I made it surprisingly far through life without thinking deeply about onions. It took an acid trip in college, during which I watched my friend Wayne fry an onion that had been cut in half. We stood transfixed as it slowly melted in the pan. I could feel that it was a profound moment, but it would be years before I understood the onion’s many layers of flavor and its fundamental importance to cooking.
The power of an onion is enhanced by its dual personality. While a well-cooked onion gives its flavor selflessly, bringing harmony to a dish, raw onion is about contrast. Its presence is more of a fiery assault by an army of white lightsabers.
Sometimes I find myself running to the cutting board, mid-chew on a delicious mouthful of food, where there is always an onion in some state of disrepair — hopefully a juicy salad onion. I’ll add a piece to my mouthful to enjoy the raw onion’s sharp, sweet flavor and crunchy texture.
When cooking for my son, who purports to hate onions, mincing is mandatory so they disappear completely into the dish. His little brother, who is the chef in the family, acknowledges the value of an onion that’s “cooked for a very long time.” Generations of French onion soup makers agree.
Legend has it French onion soup was invented in a hunting cabin, by the king, of course, when he discovered the cupboard bare of everything but onions and bread. If that wasn’t really what happened, it could have been. Nobody should be surprised when an onion carries the day. Especially an onion that’s cooked for a very long time.
Recently, in the kitchen of the old chef who taught me how to cut an onion, I watched him prepare an eggplant-and-tomato recipe into which onions would disappear. Forgotten but not gone, those onions would hold together the flavor with an unseen force more likely to be missed than appreciated.
I asked the chef, “If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one vegetable … ”
“I would take the onion,” he said gravely before I could finish.
French onion soup
Although the cooking time is brief, this soup takes time to prepare. It’s perfect for a cold winter day, when the process can heat the entire house.
French onion soup is traditionally served au gratin, which means “with a browned crust.” Many cooks add cheese to the gratin, which I think confuses the issue since there is already so much butter. Whether you toast the bread under the broiler as directed here or dip your untoasted bread as my kids do, bread just goes with this dish. I prefer white, crusty sourdough.
The soup is traditionally made with beef stock, but chicken and veggie work as well, as do mushroom and clam stocks. Onions play well with everything. When it’s done, you’ll have an onion stock that will be useful as a soup base for other dishes, to deglaze a pan and anything else you would do with a dark, sweet stock full of earthy flavors.
Place the onions on a cookie sheet and bake them at 300 degrees, flat-side down in butter, “for a very long period of time,” as my young chef will sometimes say.
Add a half cup of wine every hour. When the onions begin to melt, use a spatula or wooden spoon to press down and smear apart the layers. After about three hours, when they are deliciously sweet and browned but not burnt, transfer the onions and all pan juices to a pot of stock. Add bay leaves and herbs and the rest of the wine and simmer for about three hours, seasoning with salt and pepper as it cooks.
At serving time, heat the onion broth under the broiler in personal-sized bowls. Slice the baguette, butter the slices and set aside. When the soup is hot, add the bread, buttered sides up, and broil until they are toasted. Garnish with raw onion.
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