The French call onion soup “Parisian food” because, like croque monsieur and entrecôte avec frites, it is a dish that originated in the bistros and bars that were the first fast food outlets in Paris. “Soupe à l'oignon” was served as an early morning item in the streets around Les Halles, the old wholesale market where farmers, shopkeepers and restaurant owners met before the sun was up to barter over fresh produce. Once the first rush of business was over, these men and women who had been working all night wanted something warm and satisfying.
Onion soup is one of the few dishes where the French use cheese in cooking; cheese is generally eaten as a separate course at the end of a meal. But here it is an ingredient in an inexpensive dish. French kitchens always have a block of Gruyère (Swiss cheese) on hand, and recipes that use yesterday’s bread are forever welcome.
When I was married to Jean-Alfred he often wanted an onion soup when we returned home after midnight following a night on the town. Using the ingredients of the original “Les Halles” recipe, I devised a way of putting the soup on the table in less than 15 minutes. You may not have exactly the same ingredients listed below; alternates are given after the recipe.
One large yellow onion
Roughly 2 to 3 tablespoons of butter *
One teaspoonful of flour
A 14 oz. can of consommé *
One 4- to 5-inch piece of baguette *
A 1- by 4-inch piece of dried-out Gruyère *
(No salt is needed; there is enough in the consommé)
You will also need:
A cutting board and knife
One fairly large skillet
One small saucepan
Two burners on a stove
A grill/broiler or a toaster oven
Two ovenproof bowls
1 – Turn on the grill/broiler or toaster oven.
2 – Peel and thinly slice the onion and put in the skillet over medium heat with just enough water to cover.
3 – Pour the consommé into the saucepan and put it over medium heat until it simmers.
4 – While the onions and the consommé are cooking, thinly slice the baguette and toast it lightly.
5 – Finely shred the cheese.
6 – By now the onions should be slightly soft and most of the water gone. Add the butter and brown slightly.
7 - Sprinkle the flour over the onions and stir.
8 – Add the consommé to the skillet and let it come to a simmer.
9 – Meanwhile, put the slices of toasted baguette in the bottom of the bowls.
10 – Once the soup has come to a simmer, pour it into the bowls, sprinkle with shredded cheese, and pass under the grill or in the toaster oven for two minutes.
Jean-Alfred would pour a bit of red wine into his soup when it was served because a) – it cooled the soup and he could eat it immediately and b) – because he was French and liked to do this. If you are not French you may not want to try it.
*Please use butter unless your finances, diet, and or moral scruples prevent it. Butter tastes better.
*You can use ordinary beef broth but consommé is richer.
*If you use sandwich bread instead of baguette, cut each slice into four pieces.
*If you use shredded parmesan instead of Gruyère you won’t get those long strings of cheese that are so much fun to eat at three o’clock in the morning.