Will go barefoot for onions

Over the past year or so, Ina Garten and I have become good friends. She doesn’t know this; she doesn’t know I exist. Her Food Network show at first struck me as pretentious, with its demands for homemade chicken stock, Dutch process cocoa, and all the highest quality and therefore highest priced ingredients. The reminders of the Hamptons and the floral arranger and food photographer guests were a bit heavy to me. For a graduate student, Ina’s lifestyle and, I thought, her food, were beyond my budget.
In continuing to watch, however, Ina grew on me. Maybe it was by comparison to the other increasingly noisy newcomers to the network, or maybe it was my building confidence in my skills as a cook, but she is now among my favorite of the TV chefs. She cooks like me. Or, perhaps more accurately, she cooks the way I would cook if I had the means. She speaks plainly, but you can tell she is well educated in her field. She is messy. She doesn’t mind the occasional drip of batter onto a white counter-top or puff of flour onto a silk shirt. She looks like she enjoys food, and feeding people, and eating with them. Without really realizing it, I also found that more often than not when I turned to the Food Network website to find recipe suggestions, the recipe I ended up choosing was hers. I have made her Italian Wedding Soup, I have made her lemon bars, I have made several of her vegetable side dishes, and as of last week, I have also made her French Onion Soup.
This soup has, for almost a decade, been one of my restaurant go-to items. I love it. I love how it looks when it arrives at the table, with crusty bubbled Swiss cheese enameled onto the side of the soup crock. I love how it smells, with the fragrant sweetness of long-cooked onions steaming out once you break that crunchy-chewy protective cheese blanket. And really, an aromatic soup of sweet onion tendrils in rich meaty broth with the accompaniment of bread and cheese? I hardly even need to extol the flavor.
As seems to be a recurring theme here, however, I was always intimidated by the thought of making this soup. I don’t know why. I had every intention of doing so for a number of years, even registering for (and receiving) a pair of red French Onion Soup bowls as wedding gifts. It has been almost three years since I added these bowls to my kitchen collection, and yet it took until last week to put them to their intended use. With gigantic onions in my pantry, Swiss cheese in my fridge, and two-day-old baguette slowly getting crunchy on my counter, I went trolling for recipes and, to no great surprise, ended up with Ina’s. In addition to the dozens upon dozens of good reviews, it looked easy, and it looked really good.
In addition to halving the recipe, I made only minor changes. As several of the reviews note, it took longer than the 20 minutes allotted for the onions to get really brown and caramelized. I didn’t have the bourbon or sherry that Ina calls for, so I used a mixture of red and white wine, which I found to add depth and rich flavor. I didn’t have, nor would I want to use, veal stock, so I mixed beef broth with homemade chicken stock as a substitute. Since I am getting reacquainted with my garden as the weather slowly, grudgingly warms, I also added two big sprigs of thyme from my thriving little soldier.
When the onions had browned down in my soup pot and were delicate, pliable, and dark gold, I added red wine and let them simmer together. I brought a little piece of onion in to N., who was sitting on the couch and sniffing appreciatively, and he said only “ooohhhhh” after slurping down the offering. It was unlike the onion it had once been in almost every way. Soft, melting against the tongue, sweet but dizzingly rich with the addition of the red wine flavor. No bitter harshness, only mellow tenacity. Then I added beef broth, and white wine, and left the whole thing to simmer. As Ina says, “how bad could that be?”
It was far, far from bad. When the pot had simmered sufficiently (translation: when the smell was too enticing for us to resist any longer), I wedged a piece of toasted sourdough baguette into the bottoms of the aforementioned bowls, ladled steaming soup on top, and then mashed on as much grated Swiss and Parmesan cheese as would fit across the top. I broiled these little offerings until the cheese began to brown and crisp, and then we ate.
It was amazing, and I am again astounded by how inexpensive the ingredients are that make up this luxurious soup. As I have already mentioned, the onions softened but still held their shape, and became like oddly shaped little sponges for the flavors of the wine and broth. The cheese was melted in stringy gooey strands on the bottom, against the broth, but hardened into a crunchy crisp on the top, making two different flavors simply thanks to its textural change: toasty and salty on top, creamy and reminiscent of fondue on the bottom.
I am already devastated that I only made a half recipe, because we wolfed down our servings, we scarfed up the leftovers, and now sitting here typing, with a Spring headcold making my sinuses pound, I am overwhelmed by desire for a big steaming bowl of this rich, comforting composition. Thanks, Ina.

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