French onion soup with its dark brown caramelised depths hidden beneath a melted cheese crouton is one of the worlds great dishes. Super simple ingredients but manipulated with technique to rise up as a culinary standard.
The onion is such an understated vegetable. It hides most of its life semi-buried behind a thick skin. It’s the introvert of the alliums.
As an ingredient it’s the backbone of so many dishes. Leave the onion out and there will be something missing. It’s the undercoat, the bass line. Defining the flavour of an onion is difficult. It’s well … oniony.
When raw it’s very oniony. Many don’t care much for the naked truth of the onion. Pungent, acrid and tear inducing. Hanging around on the breath and the fingers of the handler.
Fried the smell spreads rapidly – the smell of fairgrounds and football matches.
Even when drowned and boiled to a soft mush the smell of canteens and school dinners leeches out.
Treated gently and slowly caramelised is the necessity for onion soup. Slowly coaxing the sugars and flavours into a dark broth of sweet savoury richness.
Classic recipes for french onion soup are readily available and as always I check out Felicity Cloake Perfect column. These great chefs and their customised versions use the standard approach but whilst I was smoking a chicken recently I had a flash of inspiration.
I love smoked onions. Often whilst doing any smoked meat I will loosely wrap an onion in foil and sneak it into a spare space on the grill. Low and slow the sugars caramelised and the smoke permeates. In itself it’s a thing of beauty to eat alone. It can be saved and chopped into rice or beans, acting like a bouquet garni of umami and gentle smoke. Puréed and mixed into sour cream or hummus.
I had never thought of using this as the base for a french onion soup though? So mission accepted next smoking session goal; Perfecting the smoked onion soup.
A mesquite smoked chicken done at around 275 degrees for 2-3 hours was the perfect setting. I had some sage and onion stuffing so did a stuffed onion at the same time but in the back of the smoker I put a chopped onion in some oil in. As all cast iron pan. Stirred a few times and so had beautiful smoked onion.
Let it cool. Next day in a casserole added the onion to some water and stock. I use concentrated frozen chicken stock but any good stock will do. Avoid stock cubes for this one. There are so few ingredients that the stock is a main player.
Got the whole thing to a simmer and let it bubble away and reduce a little. Threw in. A few thyme leaves and some pepper. A pinch of sugar and a splash of balsamic also assist with bringing the rich sweet savoury flavours out.
Serving is simple and classic. Ladle into an overproof bowl. Put a nice toasted crouton in the middle and cover with grated cheese, ideally gruyere.
Under the grill for 5-10. Ins and then serve.