The Most Comforting Meal of the Year

Dec 4, 2022

Tourtiere, a velvety-rich stew, mulled cider, smoked pulled pork, or anything out of a crock pot; these Winter months offer the highest quality comfort foods, and there’s a tradition in this household for kicking off such a season.  Of course, we love tackling our holiday baking in the early parts of December: Nanaimo bars, shortbread cookies, butter tarts, and peanut butter balls, delicious each in their own right.  But there’s one dish that truly warms up my soul more than any other; one dish, simple in design, consisting of only a few ingredients, but complex in flavour, texture and aroma.  It’s the meal I look forward to most once the weather remains consistently brisk.  I can source the ingredients all year round, but to prepare it any other time would feel to me a sin, perhaps because the anticipation is a significant part of the enjoyment.  I speak, of course, of the one and only: French Onion Soup.

Memories of this dish go far back in my life, as I recall special trips out to The Muddy Duck, a restaurant long-since closed in Milton, where I grew up.  We didn’t go out to eat often, but when we did, between Swiss Chalet and The Muddy Duck, the latter was always a treat because they were the only place I knew of that had this miraculously flavourful bowl of broth, bread and cheese.  Our whole family would order a bowl of the piping hot soup, and revelled at how my dad was able to slurp it up straight from the broiler, impervious to the scalding hot melted cheese that, to those unaware, would burn both the roof of the mouth and tongue at the same time, preventing you from enjoying any other flavours or tastes for at least the next 12-hours.  The rest of us would allow the bowl to cool a few minutes and then chip away at those crusty bits of cheese around the bowl before diving in and savouring each spoonful of rich, fulfilling broth.  There are few memories I have that can top this.

It’s a combination that really should not make sense: sweet onions, beef stock, a variety of Swiss cheeses: sure, that all adds up, but layering in a slice or two of thick-cut toast to sop up some of the liquid, turning it into a soggy, sponge-like texture that hides beneath the gooey melted fromage?  That doesn’t sound at all like it should be good, but somehow; by some divine culinary miracle: it works.

The process of bringing it all together is really quite simple: caramelizing copious amounts of thin-sliced onions over a low, slow heat, adding in red wine, beef stock and a few herbs, before scooping into bowls, topping with a slice of toasted bread and heaps of Swiss, Ementaler and Gruyere, then sliding under a broiler for a few minutes to melt and get just a touch of crispness around the edges, are not hard tasks, but it is a process that cannot be rushed.  The trick to any good French Onion is taking your time in ensuring the onions caramelize and don’t burn.  Keep your heat low and savour the aromas that come forth as you watch them transform from pungent slices of tear-inducing onions into a wonderfully sweet and rich base for what will be the kick off to a season full of comforting flavours and delights.

I write all of this because, of course, today marks the first batch of many that I will enjoy, and I couldn’t be more excited to get things going, and perhaps inspire a few others to do the same.  So, please, I encourage you to share: what are your comfort foods this time of year?  What memories do they conjure up and, who do you like to share the occasion with?  I’d love to be inspired!  Now, off to the kitchen…

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter* 
  • 6 large yellow onions , thinly sliced
  • Healthy pinch of salt
  • 1/2 cup red wine**
  • 7 cups of beef broth
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce (I’d say this is optional, it adds a bit of depth but if you don’t have it on hand, don’t go buying it just for this)
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme (if you don’t like thyme, then don’t use it…)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Thick slices of toasted French bread, one slice per bowl
  • Shredded Gruyere, Swiss and Emmentaler cheeses.  I’m going to tell how much exactly, as you can adjust to your liking, but your end result should be, well, a lot of cheese.

Instructions

  • In a large pot over medium heat, melt the butter.
  • Add in the onions and sauté, stirring often, until just softened, about 10 minutes.  Don’t let them brown at this stage…that’s going to develop harsh flavours and we’re going for subtle here.
  • Reduce heat to medium-low; cook slowly, like potentially for up to 40-minutes, stirring occasionally until onions are deliciously caramelized.
  • Pour in the red wine to deglaze the pot, scraping up any brown, flavour bits.
  • Add in the beef broth, Worcestershire sauce, thyme, and bay leaf.
  • Gently simmer over medium-low heat for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  • Remove and discard the herbs.
  • Taste, then season with additional salt and pepper, taste again, then adjust seasoning again.  Keep tasting…***
  • Remove from heat and cover to keep hot while you prepare the bread.
  • Toast the bread.
  • Turn on broiler
  • Place oven safe bowls on a baking sheet.
  • Fill each bowl 2/3 full with soup. T
  • Top each bowl with 1 slice toasted bread,
  • Load up with heaps of cheese blend.
  • Broil until bubbly and golden brown.
  • Eat.

 

*I recently underwent a debate with some colleagues regarding salted versus unsalted butter and I would like to take a moment to state here that unsalted butter should always be the go to.  You can add salt later but you can’t take it away.

**When it comes to cooking with wine, many people believe that you should use the cheaper stuff in your dishes and save the primo bottle for serving.  I generally disagree with this approach.  Why would I cook with ingredients that I don’t enjoy?  You’re only sacrificing a 1/4 cup out of the bottle, so why not use a bottle of something you really savour.  Not only that, but when you sip a glass of the good stuff that’s been used in the dish your eating, it will only help to bring out the flavours and compliment the final product even more!  So, use what you enjoy, though I’d recommend using a full-bodied and rich wine for a more complex flavour in this particular dish.

***Constant tasting throughout the cooking process is important.  Blindly adding in salt and pepper doesn’t provide you with any indication of what the end result will be.  Add in some salt, stir, simmer, taste, and keep layering until you’re happy.  Also, I like to approach cooking with the thinking that salt is a seasoning, and pepper is flavour.  I don’t want to taste strong punches of salt in the final product, but rather have the salt bring out the other flavours going on in the dish.  Pepper, on the other hand is something that functions as an additional component to what’s already going on.

 

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