Why Not Cook?

Long time readers of my much-reduced Twitter feed will remember the constant deluge of food photographs I once posted there in the evenings. It was a catalogue of food I was cooking at the time, a mixture of whim and the limitations of my own refrigerator.

Truth be told, it was fun — but I’d stopped posting it to the public some time ago. Things were heating up in pundit-land, and it seemed odd, to say the least, to be posting about food at the same time I was also writing about national security issues and arguing with people about the minutae of news coverage.

That time has passed, however. I’m settling into my new job, and I’m actually cooking even more than I did before. So it struck me: why not scratch the “itch” I still have to keep writing by cataloguing the food I make? Food blogs are one of the great indulgences of the Internet, and one of the only types of blogs I have bothered to read in recent years.

I will make one promise, too: the photography will be blah. I do not own a fancy camera (at the best, I have a mid-range point and shoot I’ve used on research trips), and around 99% of all my food photographs are hastily-snapped on my phone after I’m done cooking. I don’t have the patience for staging or for only doing this during the day when the lighting is just so.

So with that apology out of the way, I want to explain how to make an onion soup.

The most important thing for onion soup is patience.

And I just don’t mean waiting around for the onions to brown — there’s a trick to that as well. But the patience to actually follow the recipe properly, to ignore the Julia Child-esque pleas for beef stock, to work in small batches, and then to let it simmer long enough for the stock to reduce slightly. Proper onion soup doesn’t need beef flavor, and this has the bonus of being vegetarian if you care about that.

I took a Jaques Pepin recipe for this soup, as told to David Tanis in a recent article. I didn’t quite follow it exactly, and it showed: I wasn’t quite patient enough, and the flavors did not develop sufficiently. Furthermore, I do not suggest cooking the onions at as high a heat as Pepin says; I tried that and the onions overcooked. In addition, I made this into a smaller batch — I don’t need to serve six people at a time with soup, so I cut it down to serve four very nicely.

You need to cook the onions in very small batches, with lots of room in the pan for them to move around. In the traditional recipe, you dump all of them into a pot and stir them around on low for like an hour. This is a bit ridiculous; you can accomplish the same thing in two pans over higher heat, in batches, and in far less time overall.

Olive oil
3 large red onions
Salt and pepper
1 cup dry red wine
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon chopped sage
8 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons brandy
Bread, for the toasts
4 ounces gruyère or comté

Prepare the onions: slice each in half longitudinally through the root and peel the skins. Chop two thin slices from each end (the root and the blossom). Cut crosswise into thin slices, about one-eighth of an inch thick. Heat two non-stick frying pans over medium heat and add a good glug of olive oil to each. put a handful of sliced onions into each and season with a small dash of salt and pepper. Stir them every minute or so until they’re a dark brown. Scrape the caramelized onions into a soup pot, then deglaze the pans with a splash of water and use a wooden spoon to scrape up any brown bits. pour everything into the soup pot. Repeat with the oil and more onions.

Work slowly. It will take around twenty-five to thirty minutes to brown all the onions. Once they’re done, there should be a pile of caramelized onions and water in the pot. Roughly chop the eight cloves of garlic to less than one-half inch of size, and add them to the pot. Put the pot over high heat and boil for five minutes. With the heat on high, add the wine plus the dried thyme, sage, and bay leaves. Add around a quart of water, a teaspoon of brown sugar, and a teaspoon of salt. Bring it back to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook for forty-five minutes.

Kill the heat, then taste the soup. Make sure it has the right mixture of salt, pepper, and sweetness both from the onions and the sugar. Adjust so it tastes deep, for lack of a better word. It should be a strong, yet pleasant onion flavor with just enough salt to taste savory without tasting salty (many recipes over-salt their stocks). At this stage, you can cool down the soup and store it, tightly sealed in the refrigerator, for a few days if you need to.

When you’re ready to serve, turn on the broiler to high. Grate the cheese and toss with a teaspoon of pepper. Slice a few pieces of bread — enough to cover the top of whatever soup bowl, ramekin, or cup you’re using to serve. Toast the bread briefly under the broiler, maybe sixty seconds per side. Remove from the broiler, then pile each toast with the cheese to fully cover the top — you want it to be in serious danger of dribbling down the side (and if it actually does so in the broiler, even better). Place the cheese-topped toasts back under the broiler for about ninety seconds or so, until they’re bubbly and starting to brown.

Add two glugs of brandy to the soup (around two tablespoons). Ladle the soup into your serving vessel, then top with the cheesy toasts.

Eat at once, though if you wait for the bread to soak up the onion stock and become soggy it’s also delicious.

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