Onion Soup Les Halles – or: Cry Me A River
Dear Chef Bourdain;
You know how people quote Winston Churchill, and talk about “blood, sweat and tears” going into some effort or another? Well, I can say that I literally put blood, sweat and tears – oh so many tears – into your Onion Soup Les Halles.
This was another one of those recipes where, if I’d followed your instructions literally, the results would have been seriously awful – but because I had some idea what the final product should look like, I could ” call an audible” and it turned out beautifully. This was part of the massive dinner I put together in honor of my best friend (and the best man at my wedding in May – oh by the way, Chef, you’re invited. It’s on Catalina, make it an episode, it’ll be awesome.) who was visiting Southern California on vacation.
This was the same dinner that featured the previously discussed Rillettes and Steak Tartare. We spent the morning knocking around Santa Monica, since he and his girlfriend had never seen it before – but in the early afternoon I headed home to start cooking. Mark The Hobbit graciously volunteered his services as a sous chef - and as I was soon to find out – an EXTREME sous chef. Why? I don’t know, he just thought it was kind of awesome. Mighta had something to do with the rum and the wine.
Chef, why do so many of my misadventures involve rum and wine? I must not be doing it right – maybe I should go with the Bourdain Method and just go straight to heroin and coke? Clearly I’m not practiced enough at this stuff. Anyway the first thing I did when I was home alone was chop a mountain of onions.
I felt like I’d spent the afternoon home alone drinking bourbon and listening to Patsy Cline. So many tears. It was like being a teenaged girl. I really hate chopping onions, man. My first job ever was washing dishes and other prep tasks at a Mom and Pop Italian restaurant in the town I grew up. I chopped a lot of onions there- you’d think I’d have better skills by now. At a cheesesteak joint, they use a LOT of onions, slow sauteed on the grill all day, pans at a time. Somehow at 13 I didn’t manage to learn much, but by the time I’d finished this pile, I felt like it was going faster and smoother – albeit painfully tearful.
Soon after Extreme sous-chef Mark The Hobbit arrived, and I did some other stuff while he put the onions in a giant pot to sautee, as instructed.
So your recipe says to let them cook for 20 minutes until they have a nice brown color. Well, it was nothing like 20 minutes, and nothing like the temp you said – but I got those fuckers brown. Brown – and EXTREME!
So the rest went according to plan. I had a lot going on at the same time, what with pommes puree, porc mignons and steak tartare all due at the same time. There was also some rum and wine happening in there, too. Not together, mind you – but yeah. This might explain our excessive cheerfulness. Our EXTREME excessive cheerfulness.
I had plenty of chicken stock from stock day – and I also added a little chicken demi-glace. I hadn’t made it myself though, shame on me, I know. But criminy, it takes so much stock to make a little demi-glace, I figured the few bucks it cost at Sur La Table was worth it. Someday I’ll have the time and material to make my own, I promise. At this point, there was a long interlude of the pot sitting on the stove on low heat, waiting for dinner time. (Was that interlude EXTREME? I leave you to judge for yourself.)
Unfortunately, all that time on the stove reduced the stock quite a bit, and I didn’t top it back off since I didn’t have any warm stock handy – it was all frozen. So when I put the end result in the soup crocks, it was more of an onion stew than a soup. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it was unplanned and perhaps sub-optimal.
I didn’t use the classic soup crock with the little handle. I used what are really souffle cups, but are A: cheaper and B: multi-purpose. Unfortunatley, this had the unplanned side-effect of making them really, really hard to handle. Too hot for the hand, too wet for a prep towel or oven mitt, and too slippery for tongs. Still, once the croutons went on the top with plenty (and then a little more) grated gruyere, the real kind, not an imitation, it was lovely and brown and bubbling… and the piece de resistance was a quick scorch from the blowtorch.
I approve of all cuisine that involves blowtorches. Fuck it, Chef, if all this cream, cheese and butter actually kills me, you can put that on my gravestone.
The soup was surprisingly sweet and complex. The onions were supple and chewy without being insipid. The croutons were crips and cheesy on top, and soft and soup-laden on the bottom. All together, it was a lovely cup of soup, and I can see why it’s a perennial favorite at Les Halles.
I’ll put this in the “hit” category, with the exception of your misleading instructions. I’m noticing that it’s important not to just give temp and time, but also what the outcome should be like, so inexperienced cooks like me can be sure they’ve got it right – especially with crucial steps like the onions in onion soup, right? Not that I’ll ever write a cookbook. But if like, you, or someone else who’s reading this ever does (again)? Keep that in mind. Or something.
So cheese and onions are good together. Do you think like, cheese and tree bark would be good together? I have a theory.
A cheese theory. An EXTREME cheese theory.