Sunday, January 25, 2009

Julia's Last Supper

My babies weren't very good eaters; that is to say, they were very good drinkers (they loved mama's milk) but baby food, not so much. In fact, I was very shocked when my second born son, reached over to my plate and grabbed a handful of mashed potatoes and shoved them in his mouth. He was about 6 months old, and never really had solid food before. Evidently, he wanted real flavor, and a little bit of texture too. I quickly discovered that he preferred "real" food to baby food and when I did try to feed him baby food, even the organic homemade stuff, he gagged and spit it out. So I wasn't very surprised that this same son, not much older, gleefully gobbled down the French Onion Soup that my mom and I often ordered at our weekly lunch date. He would actually scream, his little feet swiftly paddling under his highchair, until we put another spoonful in his mouth. I'm happy to report that in those 9 years not much has changed, and he is still my most adventurous eater.

Tonight, I decided to try an old favorite for dinner, French Onion Soup. Simple to make, yet exquisitely complex in flavor, it was considered poor person's food in days of old for good reason; the only thing it required was some stock (or bones to make it), and onions. Of course, topping it with crusty french bread with a slab of Gruyere cheese, elevates it to something special. The quality of the stock is important, however what really gives this soup its rich color and flavor is the caramelizing of the onions.

After perusing many variations of this recipe, I decided upon Julia Child's, mostly because I already had all the ingredients on hand. Afterwards, when I was doing a bit of research on the soup, I learned that French Onion Soup was Julia's last meal before passing away peacefully in her sleep (not from food poisoning, but rather kidney failure and old age). I also learned that it was probably invented by Louis XIV or XV and is a long-lost cousin of sop (a hearty bread soaked in broth that was eaten in the Middle Ages). Now that the history lesson is complete, on to the recipe!

French Onion Soup
adapted from Julia Child's recipe

2 1/2 pounds of onions, thinly sliced
4 T butter
1 T olive oil
1 t salt
1 t sugar
1 T flour
1/4 C Cognac
1 C dry white wine (something you would drink)
2 quarts (8 C) rich beef stock (or vegetable stock or a combination of veal and beef)
4 slices of sourdough bread
4 thin slabs of Gruyere cheese

Melt butter together with olive oil in a large, heavy stockpot over medium heat. Saute onions for about five minutes, covered, until they begin to soften. Uncover, add salt and sugar, and continue to saute (still uncovered), until onions are a deep walnut color, about 30 minutes. Add flour and stir well and continue to saute for a couple of minutes to make sure everything is incorporated. Add Cognac, wine and stock. Bring to a simmer, reduce heat to low, cover loosely and cook for about 1 1/2 hours.

When soup is almost done, set oven to broil and toast bread for a couple of minutes on each side under the broiler. Ladle soup into oven-proof bowls and top with toasted bread, then cheese. Place bowls on a baking sheet and broil about 2-3 minutes, or until cheese is bubbly and beginning to brown. Make sure that the tops of the bowls are about 6 inches from the flames of the broiler.

Serve with a simple baby greens salad dressed in a French Vinaigrette, of course.

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