When I was a kid, my parents and grandparents would take me out to eat all the time. My grandmother’s rule was something along the lines of “there is nothing that can’t be taken off the stove or out of the oven and put in the fridge for tomorrow”. She was a fan of restaurants.
I can recall going to all kinds of restaurants with them- French, Asian, Spanish…- and I can recall that particular brand of panic when I would look at the menu and not recognize any of the food. It’s a strange feeling, one that I have had once in a while since, to be worried about what you might eat. On the other hand, I always ate well with them and I am certain that this exposure to all difference kinds of flavors, spices and tastes made me the adventurous eater I am today.
At any rate, one of the dishes I tried as a kid was french onion soup. Which I detested. Too dark, too rich, too bitter, too alcohol-y. It was years before I tried it again. But when I did, whoa boy! I loved it for all the same reasons I hated it before. Tastes change as you age, I suppose.
I’ve made French Onion Soup before and I’ve always used beef broth. Which is not something I generally have on hand so I have to make a special trip. So I was intrigued when I read the no-broth soup recipe which is Michael Ruhlman’s but I found on Alexandra Cooks.
When I tell you that this soup is sweet and rich and full despite the use of water instead of stock, I am not lying. No one who ate it missed the beef broth. The one downside is that it takes several hours for the onions to cook down but even that is pretty low-maintenance. Plus, the onions end up so sweet and so supple that I found it hard to stop taking spoonfuls so that there would be enough for soup. Even the husband, who is not a fan of onions, soup or meat-less fare, liked this soup. Make it. You won’t regret it.
Beef-less Onion Soup
1 tablespoon butter
crusty bread- baguette or some such
cheese for the top- Gruyère is traditional but really, how can you go wrong with cheese?
Optional- 1/3 cup sherry, a few spoonfuls of balsamic vinegar and red wine
Peel and chop your onions. I used my food processes with the slicing (not chopping) blade. Melt the butter in a large stock pot over medium heat. Add the onions and sprinkle them with about two teaspoons of salt.
Let them cook for a few minutes over medium heat, while they soften and lose some of the water. Cover them and let them cook for about 30 minutes or so. Then turn the heat down to medium-low or low (you’ll have to play with this. I left mine at low for several hours but it was a little too low and I had to bump up the heat in the last half hour) and uncover them. Let the onions cook for several hours. Stir them occasionally. They’ll transform from this:
Basically, you want them to get all melty and sweet and darker but not to burn or overly brown. You’re caramelizing them and it is so. good. Once they get to this point, season them with some pepper. Try not to eat them straight from the pot.
Add about 4-6 cups of water to the pan. Turn up the heat and allow it to come to a simmer. Then turn the heat down and add the sherry, wine and vinegar to taste. I used some sherry but, I have to say, the next time I make it, I may not bother.
Top with a piece of bread and cheese.