onions and butter are the key to a happy marriage.”)
While the onions browned Hector heated up some moose stock and then combined onions and stock with a couple of shots of cognac and let it simmer for a while. He let the soup sit in the fridge overnight and heated it up for lunch next day. I finally found a use for those tiny, perfect casseroles by Cuisinart that cost 19.95 but sometimes go on sale for five bucks so you have to buy them but then you send them down to the cellar shelves because you don’t know what to do with them. Here’s what you do: pour in hot onion soup, toast some bread, grate some cheese, put bread and cheese on top and broil until browned and bubbly. You are on the brink of something big: a happy marriage; the perfect winter lunch.
four to six thick slices of bread—just use whatever’s on hand
1½ cups (375 mL) grated old white cheddar or gruyère
Sauté onions in butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat until onions are browned and aromatic, about 30 minutes.
Warm stock in a separate saucepan, add to browned onions, add a couple of tablespoons (30 mL) cognac or sherry, bring to a slow boil and let simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from heat, cool to room temperature and store in fridge.
When you’re ready to serve, heat soup in a saucepan. Toast bread, estimating about one slice per bowl, and slice or tear into rough croutons. Pour hot soup into bowls, add a dash of sherry or cognac, top with croutons, add grated cheese to cover, put on a baking sheet and broil at high until cheese is browned and bubbling, about 1 minute. Serve at once.