Imagine a cold, wet winter in provincial France. Food stocks are low awaiting the spring planting. You have some onions, wilted carrots and celery, a few old bones and bits of meat along with some local herbs, a stale baguette and a small wedge of firm cheese. From the humble fields of France, these simple ingredients give us one of the greatest soups ever made. Another triumph of technique over ingredients. Try as they might, Foodies, Critics and other devotees of the Cult of Food can not diminish the simple greatness of this dish.
Foodies have tried to elevate a simple onion soup (along with several other dishes) to some unattainable gastronomic holy grail requiring specific ingredients and ridiculous preparation methods. When I read a Food Blog that insists that my soup must include an exacting amount of $100 Napoleon Cognac and that if I use just a splash of cheap Burgundy I should face the guillotine, Food Culture has gone off the rails somewhere.
I hate the self appointed title of Foodie. It seems to denote someone who claims to love food but is only capable of complaining about how other people prepare food. Or worse, they just critique the atmosphere in which that food is served. They love modern food culture but understand little about sourcing, cooking and serving great food. If you want to impress me as a Foodie or Food Critic, show me your Creds. Anything from a certificate from Culinary School to scars from cuts and burns earned in the trenches of the kitchen. If you are going to critique, first earn the right to do so. Get a culinary education and earn those stripes at the cutting board and stove. Along with a technical education you will gain humility and respect for the industry. Then you can call out those who are cooking poorly without respect for the food or the customers.
Anyway back to the soup. French onion soup is not the only soup of this type. Onion soups with bread and cheese are found all over Europe but the traditional French style is a classic and a good starting point to explore onion soups. (Creamy Tuscan Onion Soup is a good place to go after the French) You will need beef stock, onions, bread, Cheese and seasoning, that’s it. There are hundreds of recipes and dozens of regional variations. and no one goes to the Guillotine for not doing it “the right way”.
First the stock. Stock is easy and simple so don’t get intimidated or overthink it. Don’t worry about getting too technical about Broth Vs. Stock. Apparently this is becoming a ridiculous debate. Stock is made with meat and broth is made from bones.
Start by making beef bone broth. Just roast beef marrow bones, celery, onions and carrots with a little tomato paste applied to the bones in a roasting pan. When they have browned transfer them to a stock pot, add herbs and simmer for a couple of hours. Do not add salt! Remove the bones and veggies and you have bone broth. Easy.
Using the same roasting pan, roast some cubes of inexpensive beef. You can put the roaster on the stove top to sear the meat first or use a frying pan but if you use the roaster you don’t need to clean the frying pan. After searing the meat, roast it adding a little water or broth as needed help the bottom of the pan from drying and burning. The meat is not important, the drippings are what you are after. Add the beef and the drippings to the broth and cover with water. Bring to just under a boil, reduce heat and simmer adding water if needed. You are trying to remove all the flavor from the meat. Low and slow for a long time is the key.
When, as Chef Escoffier said “The meat has no culinary value left” remove the meat and discard or use as dog treats. Filter out all of the solids you can. How far you go is up to you. There is no wrong way. A wire strainer, chinois or cheese cloth all remove different levels of solids. This changes the flavor and texture but it is all up to you. Chill the stock to allow the fats to rise to the top and skim them off. You have a basic stock. It can be reduced by cooking it further. Set aside what you need for the soup and freeze the rest for later. It will keep for several weeks.
If this sounds like a lot of work, analyze it. There is a lot of cooking time but very little actual labor. You do a little work then let it cook and repeat. It is a great project for a Saturday at home and yields enough stock for several dishes.
Now the fun begins. Caramelize sliced onions, add stock (diluted as needed), season to taste, put in an oven proof bowl, add dry bread, top with a generous amount of cheese and bake. Don’t over think it. There are hundreds of recipes out there to reference for ingredients, measurements, temperatures and times. If you enjoyed the soup, you did it right.
The best indicators of how this is working are as follows.
#1 My wife’s blood pressure is the lowest it has been in several years. Probably because of the lack of extra salt in fast food.
#2 We have seen a real impact in our finances this month, There was a lot more money left over at the end of the month than we expected. A lot more.
#3 I read several peoples experiences who did this for a month but even with great results they went no further. We are starting the second month with no problems or plans to stop. More on that next week.
Thanks for sticking with me. John