The first time I encountered French Onion Soup was in a fine dining Italian restaurant in one of the western suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, where I started working as a waitress right after my extremely unsuccessful stint as a security guard at a local skiing hot spot*. I considered myself suave and sophisticated, well-traveled and well-read, a connoisseur of good food and fine libations – and what 22 year old youth from a good family does not think that?
The restaurant served different soups on different days, but not always on the same day. The CIA-educated owner and chef liked to surprise his patrons, and predictability was not his game. My arrogance crumbled when I tried to pronounce Mulligatawny Soup and remember all its ingredients. French Onion Soup was a gimme after that, and as I faked nonchalance, I scrambled the best I could to figure out its essence.
I had bowls and bowls of the soup which seduced me from the first spoonful, but I still could not replicate it at home. Every question I posed to the owner was received with a crooked grin, but I did not give up. Those were the days when I experimented with cooking, not because I loved it, but because I was stubborn and did not like to be defeated. I considered cooking one of the shackles of a modern woman, determined that I would master the skill only to hide it from anyone around me, afraid that it would glue me to the stove for eternity.
There was no Google in those days and when I visited my local library, I brought home dozens of books, none of which pertained to cooking. I observed the cooks at work and I watched PBS cooking shows for ideas and explanations. I still did not understand the processes and chemistry behind the art of cooking, and my culinary puzzle lacked a lot of pieces. But I was determined to learn, even if it entailed me relying on my senses, as I closed my eyes and envisioned the ingredients that went into this soup, or any other dish I wanted to make at home.
On the day I pulled it off, I danced around my kitchen, the first kitchen that was truly mine, the kitchen I did not have to share with anyone else, competent or incompetent. I had a pot of French onion soup simmering on my stove, the croutons were ready to meet the cheese, and the only person I had to please was myself – not that it was an easy task, but at least I knew no one was out there determined to keep me bound to that stove.
The first time Father visited back in the 90s, I made it for him, knowing that he is an epicurean eager to get acquainted with new tastes. And for him, just like for me, it was love at first bite. Every time he visited I knew how to make him happy: with a bottle of Courvoisier and a bowl of French onion soup.Mother was a natural in the kitchen and I could never compete with her accomplishments. But I had to assert myself and decided to do it in a non-threatening way, by learning how to cook the dishes that she was not familiar with. French onion soup was a simple, peasant fare that elevated a few cheap ingredients to a higher level and I managed to learn how to do it without looking at a recipe card.
He usually spends a few months with us in the U.S. every year. But Mother was fading fast last fall and he could not leave her side. We contacted the Embassy, implored, and explained the circumstances, all to no avail. Father lost his green card and we will not see him this year. I made French onion soup when my sister was here, but it was all for him, a pot prepared with more tears than mere onions could extract, a pot of melancholy and nostalgia and love and hope, and a vision of the next time I am able to welcome him to my home in Southern California.
He loves the ocean and I know that he would spend hours at the beach reminiscing about his youth spent on the coast of the Adriatic. I know that I cannot replace Mother in his life, nor in mine; but I know that I can offer him a bowl of sweet French onion soup topped with crispy, cheesy croutons that will take his mind off sorrow and make him realize that life still goes on and he will never be alone.
*My parents built a chalet on one of the most beautiful Serbian mountains, Kopaonik, and the three of us, along with many of our friends and relatives spent innumerable hours on the slopes throughout the years; the mere thought of a ski “resort” built on top of a filled-in city garbage dump made me scratch my head in bewilderment, even though I had to admire the beauty of that practical solution.
FRENCH ONION SOUP – JUST LIKE THE DOCTOR ORDERED
I have prepared this soup many, many times, using various combinations of onions: yellow, red, white, green, even shallots and leeks. Each time the final product was a little bit different, but equally sweet with several deep layers of flavor.
- 1 Tbsp butter
- 1 Tbsp sunflower oil (or any other oil of your choice)
- 3 large onions, halved and sliced thinly
- 1 tsp coarse salt
- ½ tsp freshly ground pepper
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
- ½ cup white wine (a few times I used dry vermouth when I was out of wine, and it tasted great)
- 1 quart beef (or veal) stock (I make my own, but you can certainly use store bought; just make sure that it is low-sodium); vegetable stock is an option for vegetarians and my fellow Serbs who observe the days of fasting
- 3 slices crusty country bread, cubed*
- 4oz Gruyere (any cheese will do, as long as it melts well), sliced thinly; for Serbian Orthodox fast, use dairy-free cheese
- parsley for garnish
*I used to toast whole slices of country bread, but they always turned soggy and drank up all of the liquid from the soup. Thatâ€™s why I decided to switch to croutons.
Heat a Dutch oven or a sturdy soup pot on medium-low temperature and add butter and oil. When melted, pour in all of the sliced onions. Season with salt and pepper, and sautee until golden brown and caramelized, 45-60 minutes, stirring occasionally. If the onions start to burn, add 1 Tbsp of water. After 30 minutes add garlic.
When the onions are browned, stir in flour and mix for 1 minute. Pour the wine and stir to deglaze the pan. Increase the temperature to medium-high, and add the stock. When it boils, turn the heat down to medium-low, cover, and simmer for another 15 minutes.
While the soup is simmering, preheat the oven to 350F and lightly oil a cookie sheet. Place bread cubes on it in one layer and bake until golden brown and crispy.
Increase the heat to broil.
Ladle the soup in oven-proof individual bowls, top with croutons and lay slices of cheese over them. Place the bowls on a cookie sheet and put under the broiler for 30-60 seconds, just to melt the cheese (use the oven mittens when handling the hot bowls). Sprinkle with parsley and serve.