11 February 2011

Recipes: Best French Onion Soup (Vegetarian / Vegan)

I love French Onion Soup. LOVE it. When I took a trip to San Diego many years ago, my friend and I went on a quest to find the best French Onion Soup in the city. We even tried French Onion Soup in Tiajuana (Sopa de Cebollas, I believe). So I'm something of an expert, and I'm picky. Not just any French Onion Soup will do. It has to have just the right combination of flavors to really hit the mark. This recipe resulted in the BEST French Onion Soup I've ever had; my boyfriend agrees. The flavors are just right, and when topped with day-old French bread and thin slices of Gruyere cheese, this soup is a sure winner.

A note, before you decide to get started: Don't rush the onion caramelization process. If you can't let the onions cook for the full time (2 1/2 - 3 hours), make something else. It's not like you have to stand over a hot stove for three hours using my method, but you do have to be able to let the onions cook properly, or your soup won't come out as great. If you are hungry, make something else for dinner. This soup is best started around lunchtime in order to have an AMAZING dinner experience. Save this recipe for a day when you have some free time. If you are going to be home all day cleaning one day, that would be a great time to make this soup. Allow about 4 hours from start to finish, which sounds like a lot, but trust me, this soup is worth it.
You will need:
5 large sweet onions, about 4 - 5 pounds.
1 T. salt
1 T. salt
fresh cracked black pepper
balsamic vinegar, about 2 T.
olive oil, about 1/4 cup
1/4 cup butter (use margarine for your vegan version)
3 T. all-purpose flour
2 t. thyme
1 t. basil
1 bay leaf
1/2 t. mustard powder
2 T. soy sauce
1/2 cup wine (I used Trader Joe's J.W. Morris 2007 California Gewurztraminer, but any red or white would be fine)
1/4 t. liquid smoke
7 cup vegetable broth (I used Better Than Buillion vegetable flavor, but use your favorite)
Gruyere cheese, to serve. I got about 1/4 pound, which serves four
[If you have making a vegan version, see the Vegan Gruyere Cheese recipe below)
Large 12 inch cooking pan, oven-proof
Large crock pot (mine is probably 3 quarts?)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Remove outer skin on onions, cut off top and bottom. Cut onions in half, then slice. You don't have to have uniform pieces. I make my pieces no bigger than about 1/2 inch thick. Break apart pieces with your hands so you have separate slices and chunks. Add all onion pieces to your large cooking pan. Cut 1/2 butter (or margarine) into small chunks and divide over the onions. Add pan to oven and wander away.
You will need to stir (with tongs, if you have 'em, for best results) about every 30 minutes for the next two hours or so. You want the onions to reach a nice golden color and be soft. You don't have to be super particular. Just try to remember in 30 minutes to stir, but it's no big deal if you leave it a little longer.
After 1 hour, splash with olive oil, about 1/4 cup, but you don't have to be precise.
After about 2 hours, your onions should be looking pretty cooked and smelling good. Add 1 T. salt and 1 T. sugar and stir. Cook for 30 more minutes. Now your onions should look light yellow or brown and getting the delicious golden appearance so important for this soup.
Splash the onions with balsamic vinegar, about 2 T, and sprinkle black pepper generously over the onions. Stir. Cook for 15 more minutes.
Now add 3 T. flour, stir, and cook for 15 more minutes. (Note, if you like caramelized onions as a pizza topping, pick out some onions before you add the flour and refrigerate for up to two weeks until it's pizza night. Yum!).
Now it's finally time to actually make the soup. Plug in your crockpot and turn the heat to high. Add all the onions and any juices to the crockpot. You can deglaze the pan with the wine, if you'd like. I didn't bother, but you certainly can. Add the thyme, basil, mustard powder, soy sauce, and wine to the crockpot. Stir and although to cook for about 5 - 10 minutes. (A note on the thyme: some people might find 2 t. of thyme to be too overpowering. We found it delicious, but you might want to start with 1 t. then add more to taste.)
Add liquid smoke (use a careful hand with this stuff!) and broth. If you don't have liquid smoke, you could certainly skip it and still have yummy soup, but it's cheap (about $2.50), found near the BBQ sauces, and adds a lovely smoky flavor that makes this soup more reminiscent of the meat-broth versions.
Allow to cook until the soup is hot, about 30 minutes to 1 hour. (Use hot broth if you want the soup to heat up faster.) You can add slightly less or slightly more broth to taste. In fact, I added 7 cups off broth, then after we both had dinner, I added 3 cups more to fill the pot, since I felt there were plenty of onions to stretch the soup a bit. Tastes just as good today. In fact, this soup tastes better the second day, so definitely prepare the full batch. I hear it freezes well, too, but I haven't tried that yet.
To serve:
Slice day old French bread into rounds. Heat a non-stick frying pan to high. Without adding any oil, add bread and lightly toast on each side. You just want to remove extra moisture from the bread. Slice Gruyere cheese into thin slices -- you could grate it, too, if you'd rather.
Looking for a vegan version? Try this:
Vegan Gruyere Cheese
You'll need:
1 cup water
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp tahini
2 tbsp nutritional yeast
2 tbsp flour
4 tsp arrowroot (or cornstarch, if that's what you have handy)
1 1/2 tsp onion powder
1/4 tsp salt
Blend all ingredients until smooth. Pour into a small pan and cook over medium high heat for about 5 minutes or until thick. Spread this cheese on your French bread rounds.
Preheat your broiler. Before preparing your soup, make sure your soup bowls or crocks will fit under the broiler -- I was going to use a toaster oven, but they wouldn't fit so I had to use the oven's broiler. Taking a second now to make sure might save you annoyance later.
Ladle soup into bowls. Add bread flat across the top of the bowl. Add cheese. Broil for a few minutes until the cheese is nice and bubbly. Serve with a glass of wine (see above) and enjoy. Oh la la!


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