“Vegetarian French onion soup? How do you do that?” everyone wanted to know. I wasn’t exactly sure, but I had a plan: use Julia Child’s method for the onion part of the soup and for the “French” part, that is, the browned, melted cheese suspended on toasted bread, which then stretches from bowl to mouth when you go to eat it. The only substitution would be vegetable broth for beef.
My friends were skeptical. Brenny admitted afterward, “I figured it would be an experience, anyway…that it would taste good, just not like a traditional French onion soup. I thought it would taste like it was missing beef.”
I should explain here that I have some rules about my mostly-vegetarian diet, the first one being, I don’t eat fake meat. I like to say, if I wanted to eat meat, I’d eat meat. My anti-fake meat stance applies to soup stock as well, which is one reason I didn’t run out to the store to buy beef-like bouillon cubes or packaged imitation beef stock.
The second reason is that pre-made stocks are often filled with salt, and sometimes “natural” flavors and colors. Plech. The third reason—the real one—is that I was going to follow Julia Child’s recipe, and her recipes depend upon using homemade, fresh ingredients and, of course, ample butter and wine.
When I watched Julia Child earlier that week slowly browning onions in butter on the classic “French Onion Soup” episode of “The French Chef” (from Netflix), I realized that step was the key, rather than the beef broth. I resolved, though it might take some time, I was going to attempt her recipe. And then I planned to subject our friends Brenny and Dale to my experiment.
Most of my soup stock began life on a local farm (see previous post). From Pleasant Valley Farm (CNG) I also bought and additional seven yellow onions, about two and a half pounds for the onion broth.
I figured since I was putting so much effort into this soup, and so much cheese, I wanted excellent cheese that we could feel good about. You can use ordinary Swiss cheese, of course, but at the farmer’s market, Homestead Artisans Enterprises has homemade, naturally produced Gruyere, which they call High Rock cheese.
I have bought cheese from Liza Porter, owner with her husband David, for a number of special occasions and never have been disappointed. (You can taste for yourself at the booth.) I told Liza of my plan and asked how much I’d need for four servings. She found the perfect sized block, and she was absolutely right about the portion size.
This is something I love about the farmer’s market; the vendors are knowledgeable, and most are really friendly and interested in helping customers figure out how to use their produce. It was an $8 block of cheese for four people, so it was a splurge, but I would absolutely do it exactly the same way again. It was that good.
At home, Julia Child style, I pulled my homemade vegetable stock out of the fridge to reheat it as I made the rest of the broth. I had made it the day before, which was a good idea. Broth requires little attention, but to wring every bit of flavor out of those vegetables and spices, it took about four hours (simmering unattended on the stove—very easy—see previous post). Thus concluded the healthy part of the recipe, the interlude with no fat and no salt. On to the Julia Child section.
An alarming amount of butter goes into the onion preparation and, I confess, I had second thoughts. (I didn’t have Julia Child’s actual recipe in front of me, just my memory of it from watching and Food Network’s interpretation that I found online to remind me of quantities.) I did a little mental calculation and consoled myself that when all is said and done, it turns into one tablespoon of butter, less than a teaspoon of olive oil, and two ounces of cheese per person.
Urged on by my husband Wayne, I plunked the half a stick of butter into the stockpot, and began to brown the onions. The resulting soup was incredibly rich, and while I think I could probably reduce the amount of butter and increase the olive oil, for a special occasion soup, I really wouldn’t want to change a thing.
The whole soup took a while to come together, but cooking the onions is the only part of the recipe that requires slaving over a hot stove. (Most of the other steps can happen while one is in a different room, writing.) After turning the onions translucent on medium-low, you have to stir frequently for the 25 minutes or so as the onions take on the famous rich brown color and caramelized flavor.
Julia Child suggests browning the onions while working something else on the stove so you can attend to the onion constantly to keep them from burning. (I read one recipe on the internet which blithely suggests stirring once during the entire browning process. Yum: scorched onion soup.)
It’s really quite easy from there. I whisked in flour, added the vegetable broth, cognac, and wine and let the whole shebang simmer on its own for an hour and a half. I made Wayne buy good wine and brandy for the recipe, assuring him that he could drink the cognac afterward. He balked at the price, but commented later that if you use poor wine and liquor in a recipe, you end up cooking it down to super-concentrated bad wine and liquor in your food. Not pleasant.
The last steps were quick and turned the already fragrant, rich soup, into the bubbling, cheesy entrée I’d been dreaming about since I saw Julia preparing and serving it up (and the soup I’ve been missing but avoid in restaurants because it’s made with beef stock). I ladled out the savory onion soup into oven proof bowls, floated the pre-toasted slices of crusty French bread, covered them in cheese, and set them under the broiler for a few minutes. Voila!
Minutes later at the table, the four of us cut through the cheese and bread with our spoons to the deep brown broth below. Brenny said, “Wow!” a feeling echoed by everyone at the table. And since you can’t taste it for yourself this moment, I’ll boast that it was probably one of the best French onion soups I’ve ever had, with the zing of sharp melted gruyere contrasting with the darkly sweet onions nearly melting into oblivion. No one missed the beef. As Julia would say, all you need to make it a meal is a green salad. Bon apetit!
Recipe adapted from Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”
Vegetarian French Onion Soup
- ½ stick butter
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 6-7 medium-large yellow onions, thinly sliced (about 2-1/2 pounds)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 8 cups homemade vegetable stock (or good quality store-bought)
- 1/4 cup Cognac, or other good brandy
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 12 (3/4 inch) thick slices of French bread, brushed with olive oil and toasted
- ½ pound coarsely grated Gruyere
If you are using homemade vegetable stock, make this in advance, and then reheat it as you are preparing the onions.
In a 6-quart, heavy sauce pan, melt the butter with the olive oil on medium-low heat. Add onions and cook until they are translucent, about 10 minutes. Stir in the sugar and salt and turn up the heat to medium high to brown the onions, stirring frequently for about 25 minutes or so, until the onions are uniformly dark brown. Rapidly stir in the flour, cooking for a few minutes to make a thick paste. Remove from heat.
Add a few ladles of the hot broth and stir briskly. Add half the stock and stir again, returning the pot to the heat. Then add the remainder of the broth, cognac and wine and stir well to combine. Bring the liquid to a simmer. Continue simmering, loosely covered, for an hour and a half. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if needed.
Ladle the soup into four 16-oz ovenproof bowls. Julia Child says to sprinkle a little cheese on top of each soup before floating the toasted bread slices on top of each portion. Then cover each bread slice with cheese, being careful not to leave naked edges of bread, which can burn. Place bowls on top of a baking sheet under the broiler and watch closely. When the cheese is bubbly and golden brown, the soups are ready. Serve immediately to your awe-struck guests.