The power of water joins the power of onion in what may be one of the best soups in the Western canon. The soup deserves this high praise not only because it’s delicious and satisfying, but because it was borne out of economy. This is a peasant soup, made from onions, a scrap of old bread, some grated cheese, and water. Season with salt and whatever wine is on hand or some vinegar. Do not be tempted to use stock! Even if it’s really good homemade stock, it will detract from the economy of the dish, which can easily become too heavy and cloying. (And please don’t add the canned stuff. How many onion soups have been trashed by adding store-bought broth? A fair share in my kitchen until I learned how to use water.)
I’ve never seen a recipe for onion soup that didn’t use stock or broth, and yet this changes the soup completely—it becomes beef-onion soup or chicken-onion soup. I could not find a historical basis for my conviction until I began researching a specific style of bistro in Lyon, France, called a bouchon (boo-SHOHN). There are only about twenty of these restaurants in Lyon, and they serve a very distinct, country-style, family-meal menu. At some, you sit at communal tables, and platters are passed from table to table. What I like about bouchons is that they serve elemental, efficient food. It had to be, as a husband and wife usually worked the place. I spoke with a journalist in Lyon, an expert on the subject of
Plan ahead when making the soup because the onions take a long time to cook down, from a few hours to as many as five if you keep the heat very low, though you need to pay attention only at the beginning and the end. Before the onions caramelize, they’ll release copious amounts of water (be sure to taste this liquid!), which must cook off first. You can simmer the onions hard if you want to reduce the cooking time; be sure to tend the pot and stir often, or the onions can stick and burn. You can also caramelize the onions a day or two in advance, and refrigerate them until needed. If you do this, the final soup can be finished in the time it takes to heat the water and melt the cheese on top.
Use a large pot, with a capacity of about
When the onions have completely cooked down, the water has cooked off, and the onions have turned amber—this will take several hours— add
Preheat the broiler/grill. Portion the soup into ovenproof bowls, float the bread on top, cover with the cheese, and broil/grill until the cheese is melted and nicely browned. Serve immediately.
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