The idea of a secret ingredient is a funny one. I think it’s based on a modern American notion of shortcuts; the idea that instead of working hard to be successful, you can win the lottery or appear on a reality show or read the Cliff’s Notes and still pass your A.P. English exam (I did that actually: sorry, Hester Prynne). This American obsession with getting everywhere as quickly as possible, to FastPass your way to accomplishment, doesn’t translate well to cooking. Which is why, I think, so many Americans don’t cook. They’d rather fast food it, or frozen dinner it, than stand over a stove. And when they do stand over the stove, they want “quick tips” and “30 minute meals” and the magical, secret ingredient that’ll propel their dinner to greatness. But the truth is no one ingredient can propel your dinner to greatness; greatness comes with patience and practice, over time.
This is a recipe for French Onion soup with a secret ingredient: port wine. I’d only made French Onion soup once before and it didn’t hit the spot the way a great French Onion soup normally hits the spot. My favorite French Onion soup in the city, the one at Blue Ribbon, has a beguiling sweetness and acidity that threw me for a while. Now I’ve hit upon it at home and I have Anthony Bourdain’s recipe to thank (and Chow for posting it).
But just because there is a secret ingredient here (not just port wine but also, I should say, Balsamic vinegar) doesn’t mean you can Shoots & Ladders your way to success. You’ve gotta understand the process. For starters, you’ve gotta slice your onions:
I halved the recipe, so there were only six small onions and these alone were challenging enough to make a professional wrestler whimper. Still, if you know what you’re doing, you can take heart. Onions won’t make you cry if your knife is sharp. I slice off the tips at the top end and the root end then slice through it north to south, then peel ‘em. Here they are halved and peeled:
Once they were naked and ready to slice, I went all Meryl Streep in “Julie & Julia” on their ***es. I realized my knife wasn’t sharp enough for this and switched to an even sharper one. This is all about confidence and technique: curl your fingers into a wall on top of the onion and hold the knife by the blade and place so you are slicing directly down (don’t paper cutter it.) Move swiftly as you cut down against your wall hand shifting centimeter by centimeter across the onion until it’s all sliced. It should all happen very fast:
I cried a little bit, true, but not as much as I would’ve a few years ago. Time and practice!
After that, it’s pretty easy. Melt 6 Tbs of butter in a large pot (I used a Dutch oven) on medium heat:
Add the onions but don’t salt them–you want them to brown and salt will just make them wilt:
Here’s where you’ve gotta be truly patient; let them cook down for a while. Until they’re golden, golden brown. (Not too fast though; control the heat so this happens gradually.) 20 minutes later, it should look like this:
At this point, I added salt: a good sprinkling of Kosher salt over the whole thing.
Now you add the secret ingredients. I realize now, because the recipe was in ounces, I added more than I should have but the resulting soup was still amazing. So the recipe says to add (for this halved version) 1/8 cup port wine and 1/8 cup balsamic vinegar. I added 1/4 cup of both and it still tasted great. You decide–you’re the decider:
Turn up the heat to high and stir that all around:
Now here’s another non-shortcutty thing to do: add homemade chicken stock. As I expressed in this recent post, it’s easy to do if you roast a chicken every week. When you’re done eating the chicken, gather up all the bones and the carcass, break the carcass into bits (make sure to discard any garlic or herbs in there), drop into a pot, add a whole onion, a carrot, a stalk of celery, some peppercorns and cover with water (about 6 cups) and simmer for three hours. Strain into a bowl, refrigerate over night, discard the fat that floats to the top and you’re ready to go. That’s what I used here and it made a world of difference.
You add one quart of it (4 cups) to the onions, port and vinegar:
A. Bourdain says to add slab bacon here too, but I skipped that. If you’re feeling decadent, throw it in (2 ounces, cut up). I threw in a few sprigs of thyme though Mr. B calls for a “bouquet garni.” You decide if you want to do that.
Either way, salt it and simmer for 45 minutes to an hour. It will smell wonderful.
When you’re ready to serve, heat your broiler (if you can fit a bowl of soup under there) or, if you’re like me and you can’t, heat your oven to 425. Grate a bunch of cheese (I grated Gruyere and Pecorino):
And slice up some good stale bread (I had a leftover boule from Balthazar; if your bread’s not stale, toast it).
Taste the soup, make sure it’s wonderful (it not, season it), then add to two bowls (this serves two people) which you should have on a foil-lined cookie sheet:
Drop the bread in:
Top with all that cheese:
Ideally, the cheese would spill over the sides allowing for a crackly, brown, charred crust around the perimeter but that didn’t happen here. Still, no matter.
Bake or broil until the top is as brown and crusty as you like it:
Voila! There’s your French Onion Soup. Can we see her up close, please?
That’s your reward for not taking shortcuts, for taking the path less travelled, for not defrosting your dinner. It was an oozy, boozy, scrumptious mess. Here’s unshaven Craig devouring it:
The secret ingredient did its trick but the real secret is that the more you get comfortable in the kitchen, the better your dinner will be. Now, please excuse me, I’m off to read “The Scarlet Letter.”
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