- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Whenever winter approaches, my thoughts turn to soup. I love soup. It lifts you up more than any other dish, satisfying taste buds, body and soul in equal measure. Even better, most soups are so easy to make. Choose the right one, prepare enough, and you don’t even have to cook anything else for lunch or dinner.

The best example of this principle I can think of is France’s classic onion soup. Although soupe a l’oignon has ancestors in country kitchens across that country, and most certainly in onion-loving Lyons, it achieved its greatest fame in the old Les Halles public market of Paris. There, humble cafes prepared the soup very early in the morning to sustain the market workers. Word about such delicious soup spread, and Parisians from all walks of life would stop at Les Halles at 4 a.m. to pick themselves up after a long night out on the town. I certainly ate my share of onion soup that way during my early days as a chef in Paris.

Befitting its humble origins, French onion soup is simplicity itself to cook. The secret to its rich flavor comes from cooking the onions slowly until their natural sugars caramelize, turning them deep golden brown. In fact, some of the most basic versions of the recipe get their flavor and color from the onions alone, adding only water to the pot. I prefer chicken broth, as in the recipe that follows, although you could substitute water for half of the broth and still get outstanding flavor.

One of onion soup’s most beloved features is the crust of cheese-topped French bread that covers each bowl. Gruyere or another Swiss variety is used most often, though you’ll also get delicious results from any favorite melting cheese such as mozzarella or fontina, perhaps mixed with freshly grated Parmesan. For the most authentic presentation, you’ll need the individual-serving, deep, heavy earthenware or porcelain French-style bowls called marmites, which resist the broiler’s heat.

If you want to serve onion soup to a crowd, however, don’t despair over not having enough marmites or sufficient space under your broiler. Instead, multiply the recipe’s quantities to get as many servings as you’ll need. When the soup is almost done simmering, arrange the dried or toasted bread slices on a baking sheet, top them with the cheese and broil. Then, ladle the soup into whatever bowls you have and float these cheese croutons on top.

That, in fact, is what we do at Spago early in the morning following our annual New Year’s Eve party, using soup we’ve made several hours ahead. So, keep both this tip and the recipe in mind come your own celebrations two weeks from now .

FRENCH ONION SOUP

Serves 6

3 tablespoons mild-flavored vegetable oil, such as safflower oil

4 medium onions, thinly sliced

1/2 cup Port

8 cups good-quality canned chicken broth

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 sprig fresh thyme

1 bay leaf

1 stalk celery

12 slices French bread, about 1/4 inch thick

2 cups shredded Swiss or Gruyere cheese

In a 6-quart stockpot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the sliced onions and saute them, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until golden brown, taking care not to let them burn, about 15 minutes.

Pour the Port into the pot and stir and scrape to deglaze. Add the broth and salt and pepper to taste. Nestle the thyme and bay leaf inside the hollow of the celery stalk and, using kitchen string, wind around them several times and tie a secure knot to hold them together; add this bouquet garni to the pot.

Raise the heat and bring the liquid to a boil. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer and cook, partially covered, until the onions are very tender and the broth is flavorful, 30 to 40 minutes.

While the soup is simmering, arrange the bread slices on a baking sheet. Set the oven to its lowest temperature and bake the bread until the slices feel dry to the touch but haven’t yet browned, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove the bread from the baking sheet. Preheat the broiler, setting an oven rack about 8 inches below the heat source.

Arrange 6 deep ovenproof serving bowls on the baking sheet. Ladle the soup into them, distributing the onions evenly. Top each bowl with 2 slices of bread and sprinkle with cheese. Carefully place the baking sheet under the broiler and broil until the cheese is melted and nicely browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Carefully remove the baking sheet from the oven, transfer each bowl to an individual serving plate, and serve immediately with more French bread for dunking.

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