Wine With French Onion Soup
by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas
Few things are more satisfying on a cold, blustery day than a big bowl of onion soup. We're referring, of course, to the classic French Soupe à l'Oignon Gratinée, a rich, beefy broth dense with onions, topped by slices of grilled bread and covered with a blanket of melted cheese. Unless one is served only a small cup of it, we prefer to think of this warming and filling soup as a meal-in-a-bowl rather than an appetizer to be followed by a main course. We'll have a big salad afterwards, and perhaps, at the most, a few cold cuts, but the soup is really the star of the show.
Soupe à l'Oignon gained a glamorous reputation a couple of generations ago in Paris, when it became all the rage to head to the now-vanished Les Halles section of the city in the wee hours of the morning after a night out on the town, for bowls of onion soup. ('Best consumed between 3 and 4 in the morning,' advised one French critic.) A carafe of vin rouge ordinaire was the soup's immutable partner. But just which red wine? Beaujolais was often suggested as an accompaniment, and in our own taste-test a Beaujolais-Villages did, indeed, end up among our favorites. Other fruity reds also fared well, whereas wines that were very dry (and/or tannic) turned somewhat harsh with the soup. (A fairly austere Bordeaux was a case in point.) A couple of big red wines, a California Merlot and a Zin, worked well enough, but they skittered dangerously close to the edge of being too big, and too hot for the big, hot soup; too much of this kind of 'sameness' can be fatiguing to the palate. We likewise rejected white wine that was too light or lacking in fruit sweetness for the opposite reason: it just couldn't stand up as well to the soup. One of us did feel that the sweetness in a fruity California sparkling wine paired nicely with the soup and added a refreshing note, but the other thought the wine was not substantial enough in relation to the dish to make it into our top five choices. Other than this one divergence of opinion, however, we were mostly in agreement in our preferences. In truth, no wine was terrible with the soup. This turns out to be a dish that gracefully accommodates any number of different wine types and styles.
Soupe à l'Oignon Gratinée
Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a first course
4 tablespoons butter
4 large onions, very thinly sliced
1 teaspoon sugar (helps the onions to brown)
1 quart beef stock (chicken or vegetable stock may be substituted)
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper
8 slices baguette or 4 slices boule, or rustic sourdough country bread
1 ½ cup shredded Gruyère cheese
In a large, heavy pot, melt the butter until it is just beginning to color. Stir in the onions and sugar and cook, stirring frequently, over medium to medium-low heat for about 20 minutes, or until onions are very tender and brown, but not burned. (This step is the key to good onion soup, for if the onions aren't thoroughly cooked the soup will never have the right color, texture or depth of flavor). Pour in the stock, add the bay leaf, and season with salt and pepper. (Remember, onions are naturally sweet, so require more salt than one might think.) Simmer about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, toast the bread until it is dark, and set aside. Just before serving, turn the oven onto broil, bring the soup back to a simmer, and sprinkle ½ cup of the cheese over the top. Float the bread slices on top of the soup and sprinkle the remaining cheese over them. Pop the casserole under the broiler for a couple of minutes until the cheese melts and browns. If your broiler is undependable, this step may be done in a very hot oven. (Alternatively, the soup may be ladled into individual oven-proof crocks, with the cheese and bread divided between them, then broiled or baked as above).