Soup Part Two: Onion

Tuesday 19 January 2010 at the Macrobiotic Cooking Club

Time can turn simple ingredients spectacular. Miso, sourdough bread and onion soup are all examples of this phenomenon. Last week at cooking club we made onion soup, “French” style, by caramelizing the onions long and slow.

Cutting the Onions

There are many fine ways to cut an onion. How you choose to cut your onions should depend on how you’ll cook them. If you want the onions to disappear into the dish, mincing or grating them works well. For crunchy quick-cooked onions, thick slices are ideal.
For onion soup, make thin uniform slices. They’ll caramelize evenly. The onions shouldn’t totally dissolve into the soup, but they shouldn’t hang six inches off the spoon either. For short curves of onion, use the technique I learned from the chef at Rico’s:

1. Cut both ends off the onions, and cut the onions in half vertically. Peel each half.

2. Now slice each half vertically, rather than horizontally, into thin pieces. All of the pieces should wind up the same size, as opposed to when you cut horizontally and the slices on the ends are smaller than the slices in the middle.

Use a sharp knife when you cut onions; the layers will separate maddeningly under a dull blade.

Caramelizing the Onions

Start with a generous pool of oil in a heavy, hot pan. Toss in the onions, stir them up and sprinkle on some salt before you close the lid. Use just a small amount of salt, remembering that the onions shrink a lot and so the salt will concentrate.

Keep the closed pot over high heat, opening it occasionally to stir the onions. They will start to get softer, smaller and more see-through. If you are stirring them often enough, they will gradually turn light gold brown, then darker and darker. At this point, leave the lid off the pot and turn down the heat to a more moderate level. When you stir, the moisture from the onions will at first be enough to clean any brown bits from the bottom of the pan. After a while, the onions will lose enough moisture that you will have to add water or stock as you stir.

This is where the French onion style comes in.
Each time the onions threaten to burn on the bottom of the pan, stir them and add a ladle-full or so of stock (or water) to clean the browning parts off the bottom of the pan. Incorporating this browned onion residue also incorporates the deep, rich and sweet flavor associated with onion soup.

Continue cooking, then stirring and moistening, then cooking, then stirring and moistening, until the onions are very dark brown. They will reduce in volume to perhaps 1/10th of their original volume. The whole caramelizing process may take two hours, for really dark brown rich soup. Be patient.

Once the onions are caramelized, all you have to do is add the rest of the water or stock and let it simmer for a little while to infuse the flavor. The result is dark as beef stock and nearly as ‘meaty’ but sweeter, too.

French Onion Soup
6-8 servings
This is based loosely on a recipe from Mother’s macrobiotic cookbook, “The Macrobiotic Way” by Michio Kushi

10 sweet yellow onions, medium sized
1/4 cup toasted sesame oil, or more to taste
sea salt
1 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms, more or less to taste
tamari soy sauce
1 bunch scallions (green onions), garnish

1. Peel the onions and slice them into thin, even pieces. Heat a large, heavy soup pot and add 3 Tablespoons toasted sesame oil. Add the onions with a pinch of salt and caramelize them according to the instructions detailed above.

2. Meanwhile, remove the stems from the mushrooms and slice them as you wish. Heat the remaining Tablespoon of oil in a separate soup pot and cook the mushrooms, stirring, until they are brown. Add 3 quarts of water, more or less, to the mushrooms. Simmer over low heat, tasting periodically and seasoning with tamari as you caramelize the onions. Use this liquid to deglaze the onion pan, as detailed above.

3. When the onions are fully brown, add all of the mushroom broth (including the pieces of mushrooms) to the onion pot and allow the mixture to simmer at least 1/2 hour. Add more tamari or sea salt as needed. It shouldn’t taste like soy sauce, but the tamari soy sauce lends a unique ‘brown’ flavor that sea salt lacks.

4. Garnish the soup with thin-sliced scallions atop each bowl. Float croutons in the soup if you like. Or, eat it as we did, with fresh crusty sourdough to dip in the broth.

At Meeting Thirteen of the Macrobiotic Cooking Club, we accompanied that onion soup with the following:

Buckwheat Sourdough

Butter and Red Leaf Salad, with
Quick Pickled Cucumbers and Radishes, Blanched Snow Peas and
Orange-Sherry Vinaigrette

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