I think of garlic and the romance of its mythology, the widely-trumpeted healthfulness of carrots, the seductive, far-away aroma of ginger and scallions. But onions. At my university, boys eat onions raw as part of a hazing ritual. They eat onions joylessly to win access to an endless world of warm beer and tungsten-lit, stale-smelling halls. It is meant as a punishment, but I wonder which part. After all, to eat a raw onion would not be so punishing if the onion were sweet. I’ve seen a man pluck a Vidalia from the dirt and bite into it lustfully, calling it sweeter than an apple.
Sweeter, indeed. Cook an onion long enough and it will turn to candy. Cook it a little longer and it will melt completely away. But onions in their most conspicuous form are battered and fried, or else sliced thick and scattered over salads, a garish, inedible purple garnish. I know of at least two people who refuse to eat them. And no wonder. It’s easy to write off onions as a clumsy and pedestrian vegetable. Onions sometimes speak too loudly. But it is impossible to forget, once tasted, the sublimity of an onion well-tended and well-loved.
For me, learning how to cook was a desperate thing, a simmering hunger. And it was onion soup that did it. I wanted the power to elevate an ingredient so ordinary–a bag of onions–into something buttery, seductive, sublime. If I learn to cook well, I thought, my days will be easier because there will be food worth loving at the end of them. The promise of this, of good food, makes living from meal to meal seem…alright. I admit this is how I live sometimes, and it has its rewards. But it took me four years to reap them.
The tricks, hard-earned: You have to be a little merciless. Cook the onions hot until your kitchen fills with the smell of burnt sugar, then cook them longer, until they turn to a sweet, dark, aromatic pulp. The secret’s also in the broth. In a soup with so few ingredients, only the richness of a homemade broth will do. All this takes time, cruelty and love.
I think you’ll find it well worth the exertion.
Onion Soup Gratinee
With a simple salad, this soup makes a meal but I have to admit: I almost always have it with steak. Bring on the caloric guilt.
- 4-5 large yellow or white onions, sliced thin*
- 2 quarts homemade stock: chicken, beef or veal
- 1 bundle fresh thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/2 cup red wine
- 2 tbsp plus 1 tbsp butter
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- Splash of Worcestershire sauce
- Salt and pepper
For the crouton (per serving):
- 1 thick slice day-old French bread
- 1/4 cup (loosely packed) grated Compte Gruyere cheese
- 1 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
- Salt and pepper
*About tears: I wear contact lenses, so onions tend not to make me cry, but Alan says that if you hold water in your mouth while you chop it helps. When you’re done, the water is said to taste like onions.
Heat olive oil in a large pot, medium-high. Cook onions, without stirring, until they give off a caramely smell and the onions near the pan are very brown, about 10 minutes. Add 2 tbsp butter. Stir vigorously, then continue to caramelize the onions, stirring very occasionally (once every five minutes or so) until they are pulpy, sweet-smelling and dark. This will take anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the heat of the pot and the sugar of the onions. Season with salt.
Add stock, thyme, and bay leaves. Simmer for at least thirty minutes, then add red wine, Worcestershire sauce, and remaining butter. Season with salt and pepper. When you’re about ready to serve, crank on the broiler. Pour soup into oven-safe mugs or ramekins, and place them on a baking sheet.
Top with stale bread, Gruyere and Parmesan cheese. Season grated cheese with salt and fresh ground black pepper. Broil five minutes, until cheese is browned and melted. And…enjoy. Careful, it’s hot.