WINE WITH…Onion Soup with Short Ribs and Gruyère Toasts
At a popular local restaurant we recently were served an off-putting version of onion soup that, among its other flaws, had been thickened with flour to a pudding-like consistency. While we love classic French onion soup, we lately have been disappointed by many of the ways it’s been misinterpreted. Some
of these soups have simply been too blah, thin and insipid. But what has really been bugging us is the fact that so many of today’s onion soups tend to be sweet. Really, really sweet.
We understand that a lot of people believe that adding sugar during the caramelization process helps the onions to brown better, or at least faster. But here’s the thing: we add zero sugar when we caramelize onions yet they always turn out brown, tasty and savory more than sweet. Onions actually contain a lot of natural sugar. You won’t taste that sweetness in a raw onion, but during the process of caramelization a chemical reaction takes place that breaks down the onions’ sugar molecules. As they cook and their water begins to evaporate, the onions soften and their sugar becomes more dominant. But because a raw onion is almost 90% water it takes a fair amount of time for them to get soft and brown without burning. This is why onions need a fair amount of stirring during the beginning phase of the caramelization process. Give them a little stir every few minutes as they start to cook; then, as they begin to darken, they will need less frequent stirring as they caramelize.
While onion soup can be an entirely satisfying simple dinner all by itself, we occasionally like to up the ante by adding boneless short ribs to it along with cheese-laden chunks of baguette. The result is a rich, complex and wonderfully wine-friendly soup.
Onion Soup With Short Ribs and Gruyère Toasts
A pound of onions should yield about 4 cups of sliced onions, and 1 cup of caramelized onions. The caramelized onions may be made up to a day or two ahead of time.
Because short ribs are very fatty, we like to cook them a day ahead so that the fat can solidify over night and then just be lifted or scraped off and discarded.
For the Onions:
One pound yellow onions
2 tablespoons butter or oil or 1 tablespoon each
For the Short Ribs:
About 2 to 3 pounds bone-in short ribs
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion
4 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
8 cups beef or chicken stock
1 cup red wine
1 teaspoon dried thyme
salt and pepper to taste
1/8 teaspoon cayenne (optional)
For the Baguette:
8 ounces Gruyére cheese, grated
Slice the onions about 1/8th inch thick (too thick and they may disintegrate before they brown, while onion slices that are too thin are apt to burn). Heat the butter and/or oil in a skillet or sauté pan (a regular stainless steel skillet, a cast iron pan or a non-stick pan all work fine). Stir in the onions, coating them thoroughly with the fat. Cook, uncovered, over low heat, stirring them every 10-15 minutes. When they begin to color, start stirring them more frequently. As they become soft and dark they’ll need stirring almost constantly to keep them from burning. If they start to stick to the pan you can add a little water (or wine, sherry or Cognac).
Meanwhile, in a large Dutch oven braise the short ribs in the oil, adjusting the heat as needed and turning them frequently, until they are nicely browned (this should take about 10 minutes). Peel the onion and add it to the pot whole, along with the whole cloves of garlic and the remaining ingredients. Simmer, covered, for about 2 hours or until the meat is very tender. Remove the ribs from the broth, and when cool enough to handle discard the bones. Meanwhile, strain the broth and discard the solids. Return the pot to the stove and simmer the liquid, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. Refrigerate the meat and the broth separately until you are ready to serve the soup.
To serve, lift or spoon most of the fat off the broth and the meat and discard it. Reheat the broth and warm the pieces of short ribs for a couple of minutes in the hot broth. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and divide it among four wide soup bowls.
Trim the ends off the baguette and discard them (or save to make croutons). Cut the remaining baguette into 4 pieces and cut each piece in half lengthwise. Divide the cheese among the eight pieces of bread and toast them in a hot oven or broiler or a toaster oven. When the cheese is nicely melted arrange 2 pieces of baguette in each bowl next to the short ribs and ladle the hot broth over the baguettes and the meat. Serve at once.
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We guessed that this meaty soup would go best with red wines, but during our tasting whites performed every bit as well, if not slightly better. Crisp, unwooded ones proved especially good partners, as their crisp character provided a cool, contrasting element. On the other side of the taste spectrum, the reds we tried simply echoed the soup in terms of body and personality. We were reminded, as the old Chuck Berry song has it, that “you never can tell.”