Winter ushers in predatory cravings: brawny flavors, thick, meaty stews, hunkering-down kind of food. Even the ‘that’s-so-seventies’ favorite, French onion soup, gets the juices flowing. No time for thin and delicate broths, no siree. I want the melty-cheesey goodness of that seventies’ cliché by the bowlful.
But after a solid month of feasting, one glance in the mirror speaks to me in no uncertain terms: I am not (and was never) the slender Alpine girl who eats dairy products with abandon and then rises at dawn to check on the cows in the barn. That’s the kind of life that supports the diet I am craving. City living does not. Sigh. But I found an alternative. In a book.
If you want to learn anything about cooking by using a book, take a copy of the Zuni Café Cookbook to bed. It will only take a few minutes before you will discover something you want to jump up and cook, right then and there, in the middle of the night. (And if that doesn’t do it, try reading Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir Blood, Bones and Butter. But I digress, more on that in another post.) Luckily for us, the publishers of Judy Rodger’s book allowed her the space to write outrageously seductive recipes, and uncharacteristically for publishing houses, in great detail. A lot of them. And that my friends, is how you become a good cook. Details!
Onion soup is a poor man’s feast. Some fat, some onions, some broth, some cheese, a few pieces of dry bread. What’s so good about that? I’ll tell you what: you could use duck or goose fat if you happen to have some leftover from your Christmas feast (always, always, save the duck fat in your freezer!) Or, failing that, you could stir in some of that good meat gelée from your duck confit. No duck gelée? Why not stir in some flaked, house-cured salt cod or brandade? Lord, but those chefs are annoying sometimes. No, I don’t happen to have any brandade made from my house-cured salt cod anywhere about me.
But wait! Let’s just calm down and pull back a little. This exercise doesn’t have to end in frustration. The whole point of reading a book by a chef is to help you start using your imagination in a different way. If you are a novice, try the recipe as written. After that, go for your own improvs. Ms. Rogers uses a little tomato in her soup, and poaches an egg on top. She doesn’t caramelize her onions (I did), but she is definitely on to something. The tomato and egg made me think of Spain for some reason, and so, for my little soupçon of something extra, something extravagant, I pulled out my old tin of saffron, the one that I save as a remembrance and replenish with each new vial of the precious golden red filaments. In case you haven’t noticed yet, I am ignoring the cheese.
An egg on top of anything is humble and comforting and intimate. Instead of poaching the eggs right in the pot as Ms. Rogers does, I slid them gently on top of the sodden bread floating on top of the soup and slipped the bowls into the oven. The soup bubbled and spat onto the sides of the bowl, lending a "rustic" look to this imperfect meal. But cooking the egg in the bowl allowed me to eat a solitary breakfast of soup and egg when no one was looking. I could share it table-for-two style, too. Keeping my options open. We are back to basics here. A poor man’s feast, indeed.
Onion Soup with Poached Egg (with Vegetarian option)
Although I was craving cheese, I wanted to make something more in line with New Years’ resolution style eating. So I nixed the cheese and topped the soup with an egg. You could also nix the bread if you want to be Spartan about it, but that would be going a little too far for me. Furthermore, to vegetarianize this recipe, just use a really, good, rich homemade vegetable stock. No cheating. I tried not to dumb down Judy Rogers’ recipe too much, but used what I had on hand, which was basically onions and olive oil. It was just as satisfying as I had hoped.
For the toasts
4 slices sturdy country bread or some sliced baguette
1. Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Brush the bread with olive oil on both sides, spread them on a baking sheet, and bake until golden, 8 to 10 minutes.
For the soup:
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoons olive oil
3 large onions, about 2 1/2 pounds, halved and cut into 1/4-inch thick slices
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2-inch sprig rosemary, chopped (about 1 tablespoon)
2 canned tomatoes with a spoonful of juice, chopped
Small pinch of saffron, crumbled
Freshly ground black pepper
5 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock for vegetarian version)
1. Heat the butter and olive oil in a soup pot over medium heat and add the onions, garlic and rosemary. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are lightly caramelized, about 15 minutes. They should be soft but not mushy.
2. Push the onions to one side of the pan, and add the chopped tomatoes and their juice. Move the pan so the tomatoes are over the heat source, and cook until most of the liquid evaporates and the tomatoes deepen in color to a rusty red. Add saffron, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the stock and bring the soup to a simmer. Simmer for about 5 minutes.
3. Just before you are ready to serve it, taste the soup and add more salt and pepper if needed. Ladle the hot soup into bowls (or bowl), and place a toast on top of each. Push the toast into the broth. Crack an egg into a small bowl. When the bread rises to the top, gently slide the egg on top. Place the bowls on a baking sheet and slide them into the oven. Bake until the egg is set to your liking, from 5 to 10 minutes.
The devil is in the details:
Cut the onions not too thick and not too thin....1/4-inch is just about right, not so thin that they will disintegrate, not so thick that they will be clunky.
The herbs: Use thyme, rosemary, or summer savory. Unbelievably, these are still surviving in my northern garden in January! Rosemary should be chopped since the leaves can be a spiky mouthful if left whole.
Lightly caramelize the onions to add flavor, especially if making a vegetarian version. Don't let them turn to mush though.
Push the onions aside and cook the tomatoes until most of their juices evaporate: an extra step that boosts flavor.
Saffron is another flavor booster. Crumble it before adding (sorry, no photo). If it is not brittle, warm it briefly in the oven to dry it out.