French Onion Soup

I love carmelized onions.  I love the smell of them as they cook slowly in my kitchen and permeate my entire apartment with essence of onion.  They are wonderful.  I have been trying on and off for the past couple of years to make French Onion Soup; sometimes with mediocre results, sometimes with decent results, but nothing had that ‘wow’ factor.  That experience of trying French Onion Soup for the first time; something rich, decadent, and smooth, paired perfectly with a good crusty bread and those browned cheese bits that should always crust up the edges of the bowl or crock.  I stumbled across this recipe in the same Cook’s Illustrated: Soups and Stews issue that I found those heavenly drop biscuits.  After such consistent bad/mediocre luck with this soup, I tried this new recipe, thinking at worst I would only waste a few onions; no harm no foul.  It was perfect. Velvety and rich; I could have been back in the Paris cafe where I ate French Onion Soup and watched the square in front of me bustle in the late June evening. It was that good.

This does take some time to make, but most of it involves babysitting the onions while they infuse everything around you with their scent.  I made it on a cold day (actually it was the day before Boston Food Blogs officially launched) and again on our most recent snow day; it was a perfect winter warmer.  I love that I can precook the onions the night before I want the soup cutting my preparation time down to an hour or so the next day.  I also just love to watch that cheese bubble under the broiler. It’s so satisfying to pull out a perfectly browned and bubbly soup to serve a guest (or that boy that does really sweet things for you, like edit your blog posts).

This soup is now a house favorite and given the choice, BF will choose it as the Kathy-cooks-all-day option for dinner (if I am letting him choose something I’m willing to cook all day that is).  Also I think I may have converted my decidedly un-french-onion-soup-loving sister with this little wonder.

Kathy’s French Onion Soup
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated: Soups and Stews pretty heavily.  I use red wine instead of sherry. Also, I use only chicken stock (more for convenience than any other reason) instead of their recommended beef and chicken combo.

3 Tbs unsalted butter
2 large leeks,washed and sliced into 1/4 inch rounds
4 medium yellow onions, peeled and sliced into 1/4 inche wide half moons
2 medium red onions, peeled and sliced into 1/4 inch wide half moons
8 cups of dark stock, I use a dark chicken stock, but you can use half chicken and half beef if you prefer
1/2 cup red wine
1 1/2 cup water
1-2 springs fresh thyme
Salt and pepper, to taste
4 slices good crusty bread (I’m obsessed with the Russo’s Rustic Artisan loaf, which is a nice ciabatta)
2 cups grated Jarlsburg cheese (You can use something else if you prefer just get full fat content and a softer grate-able cheese)

I just got a mandoline (and it was a super cheap one that isn’t terribly awesome) but it made the whole french onion soup process a lot less tedious, so splurge on yourself and get a mandoline, if nothing else than for onions.  Preheat the oven to 325.  Add the sliced onions to a heavy bottomed not non-stick (this is actually important) pot with the butter. I used my Le Crueset stock pot and it was perfect.

Put the pot full of onions and butter into the oven, covered, and leave it alone for 45 mins or so (if you forget for a few minutes, that’s ok; this step is really forgiving).  Pull the onions out of the oven and give them a quick stir; they should be starting to reduce in volume at this point and become translucent.  Put the pot back in the oven with the cover on a bit of an angle to allow steam to escape.  Leave it alone for another 30 minutes then pull it out and stir again; this time the onions should be starting to turn a nice golden brown. If you think they’re cooking too quickly go ahead and turn the oven down to 300 and if they are still just translucent (no golden color yet) go ahead and punch up the temp on your oven to 350.  Continue to cook and stir your onions in this way until they are a deep brown without actually burning, it takes between 2 1/2 and 3 hrs depending on the oven (Note: If you are pre-baking, let the onions cool and put the carmelized onions in the fridge until you actually want to put the soup together).

Once your onions are carmelized, put them on a medium burner on the stove top and allow them to build up a crust on the bottom of the pan (takes me 5-6 mins of stirring for this to happen without burning).  De-glaze these good crusty bit by adding the wine and scraping at the bits gently with the back of a wooden spoon; they should come right off with the wine.  Cook the wine down and get the brown onion crusty on the pan bottom again. This time de-glaze with water – about 1/2 cup.  Perform the water deglaze another 2 times to really make sure you get the full flavor out of the onions. 
Add the stock and thyme to the deglazed onions and let it come to a simmer over medium-low heat.  Keep this low simmer for 20-30 minutes so that all of the flavors have an oppurtunity to meld.  Taste for salt and flavor; add salt if needed. Remove from the heat.

Toast four slices of your favorite crusty bread.  Ladle the soup evenly into heatproof crooks, lay the toast on top, and sprinkle 1/4 of the cheese over top.  Broil the whole she-bang for 5-7 mins until the cheese is bubbly and crispy brown. Watch it like a hawk; everything burns crazy-fast under the broiler, and burnt cheese is just not as good as browned and bubbly cheese.  Serve it with a spork.  Enjoy it with the rest of that bottle of red wine you opened; by now it should be prefectly aerated 🙂

Tide Mill Whole Chicken Soup

In my previous post, I mentioned my nasty-all-consming-really-gross head cold.  Honestly, it was just a cold, but I’m kind of whiny and the thing that I love most when I’m sick is soup, so I made some.  Chicken soup to be precise, with one small whole chicken from Tide Mill Organic Farm!  This was, by far, the best chicken soup I’ve ever eaten. [Editor’s Note: Agreed] And while, yes, it made my entire apartment smell divine, it also just hit the spot and made me feel better when I felt awful.

On my afternoon of staying home from work sick, I remembered a 2.5lb chicken in my freezer and the need to get it out of there (a very good choice on my part as the 2.5lb chicken was replaced by a 15.5lb turkey after Thanksgiving).  I pulled the chicken out and rifled around in the fridge, emerging victorious with parsnips, leeks, celery and carrots.  Such fortuitous finds (I hadn’t been to the grocery store in a bit; that I had any veggies in the fridge that were still good was a surprise!).

I threw my whole (frozen) chicken, 2 of the leeks cut into 4 inch lengths and rinsed, half stalks of celery, 3 crushed and peeled garlic cloves, split parsnips and lengths of carrot all into my trusty 6 qt Le Creuset Stock pot (I love this pot, BTW), covered the whole thing with water, and walked away.  In about half an hour, my apartment started to smell divine, even through my stuffed-up nose; I couldn’t wait for the soup to finish.  So here it is, a basic and delicious chicken soup.  And it will make you feel better if you aren’t feeling well.  I swear.

Kathy’s Homemade Whole Chicken Soup
Note: I didn’t add any starch to this soup with it’s initial making, but the second night I added rice and it was wonderful, so maybe try that if you want it to be more substantial and less brothy!  Alternatively, you can use premade broth and poach a couple of boneless skinless chicken breasts in it, then shred them to get the soup without the homemade stock.

For Soup Broth
1 small whole chicken (2-3lbs)
3 whole leeks rinsed and green ends trimmed, cut into 3 inch lengths
2 parsnips, ends cut off and cut into 3 inch lengths
3 cloves whole garlic smashed with a knife
2 whole carrots, ends trimmed and cut into 3 inch lengths
2-3 stalks celery, rinsed and cut into 3 inch lengths
water to cover (4 cups)

Add the chicken (sans gizzards) and all of your vegetables to a stock pot and cover in water.  Turn your burner on low-med and let the whole thing simmer for 1 – 1 1/2 hours.  Everything will smell amazing.  Remove the chicken from the broth to a cutting board to sit for a minute and cool.  Strain the broth from your pot into a bowl reserving both the liquid and the strained out solids, I love a metal mesh strainer for this, it can handle the heat and is super cheap!  Return your solids to the pot you initially had them in, leaving the broth in a clean pot.  Skin your chicken and remove whatever meat you want from the bird.  Add the skin and chicken carcass to the pot you put the strained out vegetable solids in, cover this with more water and let it come to another simmer.  You can reserve this broth for another soup later, or freeze it; it’s pretty great for that.

For the Soup
Meat from 1 small chicken, shredded or 2 chicken breasts (3 thighs) poached in broth and shredded
4 cups of broth
1/2 red pepper cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 green pepper cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1/4 cup celery, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
2-3 carrots cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 leek, rinsed/cleaned and cut into 1/2 rounds
2 garlic cloves, smashed and minced
1/2 cup rice or egg noodles (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot, sauté the leeks, onions and garlic over medium heat until fragrant and soft (3-4 minutes).  Add the celery and carrots and sauté until soft (another 3-4 minutes).  Add the peppers and stir until soft (1-2 minutes).  Add the broth and chicken and let the whole thing come up to a simmer.  Add salt and pepper to taste and lower the heat to low and continue to simmer for another 15-20 minutes.  If you are adding the rice/noodles, do that now and let them cook through.  Serve this soup with a pat of butter on top and a big spoon.  It’s comforting and delicious for the cold and flu season; bring it to someone that’s sick.  They’ll appreciate it.  I swear.