Sometimes dining is about pure familiarity. I think this is what people mean when they refer to “comfort food” – things we know well from long experience, possibly even childhood. “Comfort food” has always struck me as a ridiculous term – isn’t eating an inherently comforting experience? – but I have to admit that certain foods spread the warmth more than others. For me, it’s brown butter, runny yolk eggs, pretty much any potato dish, crispy sage, and puréed anything. Melted cheese, especially when it browns and crisps around the edges, roasted chicken about half an hour out of the oven, that peculiarly rich, tallowy taste of short rib, and the unctuous quality of pork belly and fresh ham … to me, these are the ultimate comfort foods. Great flavor, great texture, totally easy to eat, remind you of home.
One of the quintessential comfort tastes, in my opinion, is the caramel-sweet, savory taste of long-cooked onions. Confit onions – golden brown from slow poaching in butter or oil – are one of the great additions to flatbreads (as in pissaladière), and make a rich jam that pairs well with fruit, foie, and roasted meats alike. And they’re a component of the rustic French classic onion soup, which relies on few ingredients – deeply caramelized onions, beef stock, a little wine, and Gruyère croutons – for its complex savor. It’s a brilliant dish, because every aspect of the soup leads to that culinary ideal, umami. The so-called fifth taste, umami signifies depth of flavor, savoriness. Chemically, it represents the taste imparted by the amino acid L-glutamate and 5’-ribonucleotides such as guanosine monophosphate (GMP) and inosine monophosphate (IMP). Glutamates are present in onions, wine, cheese, and beef – when they unite for classic onion soup, they form a virtual umami bomb.
Here’s the thing about onion soup, though. No one I know eats it all that often, and you know why? Because onion soup is a pain in the ass. In practice, it’s often the opposite of comfort food. I’m not talking about the cooking process – the best “comfort foods” are not easy to turn out well unless the cook invests some care and attention to detail – but the eating. What could be more discomfiting than fighting your way through a tough raft of toasted bread crust, choking on a tough string of poorly-caramelized onion, or trying to get that long strand of Gruyère into your mouth without alienating your dining companions or getting soup all over your shirt? Bad texture equals discomfort. And that’s why no one makes it anymore, not even all those people who received those stupid handled soup bowls as wedding gifts back in the Seventies.
I modernized the old onion soup by turning its stringy onion component into a transparent, glassy onion chip and a quenelle of onion confit, and by turning the giant raft of cheese bread into crispy Gruyère croutons. Pour in a rich beef consommé and enjoy as the onion transparency – which tastes like a caramelized onion chip – and the sweet onion confit melt into the soup, and you get a cheesy, soup-soaked crouton or two in every bite. It’s kind of a labor-intensive dish, I’m not going to lie, but it’s really good onion soup, and as a bonus you won’t have to figure out how to scrape burned cheese off the edges of your wedding registry soup tureens.
Modern onion soup
If you are intimidated or otherwise put out by the idea of making consommé, skip the clarification step. Just make sure your stock is well-defatted and as clear as you can get it – strain it through a cheesecloth-lined chinois (or if you don’t have a chinois, through a strainer lined with a triple thickness of cheesecloth, or a paper towel). Season the stock well with salt and a little soy sauce (for umami). I encourage you to make the consommé, though. The simmering with the meat and vegetables in the raft imparts additional flavor even as the egg white clarifies the soup.
For the onion confit:
Four large red onions (about 4 lbs), peeled and sliced thinly pole to pole
grapeseed oil or beef tallow from making stock, above
1 tsp sherry vinegar
Place a large sauté pan over medium low heat and, when hot, add about 2 tbsp oil (better yet, use beef tallow skimmed from making stock). Add the onions and about 1 tsp salt and toss well in the oil to coat. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and let the onions cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until deep purplish-brown, sticky, reduced, and jam-like, about 3 hours or more. About an hour before finishing, add the sherry vinegar.
You can hold this in the refrigerator for a week.
For the beef stock:
5 lbs oxtail
2 lbs beef bones, preferably knuckle
1 1/2 lb lean beef, preferably the round and the flank, diced
2 medium carrots, scraped and diced
one large onion, quartered
one celery stalk, peeled and diced
bouquet garni of leek, parsley, bay, thyme
1/2 tbsp black peppercorns
4 whole cloves
1 small star anise
2 c dry white wine
3 tbsp tomato paste
Roast the beef bones on a sheet pan until they begin to brown. Turn over. Add the vegetables to the pan and toss in the beef fat. Return to the oven and brown.
Remove everything to a stockpot and add the herbs, spices, tomato paste, white wine, and cold filtered water to cover. Bring to a simmer slowly, skimming to remove impurities. Simmer for about four hours. Strain through a chinois. Remove as much fat as possible by skimming (or chilling and removing the solid fat). If you are making consommé, proceed to the next step. Otherwise, scroll down past the consommé step.
To make consommé:
10 egg whites
1 lb very lean and flavorful beef (such as flank), ground – do not use a fatty cut
1 each, diced: leek (white and light green only), carrot, celery
2 tomatoes, diced (flesh only)
Beat the egg whites with a whisk until foamy (not an aerated foam, just foamy). Combine with the ground meat, vegetables, and tomato.
Stir the mixture into four quarts of the defatted stock. Bring to a simmer, stirring gently but fairly frequently. As the mixture heats, the egg white will coagulate, trapping the solids and other impurities in the stock. This happens over around 165F/74C. Once the raft begins to form, stop stirring. Let the raft collect on top of the stock. Once the mixture comes to a simmer, maintain a low simmer. Do not let it boil. Using a ladle, push a hole through the raft. Periodically ladle a small amount of stock over the raft to baste it. Otherwise, do not touch the raft, and do not stir the stock. The raft, true to its name, should remain afloat.
Even though you don’t touch the stock during this time, don’t walk away. After about an hour to 90 minutes, the raft will begin to sink slightly. This is your sign that the consommé is done – if you keep cooking, it will fall apart and ruin your beautiful clear soup.
If you have a spigot-type pot, drain the consommé from the bottom of the pot, being careful not to drain any portion of the raft. The first cup of consommé from the spigot may be sediment; drain off first and discard before proceeding. If you do not have a spigot-type pot, remove the consommé by pouring off very carefully so you do not break the raft. Strain the consommé through a chinois lined with two layers of cheesecloth.
1/4 dry sherry
bay leaf (optional)
4-5 thyme branches (optional)
soy sauce (optional)
Flavor the consommé or the stock with sherry and salt. If using just stock, you may want to bring it back to a simmer with bay and thyme for 30 minutes for additional flavor, and season with a little soy sauce as well as salt, for additional umami.
For the croutons:
1 loaf pain de campagne, crust removed, cut into 1/4″ cubes (1/2″ is fine if you can’t manage smaller)
8 oz Gruyère
Toss the bread cubes very lightly in olive oil and place on a sheet pan lined with silpat. Bake until light golden.
Grate the cheese amply using a Microplane over the croutons. Return to the oven until just melted.
To assemble the soup:
Ladle consommé or soup into individual serving vessels (I use gravy boats or sake bottles, depending on the mood). Heat your soup bowls. Place cheesy croutons in the bottom of soup bowls with a quenelle of onion confit.
Place an onion transparency over the top and serve with consommé in a small vessel.
Tap the transparency lightly with a spoon to break it into the bowl.
Pour the consommé over all.
I owe Aki Kamozawa and Alex Talbot of Ideas in Food for the glass onion idea; I read about it on their excellent blog three or four years ago and have used the method ever since to produce other fruit and vegetable transparencies. Apple, greengage plum, sweet pickle, and carrot are favorites; kimchi is swell too.
Liquid glucose is available through a baking supply (Michael’s Crafts carries it in small tubs in the cake decorating section).
750g yellow onions (about 2 extra large or four medium), peeled and sliced thinly
150g liquid glucose, about 1/3 c
75g water, about ¼ c
50g agave syrup (about 2 tbsp)
5g salt (about 1 tsp)
Combine all the ingredients in a saucepot. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat, stirring to dissolve all the sugars. The mixture will become more liquid as the onions give up water. Reduce heat to the lowest setting.
The mixture will become golden as the sugar cooks. Reduce until the liquid volume is about 1/3 of the peak volume (after onions give up their water initially). Don’t overreduce or you will have problems puréeing. Transfer to a vitaprep or blender and purée until very smooth. If you have one, push the mixture through a tamis (drum sieve) to remove any fine fibers. Cool in the refrigerator for about an hour.
Oven 200F/95C convection.
Perform this step in batches. Place a silpat on a baking sheet and spread the onion purée thinly on the silpat in the desired shape and size. Bake until the onion bubbles up from the silpat and becomes more golden, about 30 mins to 2 hours depending on the thickness of the transparency. Working quickly, remove transparencies using a fish spatula or offset spatula and place on a clean flat surface – they should lift easily from the silpat. The transparencies will be somewhat flexible while on the hot pan but should become crisp immediately on cooling. If not, or if they seem fruit-leathery, they are not completely dry; return them to the oven. If you work quickly while they are hot, you may be able to form tuile shapes.
Store tightly sealed (with a dessicant packet if you have it). Serve with meat or grilled vegetable dishes.