Thursday, April 16, 2009

French Onion Memories

1. When I was about 12 my mom and I went into Manhattan for the day to go shopping. We lived an hour outside of the city, so we could do this every now and then, but it was always kind of exciting, especially when we went out to eat. My mother was not above following food fads, so we would eat macrobiotic, or Korean, or Sushi, or basically where ever her really cool urban friend had taken her at some point.

On this day, it was either rainy or cold, I'm not sure, but I remember the feeling of relief when we stepped into this little bistro, La Bonne Soupe, which I don't think anyone had recommended, but there it was and we were hungry and needed shelter. It was really crowded and tiny inside, with the tables all really close together, and all the Manhattanites crunched together having their business lunches or their affairs or their sophisticated friend-dates. Is it just me because I was a pre-teen then, or was Manhattan in the 80's a really intense place? It felt like a very wild and self-aware social experiment.

Anyway, on my mom's suggestion, I ordered French Onion Soup, which I'd never had before. Food critics are always talking about food being "a revelation", and that's exactly what this was. Buttery sweet broth, the crouton, the salty melted cheese with the bits of crusty brown broiled into it... And to be cold or wet and be served this soup among all these self-consciously sophisticated New Yorkers... It was wonderful.

2 In Rhinebeck, NY, when I was in college, we used to go to this classic old pub, Whitaker's or Flannigan's, or something like that. This was the first place I had a French dip sandwich, more about that some other time, but it was also the first place I had a mediocre French onion soup. The broth was probably canned beef broth and tasted overly salty and flat, and the cheese was rubbery, and cooled into a thick hard goo that you had to cut through. It was gross.

3. In our Williamsburg, Brooklyn apartment in the late 90s, with its huge post-war kitchen (sometimes in the company of rats), my husband and I were obsessed with eating dinner. I cooked like a mad woman back then. An old boyfriend who had since become a chef had told me about Richard Olney's book Simple French Food. It's got recipes, but it's more like a treatise, a beautifully written, gentle and urgent manifesto about how food should be. I cooked out of that book for a long time, and studied it constantly. His soup chapter is maybe my favorite, and in it, he talks about French Onion Soup, or Panade รก l'Oignon au Gratin. It's got no beef broth, just salted water. Onions, butter, dried bread, salted water and cheese. I used to make onion soup from that recipe in our big blue and white kitchen with the window looking out over the autobody shop, sometimes with the revival church across the street blaring its sermons. Ahh, those were sweet times.

4. Yesterday. Fairway. My kids arguing about which pickles to get. Me mesmerized by the gruyere stand. Inspiration. I bought, I made, I ate. I love french onion soup! It is the perfect meal for these cold spring days.

This is how I made it:

About 1-1/2 hours before I wanted us to eat, I thinly sliced 3 fat yellow onions and sauteed them slowly in a Dutch oven in about 3 tablespoons of butter with a pinch of salt, stirring them every now and then. I happened to have beef soup bones in the freezer (I get them for my dog). So I put a couple of them into a pot with cold water and made a quick stock. I didn't have dried bread, so I toasted slices of French bread in the oven.

When the onions were soft and liquidy and sweet, I laid the toasts around the entire pot on top of the onions, then laid thin slices of the Gruyere on top. (I got my kids to help, hoping to pique their interest.) Then I gently strained the stock into the pot, and put the whole thing into the oven under the broiler for about 15 minutes. Wow, was it delicious.

My kids both tried the soup. My 5 year old: just a sip of the broth, followed by a dramatic wail of protest, followed by an impromptu lesson on dinner manners. My 10 year old: just the broth, but quite a bit of it before announcing the flavor was too weird. Um, you mean so delicious it's blowing your mind, right? Yeah, that's what I thought.

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