French Onion Soup (and The Traveling Onion)

french onion soup

I could go on about French Onion Soup.  How my mom makes her own beef broth and puts every other French Onion Soup to shame, how Yancey can eat gallons of it,  how disappointing restaurant versions often are.

Before that, though, poetry.  It's been awhile since I've inflicted poetry on you.  Too long, actually.  I discovered Naomi Shihab Nye's onion poem a few years ago in graduate school.  Someone brought it to my Facilitation and Group Dynamics class as an illustration of what a good facilitator does--"For the sake of others, disappear."  But I've just given away the punchline.  Let's let it speak for itself:

The Traveling Onion
"It is believed that the onion originally came from India. In Egypt it was an object of worship-why I haven't been able to find out. From Egypt the onion entered Greece and on to Italy, thence into all of Europe."--Better Living Cookbook

When I think how far the onion has traveled
just to enter my stew today, I could kneel and praise
all small forgotten miracles,
crackly paper peeling on the drainboard,
pearly layers in smooth agreement,
the way knife enters onion
and onion falls apart on the chopping block,
a history revealed.

And I would never scold the onion
for causing tears.
It is right that tears fall
for something small and forgotten.
How at meal, we sit to eat,
commenting on the texture of meat or herbal aroma
but never on the translucence of onion,
now limp, now divided,
or its traditionally honorable career:
For the sake of others,
disappear.

--Naomi Shihab Nye

This poem was written for me--the cook in me, the facilitator in me, the newly minted photographer and observer that notices "the way knife enters onion."  Everything begins with an onion.  They're so central to everything, but in a back-of-the-house kind of way.  My mom says that, if she doesn't have onions in the house, there's nothing she can cook.

And disappearing for the sake of others--they do that!  They melt into the sauce, stew, or risotto so herbs or meat can shine. I've got a lot to learn about disappearing for the sake of others.  Certainly there are times that don't call for disappearing (and I'm a self-proclaimed ham), but there are lots and lots of times when disappearing is the kindest, wisest thing to do.  The more I can flavor something without overtaking it, the better my relationships, my work, my presence in the world.

I love French Onion Soup because it gives the lowly onion its due.  For once, it's not being asked to disappear, to collaborate. It's front and center, hamming it up.  Melted Gruyére and broth-soaked bread don't hurt, either.  And I love to see Yancey eat it, head bent, slurping and content.

French Onion Soup
Serves six, with maybe a little bit of leftovers.  Adapted from the Gourmet cookbook.  I don't think French Onion Soup is worth eating without the cheese and toast on top, but neither do I like the soup to be totally obliterated by the cheese and bread.  If you are into making your own beef broth, you certainly can.  I'd rather spend my time reading food blogs.

12 fresh parsley stems
1 ts. dried thyme
12 black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
4 Tb. unsalted butter
2 Tb. olive oil
3 lbs. onions, thinly sliced
salt
freshly ground pepper
pinch of sugar
4 Tb. flour
10 c. beef stock
2/3 c. dry vermouth
4 Tb. Cognac or other brandy
4 ts. Wrocestershire sauce, or to taste

For topping:
olive oil
6 slices artisan bread
2 c. grated Gruyére
handful fresh thyme, finely chopped

Tie parsley stems, thyme, peppercorns, and bay leaves in a small square of cheescloth with a string to make a boquet garni.

Melt butter and oil in a large, heavy stockpot over moderately love heat.  Add onions, salt, and pepper and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft, about 20 minutes.  Add sugar increase heat to moderate, and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until onions are golden brown, 15-18 minutes.

Add flour to cook, stirring, for 3 minutes.  Stir in stock, vermouth, bouquet garni, and salt and pepper to taste and bring to a boil, stirring,  Reduce heat, partially cover, and simmer, skimming off froth occasionally, for 30 minutes.  Discard bouquet garni.  Stir in cognac and worcestershire sauce.

To Gratinée and Serve:
Fry both sides of bread slices in olive oil over medium high heat until golden, about 2 minutes per side.

Ladle soup into ovenproof bowls and top each with a  slice of fried bread and handful of grated Gruyére.  Broil 4-6" from heat until cheese is golden, about one minute.  Scatter fresh thyme over the top.

If you're using an ovenproof stockpot and feeding a crowd, you can also gratinée the whole darn thing and serve from the pot.