By James P. DeWan, Tribune Newspapers
January 9, 2013
Those of you who are loyal Prep Schoolers ("Prep Scholars"? "Prepschooteers"? "Prepschyterians"?) will be happy to see a method that brings together a number of ideas we've discussed over the years.
As I tell my students, if you know the techniques and methods and if you understand ingredients, you can pretty much make anything you want. Today, we're applying that principle to the construction of one of the best things in the world: French onion soup.
Why you need to learn this
The other morning, my colleague at Kendall College, chef Christopher Quirk, had among his breakfast offerings in the cafe steaming bowls of French onion soup. I dove into one at 7:30 a.m. and, I have to say, that was just about the happiest breakfast I've had in many a year.
Make a pot sometime soon, and I dare say you may never go back to cereal and milk.
(Oh, and it's terrific at lunch and dinner too.)
The steps you take
First, let's recall some of the Prep School ideas we've incorporated into our culinary repertoire: julienne of onion, clarified butter and singer (see right rail).
One more thing: Remember that the following method and its ingredients may be tweaked to allow for personal taste. Vegetarian? Substitute vegetable stock (or water) for the beef broth. Gluten sensitive? Leave out the singer method (pronounced sahn-JHAY) and learn to love a slightly thinner soup. Want more onions? Or fewer? Be my guest.
In other words, don't expect perfection the first time out: Instead, make this method your own over the course of several attempts.
Now, let's pull it all together with a method that will give us about 2 quarts of soup, easily enough for 8 appetizer servings or 4 to 6 main course servings:
1. Place a large stockpot over medium heat. When hot, add 3 tablespoons clarified butter or vegetable oil (or 4 tablespoons of whole butter to account for the fact that about a tablespoon of that is water that will evaporate in the pan). Add about a pound and a half (roughly 6 cups) of julienned onions and cook them slowly, stirring quite a bit.
2. Keep cooking and stirring the onions. First, they'll wilt and give off some liquid, then they'll start to brown. Some people, like me, like a nice, dark caramelly brown; others like just a bit of color, like a light blond. There's no right or wrong. Just be sure to scrape up any brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan so nothing burns.
3. For soup with a little more body, sprinkle 3 tablespoons of flour over the onions and stir until it looks like one big, awful, gloppy mess. Seriously, it'll look bad. Like something a zombie wouldn't eat. Some of the flour sticks to the bottom of the pot, forming a fuzzy crust, and the rest goops the onions into a nasty ball of yuck which looks like something you clean from your gutter. Don't panic; just keep stirring for a couple of more minutes to cook the flour a bit.
4. Pour in 2 quarts of boiling liquid (stock or broth or water) and stir with your wooden spoon, scraping up the fuzz from the bottom of the pot and disentangling that horrid onion clump. Heat to a boil, then turn it down and leave it on a low simmer for about 30 minutes, skimming off any scum that floats to the top.
5. Taste your soup for seasoning. You'll probably need about 2 teaspoons of table salt or a tablespoon of kosher. Add half to start and give it time to dissolve before adding more as needed.
6. When the soup is done, feel free to add a couple of tablespoons of brandy or cognac just before you serve it, just to give it a wonderful boozy flavor.
7. To serve, you can take (at least) a couple different paths. You can put a toasted piece of crusty bread in the bottom of a bowl, sprinkle it with cheese (I'm partial to Gruyere, but plain Swiss or even Parmesan will work), then ladle the simmering soup over the top. Or, float the toast on top of the soup, cover it with cheese and run it under the broiler to melt. Any way you do it, it's going to be G-O-O-D good. I swear.
James P. DeWan is a culinary instructor at Kendall College.
Back to school
James P. DeWan's columns on cooking techniques have been gathered in an e-cookbook published by the Chicago Tribune. "Prep School: How to Improve Your Kitchen Skills and Cooking Techniques" is available for $4.99 at chicagotribuneebooks.com or wherever e-books are sold. DigitalPlus members may download it free at members.chicagotribune.com/ebooks.