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Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015 12:06 am

New Year’s Day comfort food

French onion soup.
PHOTO BY JENNA DEMATTIA MASTERS

 

I’ve long been ambivalent about New Year’s Eve celebrations. My parents and grandparents always threw a party, but it was far from a drunken debacle. To the best of my knowledge, alcohol was never served. Still, silly hats, noisemakers and other celebratory accoutrements abounded. The TV was inevitably tuned to catch the ball dropping in New York’s Times Square – midnight on the East Coast, but an hour before here. Which, of course, intensified the clock countdown for our own hour-later celebrations.

My mother tells me that as a toddler I’d stay up until the last guests had left and then awake as usual in the early hours of the morning. It wasn’t until I had children of my own that I fully understood how annoying that must have been.

But my earliest memories of New Year’s Eve celebrations are different. After I’d gorged myself on my mom’s classic 50s devilled dogs and her Swedish meatballs as well as the other goodies on the endless stretch of Nana’s dining room table, all I really wanted to do was to escape the party and isolate myself in my room. Not to be anti-social, but to reflect on the year past and think about the future. That may sound stuffy and/or pretentious, but it really was my mindset.

When my husband, Peter, and I first became a couple, my New Year’s Eve expectations changed again. Neither of us were enthusiastic about raucous New Year celebrations. We dreamed of a small log cabin in an unspecified wilderness. There’d be a light snowfall visible through the windows and a rustic, roaring fireplace with a plush rug in front of it. On the coffee table would be a bottle of warming wine, some artisanal cheeses and rustic bread… Well, I’m sure you can figure out the rest.

Sadly, that dream never materialized, though we still have hopes for the future. And as our three children matured, New Year’s Eve for Peter and me focused on keeping them safe and close to home.

Regardless of what kind of New Year’s Eve celebration you experience, I think New Year’s Day is best spent relaxing and refreshing yourself.

For some, that inevitably includes football. In my family it was all about watching the Rose Parade. Regardless, I like to make New Year’s Day meal preparation as simple as possible, as long as there aren’t too many pre-fab preparations or ingredients. That way, the cook(s) can also have a fun, relaxing and delicious time. Eating legumes (beans, peas, lentils, etc.) on New Year’s Day is thought to bring good luck in more than a few countries and cultures. Nothing could be easier or more delicious than a pot of beans on the stove flavored with onion, garlic and herbs, perhaps enriched with smoky bacon or that Christmas ham bone, simmering slowly as the enticing scent fills the house.

Or how about an equally enticingly fragrant pot of soupe à l’oignon gratinée, aka French onion soup? In France it’s long been considered a hangover remedy, something that late evening/early morning stragglers in Paris’ Les Halles district would consume before stumbling into their own beds for a few hours.

This is probably my oldest recipe except for those inherited from my mother and grandmother. When Peter and I were undergrads at UIUC we spent far too much of our meager student budget in a tiny shop that initiated us into the world of artisanal cheeses. One early, winter day there was a woman – a real French woman! – handing out samples of soupe à l’oignon gratinée. I’d had bowls of Americanized versions. They were good – it’s pretty hard to screw up melted cheese on a big crouton, even if the soup itself came from a box or can – but this was in a different league altogether.

I learned later that virtually all traditional French recipes for soupe à l’oignon – gratinéed or not – call for beef or chicken stock. But the French woman relied exclusively on cooking the onions very low and very slow until they were richly caramelized. So no, it isn’t something that can be made in minutes. Still, it doesn’t require much effort from the cook. The onions do the work, only needing to be stirred occasionally as they caramelize.

Over the years I’ve made versions with various stocks. But I always come back to this recipe I learned in a tiny cheese shop in Champaign long ago. There is none better.

Soupe à l’oignon gratinée
French onion soup

• 8 T. (one stick) unsalted butter
• 6 lb. yellow onions, not super-sweet, peeled and thinly sliced
• 2 T. fresh or 2 tsp. dried thyme leaves (do not use ground thyme)
• 1-2 T. red wine or sherry vinegar
• 2 bay leaves
• 1 c. dry white wine
• 10 c. water
• Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

For the gratinée:
• 1/4 c. (approximate) coarsely grated Gruyère or French Comté or other natural Swiss-type cheese per serving.
• 1 slice French or Italian type bread per serving, approximately 3/4-inch to 1-inch thick, cut to fit inside the soup bowl. The bread can be fresh or slightly stale, but shouldn’t be rock hard. Trim the crusts, or not, as you prefer.

In a large skillet (or two smaller skillets), melt the butter over high heat. Add the onions, thyme, vinegar and bay leaves and stir to coat the onions with the butter. Cover the skillet and reduce the heat to medium high. Let the onions “sweat” for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally if necessary or until they are softened and translucent.

Uncover the skillet, stir the onions to scrape up any browned bits on the bottom, and reduce the heat to low. Cook the onions, stirring occasionally, until they are dark, caramelized and gooey. This will take at least 45 minutes and probably more than an hour.

Put the onions into a large pot and return the skillet to the stove. Increase the heat to high, add the wine and bring to a boil, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom to deglaze the pan. Add some of the water if needed.

Pour the wine deglazing mixture into the pot with the onions, add the remaining water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, cover, and cook for at least 30 minutes to combine the flavors. Season to taste with salt and pepper (and a little more vinegar if you like). The soup may be prepared ahead of time up to this point – in fact, it actually improves the flavor to let it stand for a while. Bring the soup to room temperature by placing it in a sink full of cold water and then refrigerating it if you are holding for more than an hour or two.

Remove the bay leaves and reheat the soup if necessary.
 

To finish the soup:

Preheat the broiler.

Ladle the hot soup into deep ovenproof bowls, leaving about 1/2-inch space. Place a slice of bread on top of the soup and push it carefully and gently a little bit into the liquid. The bread shouldn’t be completely submerged, just moistened on the bottom.

Sprinkle the grated cheese generously over the bread. It’s OK if some of the shreds of cheese hang a little bit over the sides.

Place the bowls on a baking sheet (this helps prevent tipping and spills) and place under the broiler. Broil until the cheese is melted, bubbly and just beginning to brown. Carefully remove the bowls from the broiler, using hot pads. (Remember, the bowls are hot.) Place each bowl on a plate and serve immediately.

Serves 6-8 as a main course, 12 or more as an appetizer.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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