Sunday, March 29, 2009

Trickery and Tomfoolery: Restaurant Style French Onion Soup

I'm one of those crazy soup people that love soup so much that I'd willingly go out of my way to seek it on a 90-degree day. Pho in the mo'ning, broth for brunch, stew for supper -- it's all good. Unfortunately, going out for soup a whole lot can get pretty costly, and soup in a can just isn't as satisfying as soup in a bowl (or better yet, a tureen) in your favorite restaurant.

One soup that I'm particularly a sucker for is French onion soup. (Paula Deen's shown left.) Sweet carmelized then deglazed white onions (Vidalia is even better, but much lighter in flavor and not as acidic) with a hint of butter sit at the bottom of the crock it's typically served in; small green parsley flakes and black pepper break up gorgeous fat bubbles floating flatly on the surface of savory brown beef broth -- or, if you're in for a special treat, half beef broth and half chicken for a sweeter flavor. But generally, you don't see what's going on beneath the surface until you break through the crusty and delicious shell that protects your soup like a souffle soldier, in shape if not anything else. This covering is traditionally a half-inch thick slice of hard toasted (or stale) French bread, which will expand to twice its original size as it absorbs the soup, which is then topped with either Swiss, mozzarella, Gruyere, or Provolone cheese melted over the whole crock to seal the flavors in. The tart, salt, and sweet sensations are fabulous, and add a generous dollop of sherry to boil off and the acidic bite gives it that extra edge.

Now here are the problems with making French onion soup from scratch (for this photo and the recipe at Cookography, just click) at home: it's extensively time-consuming; skimming home-made broth is kind of gross; it costs much more to actually make it than to buy it in a can; there are a lot of time-sensitive ingredients involved that could potentially spoil before you had time to eat the whole thing; every time you go to make it, it requires going through a whole big production; it makes everything in your house, including the pot you use, reek of beef broth and onions for a good long while.

And now here are the issues I have with French onion soup in a can: the flavor is kind of flat; canned soups tend to be oversalted; you can't really trust ingredients you can't pronounce and that sound chemically created; it's in a can; and French onion soup is really kind of pointless an distinctly un-special without the textural bells and whistles of broiled bread and melted cheese.

Well, I've come up with a happy medium of how to combine the convenience of French onion soup in a can and the taste of fresh French onion soup, and here's what you need:
  • approximately 13 minutes to devote to this project
  • small, 1-quart saucepan
  • toaster oven
  • oven-proof ceramic bowl or crock
  • a can of Campbell's condensed French onion soup (brand specific)
  • cooking sherry, any type
  • Marie Callender's Garlic and Butter croutons (brand specific)
  • 2-3 slices of Swiss, mozzarella, or Provolone cheese (I like the Sargento's 2% Swiss or Baby Swiss for a milder flavor. Their packaging also helps the cheese keep longer.)
  • a pinch of garlic powder, parsley, and white pepper
Okay, now here's what you do:
  1. Pour the can of soup in the saucepan.
  2. Instead of filling the empty can all the way to the top with water as the label directs you, fill it up only to the end of the ridged lines on the inside of the can. There should be around three-quarters of an inch of space left in the can. Fill it to the metal lip with sherry. Pour this into the saucepan as well.
  3. Add garlic powder and white pepper to taste.
  4. Heat on high and let it boil. Lower the heat, stir, and let bubble for about a minute more. You'll know the alcohol from the sherry is mostly boiled off when the whiff in the steam is just a whiff and not a blast.
  5. Pour the contents of the saucepan into your bowl or crock.
  6. Turn the toaster oven on "Broil" and set for 10 minutes. Let it heat up.
  7. Scatter a generous handful of the croutons across the surface of the soup. Do not overdo this step! There should be one layer of croutons; no more. If you use too much, too much of the soup will be absorbed and you'll be left with a bunch of mushy bread and onions. Too little, and the cheese will sink.
  8. Arrange the cheese slices over the croutons, avoiding too much overlap. Best case scenario has each slice of cheese with at least one corner touching the edge of the bow.
  9. 2-3 minutes should have passed, meaning the toaster oven should have 7-8 minutes left on the timer. Put the bowl in the toaster oven and let it broil for the remainder of the time. It's perfect when the cheese has dried a little and very small bubbles have risen from the surface. For Swiss, it'll taste burnt if toasted brown, so be careful not to overbroil.
  10. Pull from toaster oven and let cool for a minute or two. Once the crouton and cheese surface is broken on the soup, go under this shell and stir. The butter and garlic flavors of the croutons will sink to the bottom, giving the soup that fresh, herb-y flavor and a lip-smacking savory taste that you won't find in microwaving a can of condensed soup.
  11. Smack lips rudely and enjoy.

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