Photo credit Alex Harris
This recipe is a bit of a rebellion. I was told on many occasions that it wouldn’t work, particularly when I spoke to people in France. You see, not only did I want to dispense with the hearty beef broth that is so integral to French Onion Soup, I wanted to make a homemade version that didn’t require hours of sautéing and simmering. I didn’t, however, want to lose the hearty flavour or the comfort food factor. Let’s face it, what is better than a steaming hot bowl of French onion soup, the crouton melting into the onion-y broth, melted cheese clinging to your spoon?
The thing I love most about French food is the depth of flavour it has, so I knew I needed quality ingredients that could stand up for themselves. I decided to go with mild onions, thinly sliced, as this would reduce the cooking time. Red onions seemed a natural choice as their flavour is normally a bit punchier than white onions, without being so strong that you need to sauté them into submission. I added a generous pinch of salt, which helps the onions break down faster. I also sautéed the onions in butter, instead of olive oil; again, this helps add flavour.
You need a good vegetable stock, either one you have made yourself or a high quality store bought vegetable stock, preferably organic in the latter case. I also like to use a cheese with a stronger flavour. A good vegetarian cheddar, while seriously non-traditional for French Onion Soup, really works well.
You may notice I didn’t use a slice of crusty French bread for the crouton, but rather cubes of bread. This was only because I couldn’t get a loaf that fitted my bowls on the day I photographed the recipe, and I didn’t want to lose the crusts. You can follow my lead, or the more traditional route with a slice of French loaf; either way, this soup tastes amazing.
Vegetarian French Onion Soup
¼ cup of butter, divided
3 medium red onions, peeled, cut in half and thinly sliced in half moons
a generous pinch of salt
3½ cups good vegetable stock
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
¼ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon oregano
a generous pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
4 slices French bread, or several cubes of French bread
¾ cup grated vegetarian cheese (I use cheddar)
Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large saucepan over low heat. Add the onions and sauté for a couple of minutes. Add the salt, and continue to sauté over low heat for another 10 to 15 minutes or until the onions are well softened, but without colour. You don’t want the onions to brown so be sure to keep the heat very low.
Stir in the vegetable stock, the pepper, nutmeg and herbs and bring just to the boil. Turn the heat back and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400ºF or 200ºC.
Cut slices of French bread to fit your bowls, or cut chunks of bread like this.
Place the pieces of bread on a baking sheet. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and brush about half of it over the bread. Place in the oven for about 5 minutes, and then remove, turn over and brush the other side of the bread with the remaining butter. Sprinkle with kosher salt, and return to the oven for about 5 minutes or until golden brown. I try never to leave these unattended; croutons can go from golden brown to black in seconds.
Preheat the broiler or grill to high.
Taste the soup for seasoning, and adjust if necessary with a pinch of salt or pepper, or perhaps a bit more thyme or oregano. Ladle the soup into four oven-safe soup bowls placed on a baking sheet. Be sure to take the ladle right to the bottom of the pan so everyone gets lots of lovely onions.
Top each bowl with one large or several of the small croutons. Top the croutons with grated cheese, dividing it equally between the bowls. Place the bowls on their baking sheet under the broiler or grill. Watching carefully, broil or grill until the cheese just begins to melt and turn golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to sit for two minutes before serving. Be sure to use oven mitts to remove the bowls from the baking sheet and take them to the table as the bowls will be incredibly hot. I put a plate at each place setting so I can place the hot bowls on top.