More so than perhaps any other year, I'm feeling the year race away from me. In the coming weeks I'm travelling to the other end of the country and back, twice, as well as a flying visit to my grandparents this weekend to celebrate a significant birthday. There are end of year dinners, work social occasions, a youth conference/festival on climate change, a brief stop in my home town, two more weeks of work down South, Christmas with the family, and I'll end up at the northernmost tip of the North Island to say goodbye to 2012. Phew!
While it is nice to have plenty of social occasions and dinners out, it's also nice to make the most of a simple dinner at home, cooked in the light and eaten in the light. Evenings stretch out at this time of year, when it's still light at 9pm, and I love waking up early to the sun coming in my open window. I almost always sleep with my window open, only closing it for the iciest winter nights. Mum tells me this is something I inherited from my dad.
Come Monday afternoon, I had a strong craving for french onion soup. As a meal, it seems to be a compromise between seasons - light but hearty, warming and delicious but not too heavy either. I left work and purchased onions on my way home. As I cooked in the late afternoon light, the grey shower clouds parted briefly and sunlight came streaming through our kitchen windows. Soup was cooking and the sun was shining and all was right with the world.
french onion soup | soupe à l'oignon
The French have a certain culinary class like no other. It takes a certain je ne sais quoi to make a soup consisting almost solely of one of the most common vegetables, and legitimately call it cuisine. But it is deliciously good, even when you replace the traditionally used beef consommé with a homemade vegetable stock. Don't let that put you off: you will hardly even notice the extra effort to make vegetable stock from scratch!
for the soup:
10 medium sized white onions
50 grams butter (or oil to make this recipe vegan)
a good cup of dry white wine
a good cup of dry white wine
a sprig of flat leaf parsley
a sprig of aromatic fennel
a sprig of sage
2 bay leaves
brown miso paste
brown miso paste
for the stock:a variety of left-over vegetable pieces: cabbage hearts, the thick cauliflower stems, broccoli stalks if you don't eat them, the green leafy part of a leek.. We keep these left overs in the fridge for stock purposes!
3 garlic clovessprig of parsley
1 medium onion
4-5 mushrooms, preferably a flat, dark type such as portobello.
to servetwo pieces of good, solid bread per person
a little olive oil
3 garlic cloves
Begin by making the stock. Add all the vegetables to a big pot, cover with water and gently simmer. If I'm making stock for other purposes I sometimes add a little sea salt, but it's not necessary for this soup. I don't always make stock with mushrooms either, but for french onion soup the hearty taste they add is a delicious addition - although it's still pretty delicious without mushrooms. Keep this heated on low while you caramelise the onions.
Slice the onions en lyonnaise - which is, as shown below, sliced in half and then north to south slicing down the axis, so you end up with little onion crescent moons. It doesn't take long once you get in the rhythm of it, promise!
Melt the butter in a heavy frypan - I used a cast iron one - over a medium heat. Let it sizzle a little. I used some raw butter we had and it smelled delicious - when it begins to smell nutty, it's time to add the onions. Add the onions in layers and sprinkle a little salt on between each layer. We don't add any salt later: salt at this point draws the moisture out of the onions so they caramelise in their own juices.
Let the onions bubble away for a good 20 minutes before stirring them. They will release a lot of liquid - this is a good thing! This cooking process is "sweating" the onions, not sautéeing them. If they are sizzling too much, turn the heat down until they just bubble. They will most likely catch on the bottom of the pan, but this is ok. Cook for a further 40 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so, until the onions are a golden brown colour. Don't be tempted to cut this step short - the flavours that are developing here are integral to the soup, and you'll regret it if you end up with a light onion-y broth.
Strain the vegetable stock and return it to the pot. Turn up the heat on the onions and add the dry white wine. It will sizzle and steam a lot, and probably turn a dark brown colour. This is excellent! Stir for about five minutes, then add all the onions to the stock and heat. At this stage, add the fresh herbs. If you like, you can tie them together with some string to make a bouquet garni, which means it is easier to remove before serving. This is when you also add the brown miso paste. If you don't have miso paste to hand, you could use vegemite/marmite instead.
While the soup bubbles away on the stove, slice up some good solid bread. I've used our bought homemade bread - it's a wholemeal/rye blend made by a local who stone grinds his own flour. It's delicious but good and substantial too. Smush the garlic cloves to a paste in a mortar and pestle - add a little olive oil to them. Mix the ground coriander in too. Rub this paste over both sides of the bread, then toast under a hot grill for 2 minutes. Turn over, add sliced cheddar to the top, and return to the oven for another 2 minutes.
To serve, fill a bowl with the soup, avoiding the herbs, then float the toasted bread and cheese on top. The bread should be crunchy enough to withstand soaking up some of the soup. Eat immediately. It's amazing how filling this is - a friend told me that the best french onion soups have enough bread so that there is a bit of bread for every mouthful of soup. It's warming, filling and amazingly delicious considering it's just made with onions, wine, and herbs.
title from Édith Piaf (who else?) - sous le ciel de Paris. The translation of the lyrics used in the title is "Hope springs again under the Paris sky."