Yesterday I welcomed some old friends for dinner. I’m a bit hard to pin down these days due to a busy schedule, so I attempt to make up for the missing quantity of visits with quality – including quality food. A nice french onion soup was just the thing. On the surface, it is a simple dish: caramelized onions, stock, bread, and cheese. But it can be a truly rich, complex treat if those few ingredients are of a high caliber. So a day before my dinner, I began preparations.
Step 1: Make veggie stock
Homemade stocks are tastier and healthier than anything you can buy. They are also simple to make and cheap, because you pretty much just slow-cook garbage. I am not paying for anyone else’s slow-cooked garbage, ever. At any rate, I generally do a beef stock for this soup, which involves throwing some beef bones and scraps into a crockpot filled with water and letting that simmer for a day or two. But one of my guests is a vegetarian, so veggie stock was in order. I regularly save various veggie scraps in a large bag in the freezer. When the bag is full, it is ready to go in the crockpot. Simmer a day, strain through cheesecloth, and enjoy. I usually freeze a bunch, but for this recipe I used the whole batch.
Step 2: Bake bread
I have been the “mom” of a batch of sourdough starter (named Cersei) for about a year. During that time, I have been attempting to master a wonderful recipe I found through one of my favorite blogs. It involves two seperate slow rises, and lots of special working of the dough. And it is delicious, yielding a crispy crust and airy interior. This week, I felt comfortable enough to go off-recipe, which calls for 400 grams of bread flour or all-purpose, unbleached white flour, and 100 grams of whole wheat flour. I wanted to include rye flour, but I knew that rye flour will alter gluten structure and therefore the rise of the bread. So I thought it might be safe to replace 100 grams of the white flour with rye. I also wanted a little textural variety, so I sprinkled layers of poppy and toasted sesame seeds on the dough during the folding process. Thankfully, the experiment worked. The bread rose beautifully, and the flavor was more interesting than was with the standard recipe. At any rate, I was able to toast some thick slices for the soup.
Step 3: Caramelize onions
I have read recipes that call for “caramelizing” onions in 15 minutes. No. Maybe the process can begin during that time frame, but it cannot result in fully-caramelized, gooey, sweet, brown and perfect onions that will flavor a whole pot of soup. Especially when using veggie stock rather than beef stock, intensely flavorful onions are a must for this recipe. It is not hard, it just takes time. I used a couple tablespoons of butter and a couple tablespoons of avocado oil in the pot, threw in 5 sliced yellow onions, added some salt and pepper and the first few sprigs of thyme that appeared in my garden this spring. Covered, cooked on medium-low heat, with an occasional stir, for about 40 minutes. When the onions were soft and starting to change color, I took off the cover, turned the heat to high, and cooked while stirring constantly for 5-10 minutes. At that point the onions were beautiful.
Step 4: Simmer, assemble, bake
Once the onions were done, I strained all the veggie stock into the pot, stirred everything together, and simmered the lot for about 40 minutes. Then I filled three small crocks, added the toast, sprinkled on some grated gruyere cheese, and baked on a tray at 425 degrees for about 20 minutes (cheese was bubbly and beginning to brown). Success!