As the world cries with France we all need some comfort so I turn to Made in America: Our Best Chefs reinvent Comfort Food and make an old favorite.
The ultimate comfort food to turn to as the world goes crazy and the news from France gets worse by the day has to be French Onion Soup. And who better to teach us how to make this iconic soup but the great French chef Alain Ducasse? And here’s the best part – it’s so easy – the hardest part is chopping all the onions without crying! I use this recipe to help the kids practice their knife skills – there’s no better skill to perfect.
Alain Ducasse bought my father-in-law’s restaurant La Côte Basque and turned it into Benoit, a Parisienne bistro in mid-town Manhattan. This is where I married my husband nearly 17 years ago, this is where we announced to our close friends that we were moving to Los Angeles and this is where we celebrated many birthdays and successes. How I miss it.
Perhaps most significantly, this is where I was first introduced to the pleasures of everything that goes into making a great restaurant run smoothly – from the service to the dishes, the coat check girl to the dish washer, the person checking off the deliveries to the chap carrying out the garbage in the middle of the night – it all has to work seemlessly. If it doesn’t the person at the top of the food chain, the chef, won’t be happy.
Didier with Alain Ducasse at dinner at Mozza when he, Guy Savoy and Daniel Boulud were in town shooting Masterchef.
One of the many perks of writing my book, Made in America, was meeting fabulous chefs across America, seeing behind the scenes in restaurant kitchens, chatting with the faithful teams of people who keep everything moving (usually a trusted assistant or PR executive) and photographing as I went. Perhaps the best perk was the eating of the food once I had got the shot. I have fond memories of the delicious soup at Benoit in New York – not just for it’s depth of flavor but also for the perfect balance of cheese, bread and onion soup. I ate up every last drop and would have licked the bowl clean had I not been sitting in the middle of a restaurant winding down from lunch.
Having one of the greatest living chefs in the world not only give you a recipe but then teach you the little details of their technique was beyond exciting. It makes the difference between a good dish and a great dish. It also makes a recipe straightforward and easy to follow.
When I ask Ducasse for any tips he goes straight to the underpinnings of all cooking—the knife, and in particular making sure it is sharp “The fumes that cause your eyes to water are released when the petals [of the onion] are crushed—a common issue when slicing with a dull knife,” says Ducasse. “Minimize the tears by using a properly sharpened blade that will cut the vegetable cleanly.” From now on as I slice my onions I thank Ducasse. The very sharp blade has reduced my tears—and like all good French onion soups, there are a lot of onions.
Chef Ducasse’s Tips for cooking Gratinée French Onion Soup:
“I suggest halving the onion lengthwise for better control.”
“Sharp knife equals less tears.”
“Sear the onions by cooking them over high heat for a few minutes before reducing the heat, this will achieve optimal coloration and give the broth that depth of flavor. If you start the cooking process over low heat the onions release water and turn to mush.”
French Onion Soup recipes have been around for hundreds of years. Escoffier’s Guide Culinaire (1903), the ultimate book of French cuisine, has no listing for onion soup, probably because it wasn’t considered haute cuisine—this was a dish of the middle-classes and Escoffier was writing for high-end restaurants and hotels. An early American recipe from The Frugal Housewife:Or, Complete Woman Cook has an onion soup recipe that tops the soup with slices of toasted French roll and poached eggs—no gratinéed cheese. A little book published in 1893 La Cuisine Française. French Cooking for Every Home. Adapted to American Requirements by Francois Tanty is an interesting example particularly because, unlike Escoffier’s Guide Culinaire, it is aimed at the American home cook, with the cooking being “a little less refined [than traditional French cooking], but quite as palatable”. Tanty, who trained under the famous nineteenth century French chef Marie-Antoine Carême, came to America for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and stayed.
I’m craving a real French onion soup topped with gratinée cheese that makes strings as you lift your spoon to your mouth.
However, I’m opting out of the bread and all that cheese and keeping to my healthy new Get Lean regime. I made Alain Ducasse’s French onion soup sans gratinée pour moi and without all that cheese it’s a filling satisfying and healthy option. I served it to me and Didier off a silver tray with red wine, candles and napkins wrapped in one of my favorite Provence finds – the silver Monsieur and Madame napkin rings. Our hearts are heavy as the country we know and love is attacked.
As I picked up the children from school on Thursday the quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson written at the entrance seemed even more profound: “Every man has two countries – his own and France.” The whole world grieves with France and as I always do when I’m sad I find some comfort in cooking – especially a dish so warming and comforting as Ducasse’s soup.
1 1/2 pounds medium onions, halved lengthwise, then thinly sliced lengthwise.
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
salt – preferably fleur de sel
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 quarts beef broth – I used the broth Jean-Jacques Rachou made from the leftover beef bones at Christmas – 1000 flavors and so rich!
Cheesecloth sachet filled with 4 whole cloves, 3 bay leaves, 1 tablespoon crushed black pepper, 1 sprig fresh thyme and 1/2 head of garlic, tied with kitchen twine.
6 slices of baguette, cut on the diagonal 1/4 inch thick – (or one large piece of bread as I did!)
1/4 cup port wine (I substituted cognac)
2 tablespoons Gruyère, Comté, or Emmental cheese, grated
1. “Sharpen those knives!” In a 4 – 5 quart heavy-bottomed pot over high heat “sear the onions” in the butter with a little fleur de sel, uncovered, stirring frequently until the onions are deep golden brown, about 5 minutes.
2. Lower the heat and cook the onions until very soft.
3. Stir in the white wine, deglaze the pan and cook, stirring for 2 minutes. Stir in the broth and add the cheesecloth sachet and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally for 30 minutes.
4. While the soup cooks, position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 350F.
5. Arrange the bread on a large baking sheet and toast in the oven until completely dry, turning over once, about 15 minutes.
6. Remove the bread from the oven and heat the broiler. Place six 8 – 10 ounce ovenproof soup crocks or ramekins onto a shallow baking sheet. (If like me you don’t have soup crocks you can sprinkle the cheese onto the bread and melt under the broiler.)
7. Discard the sachet from the soup, and just before serving, stir in the port wine or cognac.
8. Divide the soup evenly among the soup crocks, then float a toast in each. Sprinkle enough cheese to cover the top of each crock, allowing the cheese to hang over the rim.
9. Broil the filled soup crocks 4-5 inches from the heat source until the cheese is melted and bubbly, 1 – 2 minutes. If you have melted the cheese separately then fill bowls with hot soup and add the hot grilled cheese toast to the top.
Bon Appètit!Photograph of Alain Ducasse copyright Mikael Vojin courtesy Alain Ducasse.