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Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017 12:01 am

On onions and tears

Julianne’s last meal

French onion soup
The first anniversary of my wife (and Illinois Times food writer) Julianne’s passing is approaching. When she died, she left me with four decades of memories and two freezers full of homemade soups, stocks, stews and sauces. Over the past year I have been eating my way through the freezer while I work my way through my feelings of loss and loneliness. I miss our Saturday nights in the kitchen, listening to Prairie Home Companion while cooking together. Especially during Christmas time, when the kitchen was filled with the aromas of gin and juniper berry-scented duck and pork paté, chicken liver mousse with cognac and black truffles, lemon curd and a myriad of baked goodies.

Reminiscing about aromas reminds me of the time my wife made caramelized onion marmalade with 12 students during a Saturday morning cooking class called “Edible Treats for Holiday Giving.” My supporting role for the cooking classes was to set everything up and check in the 12 students. Then I had about 45 minutes to myself before I returned as the dishwasher. During this particular class I relocated to the family computer room, which was around the corner and up the stairs from the kitchen. Soon my eyes and nose were watering. The room was slowly being filled with a cloud of volatile gas released by the 30 pounds of onions being chopped simultaneously by the 12 unsuspecting students below. I ran back downstairs to open windows and turn on fans. The scene I came upon was both sad and funny. The roomful of people was standing still with eyes squinted shut, clutching their bloody fingers with paper towels. You shouldn’t chop onions with your eyes closed. Lesson learned.

I like this caramelized onion marmalade as a topping for grilled bratwurst or polish sausages.

This recipe takes six pounds red onions, peeled and thinly sliced.

 

Caramelized onion marmalade

Ingredients:

  • • 1-1½ lb red onions
  • • 1 T. olive oil
  • • ½ tsp. dried thyme leaves (do NOT use ground)
  • • 2 T. tawny port or medium dry sherry such as Amontillado or Dry Sack
  • • 1 T. red wine vinegar
  • • Freshly ground pepper to taste

Preparation:
Cut the onion in half and then quarters. Slice about ¼-inch-thick. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium high heat and add the onion. Toss to combine, and then add the thyme, the port or sherry and the vinegar. Cover and sweat the onion until softened. Remove the lid and turn the heat to low. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is deeply caramelized and the mixture is thick and almost gooey. Cool.

Makes about 1 cup.

On this past Dec 23, the kitchen was tidy and quiet. The air smelled of Clorox Kitchen Cleaner. I put the very last frozen deli container of my wife’s cooking into the microwave. Julie’s writing on the masking tape label stated: “Onion Soup Gratinée 1/6/16,” one month before she died. Soon the familiar smells of her cooking filled the kitchen one last time. I lit a candle, spread out a tablecloth, toasted her with a glass of wine and shed a bucket of tears.

This onion soup tastes even better the day after it’s made. Just warm it up, top with a slice of chewy bread and a boatload of cheese and slide under the broiler until it is bubbly.

Onion soup gratinée (vegetarian)
Ingredients:

  • 8 T. unsalted butter
  • 6 lbs. red onions, 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
  • Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

To serve:

  • ¼ c. coarsely grated Gruyère (preferred) or other natural Swiss-type cheese per serving
  • 1 slice French or Italian-type bread per serving, approximately ¾-1 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).

Preparation:
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 will take 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. Refrigerate the soup if you are holding for more than an hour or two.

Remove the bay leaves and reheat the soup if necessary. Preheat the broiler.

To serve:
Ladle the hot soup into deep oven-proof bowls, leaving about 1½ inches of 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 well moistened on the bottom. Sprinkle the grated cheese generously over the bread. It’s good 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 Peter Glatz at docglatz@gmail.com.

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