Yesterday, snow arrived before dawn and traced the barren trees with wintry light, taunting us until we put on our running clothes, trekked out into the frigid air, and left only our footsteps behind. We arrived home pink-cheeked and slightly hoarse from the chilly wind, giddy from snowball fights and snowmen and the feeling that everything had been scrubbed clean and restored to its proper order.
The first snowfall is always the best. The trees have been barren just long enough to make fall seem distant, and the cold hasn’t had a chance to settle into one’s bones just yet. It’s the perfect excuse to do all those cliched things one does at the start of winter: drink hot chocolate with marshmallows, go sledding with all the neighborhood kids, and make hearty winter fare.
There’s something so soothing and cheerful about a warm, wintry soup, and the one I want to share with you today is a perfect dinner or post-run snack for warding off winter’s chill. And topped with golden melted muenster and slices of toasted sourdough bread, it feels almost luxurious.
Wintry onion soup
Serves 6-8, though I only made two and kept the rest for leftovers. It reheats well.
The key to this soup is great stock, so make your own, as I’ve done here. I made a chicken stock, by simmering chicken bones, a few stocks of celery, some anise, sage, rosemary, parsley, a few cloves of garlic, 8-10 peppercorns, and an onion in a mixture of water and ~1 c. of wine. After an hour on the stove, skim off any gray gunk on the surface, and drain into a container. You’ll need about 6 c. of stock for this soup. Alternatively, you can use a roasted vegetable stock, or the more traditional beef stock. It’ll change the flavor profile of the soup a bit, but it’ll still be delicious.
- 5 sweet onions, chopped, or 5 red onions, chopped. You can also slice if you like strands of onion in your soup. James doesn’t, so I chopped them up a bit more than I usually would have.
- 1 leek, halved and then sliced into little half moons, thoroughly washed, and drained. Leeks tend to get dirt stuck in between their layers, so I tend to put them in a strainer after slicing and break up the slices while I rinse them. Grit is not a nice texture in soup. Adding a leek to the classic onion soup is Jamie Oliver’s idea, and it’s a good one — leek adds a slightly richer dimension to this soup.
- 6 c. good homemade stock. If you must use canned stock, choose organic, low-sodium stuff, so you can actually control the salt content of the soup.
- salt and freshly grated black pepper, to taste
- 1 c. red wine
- 1 t. balsamic vinegar
- 10 leaves fresh sage
- several slices of good bread, cut in 1″x2″ pieces (ok, there’s no need to be so exact — cut them so they’ll fit in your serving bowls)
- several slices of good, melty cheese — cheddar, muenster, and mozzarella are all good choices, and I can imagine gruyere or swiss in this dish, as well.
You will need oven-safe bowls for every serving.
Rinse off and drain the onions and leeks, so there’s still a bit of moisture on them when you cook them. Toss them into a large pot (make sure you have a lid that fits), and place them over low heat. Stir occasionally. Once they have melted down a bit and are sitting in a pool of their own liquid — maybe after 10 minutes or so — put the lid on and don’t bother them for 15 minutes. They should cook down and get soft and gorgeous, and remind you why onion soup is always so tempting when you see it on the menu. The cheese, really, is just a garnish (right?).
Pour in the stock, red wine, balsamic vinegar, and sage at this point, and turn up the heat a little bit. Preheat the oven to 350ºF / 175ºF, and toast your slices of bread while you’re waiting (you can do this on a cookie sheet in the oven). Let the soup simmer for 20 or so minutes, just so the flavors meld together, adjust the seasoning, and then turn off the heat.
Put a bit of the toast in the bottom of each serving dish, and place all the serving dishes on a cookie sheet. Pour the onion soup over, making sure that you have plenty of actual onion in each dish (this shouldn’t be too difficult). Put a slice or two of toast over the top of each soup, cover with cheese, and slide into the top rack of the oven. At this point, turn the broiler on high, and let it render that cheese bubbly and golden. Serve immediately.
If you want to turn this into a pretty dinner party affair, you can take that sage, fry it in some oil, and use it to decorate the bowls of soup after you’ve melted the cheese. Again, this is a Jamie Oliver idea, and I didn’t bother to do it here, but I think it’s a nice way to dress this up. No one will suspect you spent a whole $5 on a meal for 6.