Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Delicious, easy "French Peasant" onion soup

Earlier today, Mary pointed out David Tanis’s City Kitchen column in today’s New York Times Food Section, “What the Tipsy Peasant Knew,” and we both knew it would be dinner tonight. When I posted about it on my Facebook page, a chorus of quick responses confirmed the impression that there's something seductive going on here.

Tanis's introduction set the tone, and seemed to get everyone's taste buds working:
"... it’s hard to find a proper soupe á l’oignon in Paris. But you may find a lackluster onion soup gratinée on every tourist menu, served bubbling away with gooey cheese. On the other hand, a really good homemade version is wonderful, and you don’t have to be hung over to enjoy it. Even when eaten sober, onion soup is an excellent antidote to blustery, cold weather."
Tanis writes that he learned the dish from Chef Jacques Pépin, who focused on its simple peasant origins, making it meat-free, for instance, with “Château [Jacques]  Chirac,” ordinary tap water, in place of the customary beef broth.

Amazingly - although perhaps not so much, given Pépin’s skills - the dish turned out deep, rich and “meaty” in spite of its exceptionally simple and fully meat-free cast of characters.

I made it for dinner tonight, following Tanis’s recipe fairly faithfully, or about as faithfully as I can ever do a recipe that grabs my attention. Okay, so I reduced it to one-third of its published proportions to make dinner for two. I did omit the sage, which didn’t feel right, and added a bit of tomato paste and a tiny dash of soy sauce to kick up the umami component, Finally, I found that 20 minutes of simmering was more than ample, no need for the 45-minute simmer called for.  

Still, for all practical purposes I stuck with The Times’ recipe, and I can testify that it’s a keeper. 

You can click here for The Times’ original, or follow my slightly modified version for six below.

Red Onion Soup With Cheese Toasts
By David Tanis
The New York Times
Serves two
Total time: about 1 hour


2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pounds sweet yellow onions, peeled and sliced thin, about 1/8-inch thick
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup dry red wine (I used a Chianti that I had handy; a Cotes-du-Rhone would also be good)
1 bay lead
Small bunch fresh thyme, tied with string
3 fat garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 tablespoons brandy (this Kentuckian substituted Bourbon)
2 slices slightly stale Pepperidge Farm white bread
2 ounces grated Gruyère or Emmentaler

  1. Heat the olive oil in a large black-iron skillet. Put in the sliced onions, seasoned with salt and pepper, then sauté, stirring occasionally, until they are a ruddy dark brown, about 10 minutes.
  2. Pour 1/4 cup water into the pan to deglaze, scraping with a wooden spoon to dissolve any brown bits.
  3. Turn heat to high and add the red wine, bay leaf, thyme bunch and garlic. Simmer rapidly for 5 minutes, then add 2 3/4 cups water and return to a boil. Turn heat down to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook for 20 minutes or so. Taste and adjust seasoning. (May be prepared to this point up to 2 days in advance.)
  4. Make the cheese toasts: Lightly toast the bread slices. Then heap each with  about 1 ounce of the cheese, top with black pepper, and broil (I used a toaster oven) until the cheese bubbles and browns slightly. 
  5. Stir the brandy (or Bourbon)  into soup, if desired, and simmer a moment or two more. Remove the thyme and the bay leaf.  Ladle soup into wide bowls and slide a slice of the cheese-topped toast into each bowl.
We served it with the rest of the Chianti and enjoyed every last drop.