Of course, I’m still a tad obsessed about all things French at the moment. I’m slowly working my way through blogging our travels back in April and May and I’m playing around with story ideas in my head.
Another thing that I’m doing is attempting to recreate some of the tastes that we experienced in France. That goes with the story ideas…naturally.
I expected the food to be good, but I also expected to be overwhelmed with way too much cream, butter and rich sauces that sat heavily on my tummy. What I didn’t expect – and probably should have – was the simplicity and seasonality we found and enjoyed.
F, the friend that we stayed with at Lille and road-tripped with for a couple of weeks, cooked a lovely meal on our first night in France that was quintessentially French – without a heavy sauce in sight. It was roast beef studded with garlic and herbs, painted with mustard and served with a roast potato and pea salad. For sweets, she doused some new season strawberries in crème de cassis and drizzled over some cream. Parfait et très français.
It was this menu that I wanted to play with for our Bastille Day dinner. Herby roast beef with potatoes roasted whole with garlic, rosemary and salt, and green beans with shallots and a simple mustard vinaigrette.
What I really wanted to start the meal with was onion soup or soupe a l’oignon – even though it can be almost a meal in itself. The last time I made it though, it was so deep and rich we couldn’t eat anything else afterwards. Plus the house reeked of onions. Having said that, it was a beer, onion and cheese soup – is there any wonder it was heavy?
Onion soup made the traditional way, though, is both a taste sensation and a labour of love.
Aussie author John Baxter attempted the traditional method of soupe a l’oignon when writing about it for his fabulous “The Perfect Meal: In Search of the Lost Tastes of France.” The beef stock itself took almost a day to cook, reduce and strain. Then the meticulously finely sliced onions were slowly caramelised – this part took another 40 minutes or so – before cognac was added and boiled off. A roux – butter and flour – then formed the base of the soup itself to which the jellied consommé from the previous day’s efforts was added. Cheese croutes completed the dish. After almost 2 days of labour, he got la soupe.
This recipe is much easier than that – it’s also the no tears version. You get the caramelised sweetness from the roasted onions without the (sometimes therapeutic) stirring, and the depth of taste without the heaviness of beer or beef stock.
Just take 4 onions, peel them and slice them in half from root to tip. Pop into a roasting tray with salt and pepper and dots of butter – about 40g – and put in an oven heated to 200C. Cook them until they’re dark and toasty on the outside and soft and tender on the inside. I turned them twice and cooked them for a total of 45 minutes.
Once they’re cool enough to handle, cut the onions into wedges and put in a saucepan with 1 cup of white wine. Let the wine bubble down to almost nothing and then pour in 1.5 litres of vegetable or chicken stock and allow it all to simmer happily for about 20 minutes.
Onion soup is usually served with cheese croutes – thinly sliced and toasted slices of baguette with gruyere or emmental or some other melting cheese floated on top of the soup. You’re supposed to toast the bread, top it with cheese, pop it on top of the soup and put it all under the griller until it’s bubbling and rustic, but I don’t know how my bowls will go under the griller, so I melt the cheese on the toast and put it in when it’s all done.
As for a photo? Sorry, I’m yet to master making beige soup look anywhere close to good.