Not for nothing are they the third vital element in the holy trinity of carrot and celery in a mirepoix or sofrito. They are key to the flavour foundation of every dish to which they are assigned. To test, look through your cookbooks and see if you can find any recipes (aside from those for puddings and pastries) in any cuisine that doesn’t call for an onion, or one or more of the most common of its close relations, the shallot, leek, garlic bulb, spring onion or chive.
Each of them is part of the Allium family, one of the oldest species of vegetable. Iran, Central Asian nations and India all claim to have been the first to cultivate it, over 7000 years ago, and traces have been found in Bronze Age settlements in China. It turned out the Plymouth Brethren needn’t shipped it to America - Native Americans were already growing it.
Every year, at Village Fetes across Britain, smallholders vie to win the red rosette for the largest onion. So far, the record goes to Tony Glover, whose entry to the Harrogate Autumn Flower Show in 2014 weighed 8.5kg. Perfect for a witches’ cauldron of onion soup.
And onion soup is the ideal soup for this chilly, damp and dour time of year. Its cooking infuses the entire house with an, at first, unwashed stink but one that quickly mellows into a warm, caramel-ly smell, full of comforting promise. Slow, low-heated cooking in butter encourages the onion to collapse and its sugars to develop. It’s only an olfactory challenge up to the point it reaches this stage, from that painful exposure that makes your eyes sting (which can be slightly mitigated by holding them under water as you peel their skins), to chopping them - with your head held as far back as you can to evade their fumes. Nigel Slater has a recipe that avoids this agony by roasting the onions until collapsed, then chopping them and boiling them, first in wine then in stock, to create the soup.
I prefer the Paris bistro method, made a day or two ahead and reheated so that the flavours become even more mellow.
Serves 4 or 6
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, 2 tablespoons of it cubed and chilled
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1.5kg onions, halved lengthwise, peeled, and thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- ½ tablespoon granulated sugar
- 350ml dry white wine
- 1.5 litres beef stock
- 10 sprigs fresh thyme, tied together
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 baguette
- 1 large garlic clove, unpeeled and cut in half crosswise
- 2 tablespoons Cognac
- 150g Gruyère, grated
In a large pot, melt 3 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add the oil and onions. Saute the onions until soft, stirring occasionally, 15-20 minutes then add the salt, pepper and sugar and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are caramelised to a deep golden brown. If the onions begin to catch and brown too fast, reduce the heat. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, 35 to 45 minutes more.
Add the wine and raise the heat to high. Cook until almost all liquid has evaporated, 8 to 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the stock and the herbs to the pot. Bring slowly to a boil, reduce to a simmer then cook, uncovered until the soup has thickened a little, 20 to 30 minutes.
Remove from the heat and whisk in the remaining cubes of butter. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
Heat the grill. Slice the baguette into two slices per person. Toast them until gold on each side. Rub one side of each toast with the garlic clove and set aside.
Put warmed heatproof bowls into a roasting pan, add half a tablespoon of brandy to the bottom of each, and ladle soup on top. Top each serving of soup with two garlic-rubbed toasts. Divide cheese among the servings, covering the bread and soup surface. Slide the pan under the grill until the cheese is melted and bubbling, 4 to 8 minutes. Alternatively, and if you have diners who don’t like soggy toast, top each garlic-rubbed toast with some cheese and grill them separately, for passing separately from the soup.
This column written by Julia Watson originally appeared in the January 2021 edition of The Bugle.