Many variations of onion soup are served, but the best, I believe, are true to the traditions of the bistros in Paris neighborhoods. Certainly, each kitchen has its own preferences (and we will offer options as well), but each preparation requires following a few essential steps - slow and thorough browning of the onions, simmering the broth and onions sufficiently to allow full flavor to develop and, finally, time in the oven to intensify these flavors.
Although total preparation time is two hour or so, only the initial browning requires close attention. The soup can be made a day or two ahead, then reheated and baked just before serving. The results are worth the effort when compared to the pale onions and thin flavors which disappear under a thick layer of cheese in more common recipes.
For 6 - 8 servings:
Place a thick- bottomed pot (4 quart) over medium heat and add olive oil. Add onions and 1 teaspoon of salt. Mix onions with oil and salt, stirring until onions wilt. Turn heat to low and cook, stirring frequently until onions are a deep golden brown, approximately 30-40 minutes. Do not let tips of slices burn.
Add white wine and boil down until it is nearly evaporated. Add broth or water and bring to a simmer over medium heat, then turn down to low and simmer partially covered for 45 minutes. While soup is simmering, place bread slices on a sheet and place into a preheated 325-335 degree oven until toasted golden brown.
To serve, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Taste the broth and add salt and pepper to taste (little or no added salt may be necessary if canned broth was used). Add the ¼ cup of Cognac or other spirits, if using, and ladle soup into oven-proof bowls. Place a slice of bread into each bowl and divide the cheese among the bowls. Place a sheet pan into the oven and place soup bowls into pan. Bake until bubbling and cheese is slightly browned (20 -30 minutes).
If water is used, a lighter broth results, and highlights the rich onion flavor. Chicken stock adds depth to the soup, while beef broth produces the darkest, most dense version. Try them all and consider using half water and half broth. If you wish to avoid the cheese and bread, simmer the soup 5 or 10 minutes longer and skip the baking; it is served this way, as well. Serve any version with a mixed salad and enjoy a brief trip to a Paris bistro!
About The Author: An organic farmer and avid cook, writer Charlie Burke is the vice president of the New Hampshire Farmer's Market Association (www.nhfma.org). His column & recipes appear weekly in The Heart of New England's newsletter... get a free subscription by sending a blank email to: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.TheHeartofNewEngland.com
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