People all over Europe have been filling up on what we now know as “French” onion soup for at least a couple thousand years. And for at least once in food history, nobody is the least bit mystified how the dish’s basic idea started making the rounds.
Onions can be many things, but the Number One thing they are is cheap. In some soils and climates, you almost can’t stop them from growing. For some reason, or just because, the onions that had become so popular as a soup in ancient Rome came to be associated with the home cooks and eventually the great chefs of the proudest cuisine on earth.
In France, in French, almost no self-respecting menu calls the recipe “French onion soup.” Soupe a l’oignon certainly says it all to the true French heart and mind. We might say: the “French” is silent.
One thing that happens when a recipe becomes enshrined is that its creators, or in some cases popularizers, become icons. It’s ironic that in France, where virtually all the most lionized chefs were men (until quite recently), virtually all the most lionized recipes were created, discovered or stumbled upon by women. You can look it up. Marie Julie Grandjean Mouquin takes credit for the popularization of this soup, the beginning of its reign as one of the symbols of French cuisine.
The southern French city of Lyon likes to claim a lot of culinary honors, but this one belongs to Marie Julie in Paris. The wife of a famed restaurateur, she even introduced her famous soup to the United States in 1861.
In our country, three names sometimes used in the same sentence had a strong hand in making French onion soup a household food phrase. The first two were President John F. Kennedy and his stylish First Lady Jackie, monied internationalists of a high order. Both reserved a special place in their hearts for France, as did a much earlier president JFK referred to memorably. That would be Thomas Jefferson. After spending several years in Paris as U.S. minister, Jefferson could not sleep right at his Monticello in Virginia without a cellar full of French wines and a trusted slave trained in the finest French kitchens.
Carried in on the unexpected wave of 1960s French frenzy, “The French Chef” herself, Julie Child, invaded television sets across the land from her jerry-rigged studio kitchen at WGBH in Boston. After the three of them got through with it, French onion soup was virtually an American classic as well.
Yet another thing that happens when this or that dish becomes enshrined is that a recipe or technique that varies wildly from country to country or even village to village becomes mostly set in stone. Whatever onion soup may have been like before Marie Julie, after her it was caramelized onions in beef broth topped with a grilled bread slice topped with bubbly Gruyere cheese.
The French call this topping a “crouton,” but if you run to the supermarket to pick up bag of croutons, you won’t get anything even close.
FRENCH ONION SOUP
If we measure recipes based on the quality of their dining experience factored with the ease of their preparation, French onion soup should be given some kind of lifetime achievement award. All steps included, you can knock out a few bowls of this classic in as little as half an hour. We feel the glaze gives the soup an unexpected by valued extra layer of flavor.
1 tablespoon olive oil
6 tablespoons butter
2 large sweet onions, thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons thyme leaves
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon dried parsley leaves
1 teaspoon lemon pepper
3 tablespoons Fischer & Wieser’s Sweet & Savory Onion Glaze
2 tablespoons dry sherry
¼ cup dry red wine
7 cups beef broth
12 slices French baguette
12 slices Gruyere cheese
Additional small cubes Gruyere
Preheat the broiler. Heat the olive oil and butter in a large pot. Add the onions and start over high heat, then lower the heat and simmer until they start to turn golden. While they caramelize, season with salt and pepper, thyme, garlic powder and lemon pepper, then stir in the onion glaze (French onion soups traditionally use plain sugar for this step, mais pourquoi? Add the sherry and red wine, simmering until mostly evaporated. Add the beef broth, bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce to a simmer. Top the baguette slices with the cheese and broil until cheese is melted-bubbly and bread is toasted around the edges. Serve the hot soup in bowls and top each serving with Gruyere-topped baguette. Spread the Gruyere cubes into spaces between the croutons so they can melt in the hot soup. Serves 6.