For those who imbibe with abandon and need soothing relief the day after, soup may be the answer. Some swear by a big bowlful of menudo: spicy Mexican tripe soup topped with raw onion, chilies and a squeeze of lime. There’s Korean hae jang gook, a heady concoction of ox blood, meaty bones, bean sprouts and dried cabbage.
In France, the trusted remedy is onion soup. Yes, the kind they used to sell late at night in Les Halles, the long-gone Parisian market. Now it’s hard to find a proper soupe à l’oignon in Paris. But you may find a lackluster onion soup gratinée on every tourist menu, served bubbling away with gooey cheese.
A really good homemade onion soup, though, even when eaten sober, is an excellent antidote to blustery, cold weather. In fact, onion soup is really a home cook’s dish. The recipe is very much let’s-make-something-out-of-nothing, consisting of only a few pantry staples. The three main ingredients are onions, salt and pepper. A common frugal meal for generations of French families, the soup nevertheless requires a certain finesse to prepare.
Jacques Pépin showed me his way when I first met him years ago in California. We were making an enormous amount of onion soup for a special event, so we had 10 pounds of sliced onions and a stove top lined with large sauté pans. His admonishments: Don’t overcrowd the pan, or the onions won’t brown. Keep the heat high but not too high, so the onions don’t cook too fast and burn. Be generous with the salt and pepper. Bay leaf and thyme are essential; everything else is negotiable. A little red wine is nice; a splash of Cognac couldn’t hurt.
The carefully caramelized onions were now ready for the soup pot. Do you use beef stock or chicken broth? I asked.
No, he said. Too fancy. This is a simple peasant dish. We shall use “Château Chirac,” ordinary tap water! My mother always makes it this way, he said, trust me.
Who was I to argue with Jacques Pépin’s mother? Indeed, the soup was incredibly flavorful. This has now become my hands-down favorite method, too, and a welcome all-purpose remedy, especially at this time of year.
Red Onion Soup with Cheese Toasts
3 pounds red onions (about 8 medium onions), peeled, sliced ∂-inch thick
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup dry red wine
2 bay leaves
1 small bunch thyme, tied with string, plus 1 teaspoon chopped thyme
8 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons brandy (optional)
6 slices day-old bread, lightly toasted
6 ounces grated Gruyère cheese
1 tablespoon chopped sage
Set 2 large, wide skillets over medium-high heat. When pans are hot, add 1 tablespoon oil and a large handful of sliced onions to each pan. Season onions with salt and pepper, then sauté, stirring occasionally, until they are a ruddy dark brown, about 10 minutes.
Transfer onions to soup pot, and return pans to stove. Pour ½ cup water into each pan to deglaze it, scraping with a wooden spoon to dissolve any brown bits. Pour deglazing liquid into soup pot. Wipe pans clean with paper towel, and begin again with more oil and sliced onions. Continue until all onions are used. Don’t crowd pans, or onions won’t brown sufficiently.
Place soup pot over high heat. Add wine, bay leaves, thyme bunch and garlic. Simmer rapidly for 5 minutes, then add 8 cups water and return to boil. Turn heat down to maintain a gentle simmer. Add 2 teaspoons salt. Cook for 45 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. (May be prepared to this point up to 2 days in advance.)
To serve, add brandy to soup, if using, and simmer 5 minutes. Remove bay leaves and thyme bunch. Make the cheese toasts: Heat broiler. Place toasted bread onto baking sheet. Mix cheese with chopped thyme and sage, along with a generous amount of pepper. Heap about 1 ounce of cheese mixture on each toast. Broil until cheese bubbles and browns slightly. Ladle soup into wide bowls, and top with toast.
Makes 6 servings.