Dark Days Challenge, Week 10: A sublime way to use onions

  • By Sarah Jackson Herald Writer
  • Wednesday, February 3, 2010 2:30pm
  • Life


Week 10 of Dark Days was my most time-consuming eat-local challenge yet.

It started with a basic idea: Yellow onions are a year-round local commodity. And they’re just what you need in large supply — about 4 pounds sliced — for making French onion soup.


Well, I guess I like to do things the hard way. In this case, I was determined to make my own beef stock for the soup.

Other Dark Days participants had raved about their homemade brown beef stocks, nutritious elixirs coaxed from oven-roasted bones.

That had me running all over tarnation for the perfect “meaty beef bones,” not exactly available at the corner store in the current skinless-boneless meat culture.

Silvana Meats and Double DD Meats, for the record, are your best bets if you’re looking to buy beef stock bones in Snohomish County.

Next, having found an innovative Cook’s Illustrated recipe for French onion soup made with onions caramelized in the oven, I set out on a quest for the perfect Dutch oven. I splurged on a 13-quart Le Creuset pot, a heavy gorgeous thing in “Flame” orange.

I was exhausted after nearly two weeks of hoopla, and I hadn’t even started cooking yet.

But, oh, boy, it was all worth it.

I adore my gigantic Dutch oven, which my husband has already used to make amazing chili.

Though it cost almost $400 (ouch), we plan to use it for the rest of our lives. It now sits permanently on our stove top and, though robust, it is not one teaspoon too big for my purposes.

I first filled it to the brim to make brown beef stock, using a Joy of Cooking recipe with mostly nonlocal vegetables, 6 pounds of oxtail segments and 1 pound of marrowbones.

After eight hours of simmering, it was a tasty, gorgeous brown brew. In the fridge, it turned into a thick gelatin, an ideal outcome, according to my Dark Days companions.

Days later, when I finally had more time to make actual soup, the pot worked great for caramelizing the onions, first in the oven, then on the stove with repeated deglazing.

I used Washington onions and Skagit County butter. Though likely not derived from local cattle bones, my stock was a fine substitution for the recipe’s recommended boxed chicken and beef broths. I also used non-local fresh thyme, dried bay leaves, salt and sherry.

When it was time to broil a crust for the dark, brown soup, I used slices of baguette from The Essential Baking Company of Seattle and Beecher’s Flagship cheese, both procured at the Edmonds PCC.

It was all a huge hit with my husband and our extended family.

Though I’m not a die-hard devotee of French onion soup, I liked the deeply melded flavors of the rich-but-not-overpowering beef broth, caramelized onion and the undertones of fragrant fresh thyme, not to mention the gooey cheese and bread topping.

Will I make this again? Yes. I think using the oven to cook down the onions is genius. (See the Cook’s Illustrated Web site for a video of how it works.)

Next time, however, I might not make my own stock, which made this adventure feel like an epic.

Would the final result be as good?

There’s a huge heated debate going on about “factory” beef broth versus homemade on the Cookography blog at tinyurl.com/brothdebate, where readers posted 294 comments on the same Cook’s Illustrated soup recipe I used.

Do homemade broths make that much difference? Visit www.heraldnet.com/ecogeek and leave a comment or write me directly at sjackson@heraldnet.com to share your thoughts.

See urbanhennery.com to learn more about the Dark Days Challenge and the dishes participants are making all around the country.

Best French onion soup

3tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 3 pieces

6large yellow onions (about 4 pounds), halved and cut pole to pole into 1/4-inch-thick slices


2cups water, plus extra for deglazing

1/2cup dry sherry

4cups low-sodium chicken broth

2cups beef broth

6sprigs fresh thyme, tied with kitchen twine

1bay leaf

Ground black pepper

1small baguette , cut into 1/2-inch slices

8ounces shredded Gruyere cheese (about 2 1/2 cups)

Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Generously spray inside of heavy-bottomed large (at least 7-quart) Dutch oven with nonstick cooking spray. Place butter in pot and add onions and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook, covered, 1 hour (onions will be moist and slightly reduced in volume). Remove pot from oven and stir onions, scraping bottom and sides of pot. Return pot to oven with lid slightly ajar and continue to cook until onions are very soft and golden brown, 1 1/2to 1 3/4 hours longer, stirring onions and scraping bottom and sides of pot after 1 hour.

Carefully remove pot from oven and place over medium-high heat. Using oven mitts to handle pot, cook onions, stirring frequently and scraping bottom and sides of pot, until liquid evaporates and onions brown, 15 to 20 minutes, reducing heat to medium if onions are browning too quickly. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until pot bottom is coated with dark crust, 6 to 8 minutes, adjusting heat as necessary. Scrape any fond (brown bits) that collects on spoon back into onions. Stir in 1/4 cup water, scraping pot bottom to loosen crust, and cook until water evaporates and pot bottom has formed another dark crust, 6 to 8 minutes. Repeat process of deglazing 2 or 3 more times, until onions are very dark brown. Stir in sherry and cook, stirring frequently, until sherry evaporates, about 5 minutes.

Stir in broths, 2 cups water, thyme, bay leaf, and 1/2 teaspoon salt, scraping up any final bits of browned crust on bottom and sides of pot. Increase heat to high and bring to simmer. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer 30 minutes. Remove and discard herbs, then season with salt and pepper.

While soup simmers, arrange baguette slices in single layer on baking sheet and bake in 400-degree oven until bread is dry, crisp, and golden at edges, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

Adjust oven rack 6 inches from broiler element and heat broiler. Set individual broiler-safe crocks on baking sheet and fill each with about 1 3/4 cups soup. Top each bowl with 1 or 2 baguette slices (do not overlap slices) and sprinkle evenly with Gruyere. Broil until cheese is melted and bubbly around edges, 3 to 5 minutes. Let cool 5 minutes before serving.

Notes: Sweet onions, such as Walla Walla or Vidalia, will make this recipe overly sweet. Be patient when caramelizing the onions in step 2; the entire process takes 45 to 60 minutes. Use broiler-safe crocks and keep the rim of the bowls 4 to 5 inches from the heating element to obtain a proper gratinee of melted, bubbly cheese. If using ordinary soup bowls, sprinkle the toasted bread slices with Gruyere and return them to the broiler until the cheese melts, then float them on top of the soup. We prefer Swanson Certified Organic Free Range Chicken Broth and Pacific Beef Broth. For the best flavor, make the soup a day or two in advance. Alternatively, the onions can be prepared through step 1, cooled in the pot, and refrigerated for up to 3 days before proceeding with the recipe.

Cook’s Illustrated

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