“A Table!” Lessons in Expat Cooking – Soupe à l’oignon gratinée

I’m just someone who likes cooking and for whom sharing food is a form of expression.

– Maya Angelou

What fun is life as an expat if you don’t indulge in the local cuisine? Before I jump into any recipes, I want to share with you my history with cooking and where my love of trying new ideas comes from. In thinking back to the start of my culinary ride, I honestly can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t cook. Sure I have had cooking fails over the years but I truly feel like my hands have been in the kitchen my entire life. I learned to make pretty complicated things at a young age (yes Dad, I’m referring to ‘could you whip up a lasagna for tonight?’ at 10 years old).  I learned kids basics, too: soup, Kraft Dinner (mac ‘n cheese for my American friends), pancakes, pizza dough, etc. I was always interested in what was going on in our kitchen. I tried some pretty fancy things, too, including learning how to make chocolate éclairs with my amazing Aunt H when I was still a kid. All of these early kitchen moments still stay with me and are quite noticeably tied to my life as a mother of two youngsters who both love to cook, as well.

In 1996 I registered to become a Chef Apprentice under the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. This programme has changed since then but it still operates in a fairly similar fashion. As an apprentice, you must complete around 3000 hours of on-the-job training, working with various chefs, then complete the programme at a designated college or university. I can honestly say that what I learned in that time has stayed with me far longer than a lot of other things I learned in school (Pythagorean’s Theorem, anyone?). I worked professionally for several years before putting my culinary life behind me. I started to dislike cooking. I found myself frustrated by intricate dishes and wanted comfort foods. I lost my cooking mojo and it stayed lost for many years.

In time, I began a new journey. A journey that has landed me here, in what many consider, the culinary capital of the world. Paris has been an interesting place to live as far as dining, cooking and food exploration is concerned. I have learned to give green beans a chance. I have learned about the different butters that exists and how to use them in pretty much everything. I have learned to make things like Coq au vin, Charlotte aux Fraises and ratatouille (recipes coming in time). Yet, I came here with some classics already in my pocket and have learned that sometimes, I like MY version better! Take for instance the timeless soupe à l’oignon gratinée aka French Onion Soup. One of my absolute favourite dishes especially when I am on a ski holiday in the Alps. Nothing is better at warming you up on a cold winter day, except maybe fondue!! However, I have been routinely disappointed in actual restaurants here with their soup. I even complained in a famous Parisian restaurant once about it being too watery to which my polite French waitress replied, “but madame, there is water in soup!”

So, it seemed fitting to me when I decided I would incorporate local dishes in this blog (hungry adventurers have to eat!) that I would start with one of my favourites: soupe à l’oignon gratinée. This recipe is my own take on this soup and you don’t have to agree with how I make it. It’s OK. All I can say is that boy oh boy does this version ever do the trick for me!

**Please do not attempt this soup at 6pm hoping to eat it for 6:30pm. She needs time to really develop her flavours and to rush it would be a sin.  I generally make mine in the afternoon then turn off the heat, cover and let it sit for the rest of the day. I reheat just in time for dinner then add the cheese and bread. At this point, this dish is complete perfection.

Soupe à l’oignon gratinée:

Makes 4 – 6 servings depending on your bowl and appetite size

  • 700g thinly sliced onions (I use a mix of yellow and red to enhance the flavour)
  • 2 cloves of garlic finely diced
  • 30g flour (optional – just makes it slightly less watery)
  • 1-1,5L beef, chicken or vegetable stock (for a veggie-friendly version)
  • 100ml red wine
  • 5ml or 1tsp thyme
  • 30ml or 2tbs Worcestershire sauce (there are vegan versions if you prefer)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • unsalted butter
  • salt and pepper
  • stale bread (day old baguette is perfect)
  • Grated cheese (I use a mixture of Emmental, Gruyère and Comté)

Directions:

Melt butter in a pot over medium heat. Add onions and begin to simmer, stirring frequently for about 10 minutes. You want them soft, translucent and slightly caramelised. Add the garlic, stir, then add flour and quickly stir again to coat the onions, not allowing it to stick to the bottom of the pot. Once all the onions are coated, add your wine and thyme (oooh a rhyme!). Stir again for a minute or so. At this point, at the remaining ingredients (stock, Worcestershire sauce, bay leaf and pepper, leaving the salt out for now). Leave simmering for at least 30 minutes. Watch your liquid level doesn’t boil off too much, if needed you can add some more stock or water. When you are done you can either leave it to settle for a while like I do or move onto the next step: CHEESE AND BREAD!

Simmering away!
Simmering away!

You can accomplish this next step one of two ways: traditionally the soup is served into each bowl, topped with slices or chunks of stale bread, further topped with mounds of cheese then broiled to a crisp, salty, golden, cheesy perfection. However, not everyone HAS the right types of bowls for the oven so there is an alternate method. Get a cookie sheet and make little piles of bread topped with cheese for however many bowls of soup you are preparing. Make sure that they will fit into your bowl size after being in the oven otherwise you will create a big mess. Broil these bad boys then use a spatula to carefully transfer them on top of your soup! Voilà!

Parfait!
Parfait!

Photo credits: Jennifer Hart, Fotolia

Author: Jennifer Hart

Traveller. Wife. Mother. Bilingual. Hiker. Shopper. Skier. Snowboarder. Soccer midfielder. Marathoner. Canadian. Wine lover. Mama also to a crazy labrador retriever. My running keeps me grounded. My writing keeps me sane. My kids and husband keep me loved. These are our stories, love them or leave them. We may not have a permanent home but we have each other.

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