Posted by johngl
Some folks say that one should never mess with tradition.
I’m not one of those people, so, when it came time to decide on a soup for a simple gathering at our home, I reached for my homemade beef stock.
Traditional French onion soup is made with the onions actually in the soup. The croûtes are usually in there, too, with lots of melty cheese dripping over the edge of the bowls. It’s crunchy, gooey, salty, oniony, beefy goodness.
Quite frankly, the main reasons I went the deconstructed route is that the beef stock I made came from pan-seared beef shank marrow bones came out so delightfully clear, I didn’t have the heart to muddy it up.
I started with a couple of packages of these:
Without seasoning them, they got arranged in a seriously hot pan and browned until nearly burnt.
You may note that the marrow is now missing. Yep. When I turned them, the marrow got separated out for use later.
Some call bone marrow beef butter. It contains a lot of fat, but it also contains that umami flavor: the essence of beef.
Anyway, took those nicely browned bits of beef shank and put them in my stock pot. In this shot, I have already browned the aromatics — some onions, carrots, and celery — the essential ingredients in any stock.
The bones shown here are knuckles. They provide a little extra body to the stock. My formula is 1/3 knuckles and 2/3 marrow bones.
I added water slowly, a quart at a time, until it came up to temperature (a simmer). You’ll want to be careful and not allow this to come to a rolling boil because that riles up the proteins and make your stock cloudy. While it tastes good, it just doesn’t look as pretty.
Once the pot was topped off with the last of the bones and just covered with water, I allowed it to simmer for at least 12 hours. I tend to let mine go for 24 hours, keeping the flame as low as it will go just to keep things barely at a simmer.
While that was doing its thing, I turned to getting the onions prepped.
This is from three large sweet, white onions, about a pound each. That is a 14″ pan, so it’s a pretty big pile of O in there. I started with just a couple of tablespoons of grapeseed oil in the pan, then just a sprinkling of salt to help get the water out of onions.
I reduced them over low-to-medium heat, stirring frequently to prevent burning, until they hit golden brown.
This takes a while…around 45 minutes for this batch.
I have a little trick that makes it easier and doesn’t require constant stirring and attention: I cover the pan. The steaming action allows the onion water to accumulate in the pan. When I go to stir (every ten minutes or so), I crank the heat and boil off the accumulated water, then turn the heat way down, put the lid on, and let them steam some more. Less and less water comes out the closer you get to the end. Just make sure you don’t burn them.
Also, make sure to use sweet onions. Notice that these are white, like Vidalias. But, since these are from Texas instead of Georgia, they can’t call them Vidalia onions. These are just Texas Sweet Onions.
Yellow onions just don’t work well here. I think their sulfur content is just too high.
Once your onions are at the peak of sweetness (that golden brown color), put them in a food processor and give them a couple of pulses. The onions are really soft, so they blend into a fairly smooth paste rather quickly.
Give them a taste.
These particular onions were some of the sweetest I have ever encountered. It was as though I was eating onion preserves of some sort. Take note, there is no added sugar to this, just onion, a tiny bit of oil, and about two pinches of salt.
Back to the stock for a minute. When it has completed its required cooking time, carefully strain out the liquid and make sure you don’t press it through a strainer. Just let the liquid pour off the bones and vegetable remnants.
I ran mine through finer and finer strainers: large mesh, medium mesh, and then my ultra-fine chinois (pronounced sheen-wah). I was tempted to throw in a Charlie Sheen joke there, but decided that is now passe.
Once it is strained, its time to reduce it to concentrate the flavors. Its okay to bring it up to a low boil now, just to speed things up a bit. If proteins form into a raft on top, just skim them off. The color should be a rich clear brown and not-at-all cloudy. While this isn’t a true consomme, I think it has a much beefier flavor and it is still pretty. Thomas Keller (I think) said that for a true consomme, you should be able to read the dates off a dime resting on the bottom of the bowl. I didn’t try it to check, but I like the extra unctuousness that collagen gives my stock even though clarity suffers a bit.
Now is the time to put that bone marrow into a pan and melt them down to release the fat. Deglaze the pan with some of that beef stock, run that through your strainers, then dump the result back into the reduced stock. Separate off the fat, and you are good to go with the stock. Add seasonings as you see fit.
So, anyway, now we have reduced and de-fatted stock and onion spread all teed up. To finish out, cut some French bread (on the bias) into 3/4″ slices, butter both sides and toast them until a light colored crust appears. Schmear on some of that onion (don’t be skimpy), and top with some coarsely grated Gruyere cheese. If you have a toaster oven, set it to broil and melt the cheese until it gets all bubbly. You can do this in a regular oven as well, just pay really close attention to it.
Pre-warm the soup bowls by pouring in some boiling water and allow it to sit for a few minutes, dump the water, then add the soup. Put the piping hot crouton next to the bowl, and serve it up.
When you are ready to eat, just dunk the end of the crouton into the soup and take a bite. The sweetness of the onion really comes through. There’s the fat from the cheese and a resounding crunch. And its not-at-all gooey. The soup, by itself, was incredibly beefy-tasting. With the amount of slurping that was going on, I’d say this was a great success.
When you are in the mood for something just barely outside the realm of tradition, deconstruct the original by breaking things into component parts and enjoy the individual flavors and textures.
And doesn’t deconstructed just sound cool?