Thursday, November 3, 2011

French Onion Soup: An Exercise in Improvisation

The finished product.
I'm not an "improv" type of person. When I was in band back in high school, you'd never catch me making up a jazzy solo on an instrument; I stuck to the music. The same goes for cooking; I follow the recipe.

The problem is that I'm no longer cooking for the 4-6 people most recipes serve. I'm usually just cooking for myself so a lot of my favorite recipes have to be pared down, and sometimes you just have to do away with the recipe altogether.

Hence, this afternoon's improvisation: French onion soup.

I had some beef broth left over from last week's Italian wedding soup, so when I came across this super simple recipe for French onion soup from The Kitchn, I decided to use it up. My recipe is a conglomeration of the above and this one from How to Cook Like Your Grandmother (and maybe a few others mixed in).

Excuse the lack of precise measurements--this is improv, after all.

French Onion Soup (serves one very hungry grad student)


1 medium onion, sliced into thin strips
2 tbsp butter
Some minced garlic and/or other seasonings
A pinch of salt (if your butter is salted I would skip this)
A splash of wine
Some beef broth
Some water

Optional (for topping): Bread, Cheese

Add broth, bring to a boil, and simmer.
  1. Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions, salt (if using), and garlic/seasonings.
  2. Choose to stir or not stir. Some recipes say to give everything a quick stir right away to coat it in butter, while others say to let it be and stir once the onions start to turn translucent.
  3. Cook the onions, stirring occasionally, until they caramelize and turn a nice brown color. The Kitchn says to not let the onions burn; Cook Like Your Grandmother says it's ok if some of them burn a little. Choose your own adventure.
  4. Remove the pan from the heat, add a splash of wine, and stir. (Most recipes say to use a dry wine, but I used white zinfandel and it was fine.) Return to the stove and cook for a few minutes until most of the liquid is gone.
  5. Add the beef broth. I had about 1 1/2 cups, so I added that with half a cup of water.
  6. Bring the soup to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until it has reduced and looks good to eat. (The Kitchn recommends at least half and hour; I could only wait about 20 minutes). Season with salt and pepper if necessary.
  7. Optional: Toast a piece of bread in the oven/toaster oven until sufficiently toasty. You want to dry it out as much as possible without burning it. Put soup in an oven-safe bowl, top with the "crouton" and cheese (I used provolone) and put it under the broiler or in the toaster oven until the cheese has melted.
The Verdict: Despite the fact that I was very impatient and didn't simmer the soup as long as I probably should have, this was pretty decent French onion soup and it filled me up.

Things I'd Do Differently:
  • Don't burn the onions. Really, don't. You will later taste the burned, charred bits in your soup (which is not something I particularly care for--maybe you're ok with it, though). Perhaps the taste would have been diminished with a longer simmer time.
  • Use "good" bread for the crouton. The Kroger Lite Wheat sandwich bread was ok, but it got very soggy very fast. This would have been better with a denser, crustier bread.
So, there you have it. An improvised soup easily adapted to whatever you have on hand, as long as that includes onions and some kind of broth. Cheap, simple, and pretty darn delicious.

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