Whenever I want to feel like I’m making a fancy-schmancy meal I think of two dishes: French Onion Soup and stuffed mushrooms.
I think it hearkens back to my days waiting tables in steakhouses. Those two starters, plus escargot and anything Oscar-style, seemed to indicate that people were out to Dine, cholesterol and calories be damned. The foods are rich and decadent and who cares that your arteries are waving white flags?
While I haven’t tackled escargot (that’s a funny picture) or crab with bearnaise, I love making stuffed mushrooms and French onion soup. The fungi will come later, but here’s how I make a soup that is both fancy schmancy and deceptively easy.
How to make French Onion Soup
To make French onion soup you need onions, really great bread, and pungent and creamy cheese. Add water or broth, maybe a dose of wine, thyme, butter (or margarine, for the lactose intolerant), salt and pepper and voila – a soup that’s ooh-la-licious.
Some recipes say you have to have Vidalia onions, sweet onions, perfect onions.
Scratch that. You need onions. I use a couple of different varieties if I have them. If I don’t? No big deal.
You can use vegetable broth, chicken broth, or beef broth. You could even use water, if you’ve got oodles of time. Michael Ruhlman explained that because this soup was a peasant dish, its ingredients are simple and the rich flavor comes from caramelizing the onions for hours. If you want to boost the flavor a bit, you can add some red wine.
I tend to use broth. While I’ve tried the water-only method, I like the complexity that broth adds, and because the scent of simmering onions makes me insanely hungry, I like to speed things up a bit.
Whatever type of onion you use you’ll need a LOT of it. Cut it into slices, and those can be thin or thick depending on what you like. Thicker onions will need to cook longer. Just don’t dice these onions. You want to know they’re there. They’re the centerpiece (despite what the cheese may tell you).
The first step is to sweat the onions. Put your butter in the pan, top it with the onions, and sprinkle with salt. Cover the pot and turn the burner up to medium.
Once the onions release their liquid and start to turn translucent, about twenty minutes or so, remove the lid and turn the heat down to low.
You’ll be tempted to stir the onions frequently, especially because they’re starting to smell divine, but don’t. You want to get that caramelization, so the onions need to sit in the butter over the heat. Keep an eye so they don’t burn, but don’t be afraid when they turn brown. They’re supposed to.
After about an hour, your huge pile of onions will have shrunk to about a third of their former height.
Turn the heat up a touch and sprinkle the thyme and pepper and stir until you can smell the herb.
Then, add a quarter to a half cup of red wine, white wine, vermouth, or sherry. The pot should be hot enough that the wine immediately simmers.
While that’s reducing, turn the oven to 200. Put your slices of bread in the oven so they’re nice and toasty by the time the soup is ready.
Once the liquid’s reduced, pour in the broth. How much you add depends on how thin you like your soup. Throw in a bay leaf and simmer for about an hour.
Feel free to taste the soup as often as you like. Need more salt? Add it! Need more pepper? Go for it. If you want more thyme (don’t we all), add that sooner rather than later because it needs to cook longer to soften up.
Once it’s ready, turn the oven to 400. Spoon the soup into oven-proof bowls and put them on a sheet pan. Lovingly place the toasted bread in the bowl of soup. Top with cheese. Lots and lots of cheese. I like to use Provolone. I’ve used Mozzarella in a pinch, but it’s not as flavorful. Top it with shredded parmesan or Romano.
Put the bowls into the top third oven for about ten minutes or until the cheese is bubbly and a little brown. Keep an eye on this! You can finish it off with a minute under the broiler, but don’t put the bowls too close to the heat/flames.
That’s it! Easy yet fancy, and oh, so cheesy.
- 2 tbsp butter
- 4 or 5 large onions, sliced
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp thyme
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 1/4 - 1/2 cup red wine, white wine, dry vermouth, or sherry
- 5 - 6 cups broth (beef, chicken, or veggie)
- OR 5 - 6 cups water (if you've got the time)
- 1 bay leaf
- 4 large slices of good bread
- 4 slices creamy cheese, like Provolone, Gruyere, or Swiss
- 1 to 1 1/2 cups shredded hard cheese, like parmesan, romano, or asiago
- Add butter and onions to a medium-sized pot and sprinkle with kosher salt (do not stir).
- Cover and heat over medium for 20 - 30 minutes or until onions start steaming.
- Remove lid and turn heat to low.
- Simmer FOREVER if you're using water instead of broth (or, three hours).
- If you're using broth, simmer for about an hour. You want those onions to turn a nice brown. Resist the urge to stir them more than once every twenty minutes.
- Once they're caramelized, turn up the heat a bit and sprinkle the thyme and pepper over the top. Stir until the smell makes you want to gnaw your arm.
- Add the wine/vermouth/sherry. It should boil a bit. Simmer for a minute.
- Add the broth and the bay leaf. Turn the heat to low and simmer for an hour.
- Turn the oven on to 200°. Put the bread on a sheet pan and put in the middle of the oven.
- Occasionally taste the broth/onions to see if it needs any more salt or pepper. More thyme should be added at the beginning.
- After about an hour, take the bread out of the oven and turn the temperature up to 400°.
- Ladle the soup into oven-proof bowls. Place one slice of bread in the center, then top with the creamy cheese and finish with the sharp cheese.
- Bake in the top third of the oven for about ten minutes, but keep an eye on it!
- If the cheese doesn't get bubbly and brown enough, you can finish it under the broiler. Just don't let it get too close to the heat.
- Carefully remove the soup, place on trivets, and sigh with contentment.
By adding the thyme and pepper to the caramelized onions and simmering, you don't need to use as much.
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