Growing up, a few miles from my high school, there was this funky little restaurant that my friends and I loved called “The Gemini.” The Gemini was one of those crunchy, new-agey, fern-bar type restaurants that women loved in the 80’s. There were seeds and sprouts and carrot juice cocktails. There were massive fruit plates with yogurt and a bran muffin on the side. It was the type of restaurant that had kitschy named dishes like “The Pisces”–a gussied-up tuna salad sandwich.
The place was much-beloved and always packed, particularly for lunch and weekend brunch, when the line for a table would snake out the door and around the building.
The place was also a total fraud.
Sure, you could get yourself a nice, healthy salad there, but there was a lot of stuff on that menu that was decidedly NOT health food. Food like my favorite brunch item–a Belgian waffle the size of a dinner plate, topped with vanilla frozen yogurt and a sticky, warm blueberry compote. Delicious, sure. Good for you? No way. Neither was the Eggs Benedict, which boasted a whole grain English muffin and some sliced avocado, but arrived blanketed in hollandaise nonetheless. You get the idea. Still, The Gemini flourished, maybe because the food was truly tasty or maybe because people are readily willing to lie to themselves about what they’re putting in their mouth.
Any time the high school had a half-day, my friends and I would head to The Gemini for a delicious, festive, “quasi-healthy” lunch and feel quite virtuous afterwards. Sometimes we’d feel virtuous enough to stop by the dessert counter on our way out and snag ourselves a groaning slice of carrot cake or a giant “granola” cookie. Thank god for youth and speedy metabolisms.
One snowy winter afternoon, my friend Kathy and I decided that a warming, “quasi-healthy” lunch out sounded like a dandy idea, so off to The Gemini we went. There was a line, of course, so by the time we were seated, our teeth were chattering and our noses crimson. This was not the weather for a frozen-yogurt topped anything. This was soup weather, and Kathy was excited to see her most favorite soup of all, French onion, on the menu.
“Oooh!” she squealed, clapping a little. “They have the French onion! You have to try it. It’s the best thing ever. They make it sooooo good here.”
I was a little skeptical. Who gets that excited about soup? It’s soup, for crying out loud. How good can it be? I could understand the enthusiasm over, say, a chimichanga drowned in guacamole, but soup?
Turns out, the chimichanga was probably the more dietetic choice, because when our enormous crocks of French onion soup arrived, bubbly and steaming, they were topped with several inches worth of buttery bread and molten cheese.
“Whoa,” I said. “This thing’s like, a…volcano.”
“Yeah, Lava Cheese!” Kathy said reverently. “It’s the best part! You have to crack it open with your spoon and wait a little because otherwise you’ll burn the crap out of your mouth, but it’s worth the wait.”
Hmph. I was hungry, dammit. I’d been waiting long enough for my lunch–who wanted to wait some more? But once I ventured in with my spoon and was treated to a steam facial of soup, I knew Kathy was right. So we waited, and steamed, and talked about what we wanted for Christmas. Finally, Kathy deemed the soup safe to eat.
“Should be good now,” she said. “Dig in.”
Those directions were easier said than done, because there was so much melty, gooey, stringy cheese that I kept pulling and pulling, looping it around my spoon, waiting for it to break off so I could eat it. I couldn’t even find the soup yet. Jesus, this thing took serious navigational skills to consume.
Clearly, I was a novice, because while I was fighting with my soup, Kathy was several bites in, slurping up big spoonfuls of crouton and lava cheese.
“It’s like wrestling a friggin’ octopus,” I snarled, and Kathy burst into laughter just as she was inhaling a large bite of soup.
Bad move. Suddenly, her eyes were wide and she made a horrible sound, a gaspy, wheezy, gurgly kind of thing. “Kaaaa,” she said, face turning a hectic shade of pink. “Kaaaa!”
“Holy shit!” I yelled. “My friend is choking! Help!” I slid out of the booth, waving my hands like an idiot. “Someone help my friend!” I was desperately trying to remember the Heimlich maneuver from health class two years ago and Kathy was now fully panicked, hunched forward and trying to get air. I slapped her on the back, knowing that this wasn’t the right thing to do, and several people were headed our way, concern on their faces.
Suddenly, Kathy jammed her own hand into her mouth, reached down as far as she could and pulled out a nearly solid mass of Gruyere cheese and bread.
Panting, we stared at the offending glob, unable to speak as other patrons clucked concern and offered ice water. Once satisfied that Kathy was going to live, they went back to their meals. We just kept gawking at the glob.
“Jesus,” I said finally. “That thing’s, like, huge. That was in your throat. Those strings of cheese just…formed a ball.”
“How you even did that, reaching in to pull it out. Man. That was so smart of you, so lucky that you could get something to hold onto…”
Kathy shook her head. “I didn’t think about it. I just couldn’t breathe.”
I pushed my soup aside. She did the same.
“You want to order something else?” I asked.
She looked at the glob that almost killed her and started to laugh a little. “Nah. I think I’m done.”
It was certainly a freakish thing, and Kathy and I laugh about it still, even though it was scary at the time.
My friend, almost exterminated by soup.
There’s a lot of stuff that can end you: car crash, heart attack, cancer, industrial accident. But soup? Death by soup is truly extraordinary.
I don’t know about Kathy, but that was the last time I ever ordered French onion soup in a restaurant, although it is a delicious concoction. I don’t think I trust restaurant kitchen staff enough to risk it–for all I know, they’re piling the bread and cheese on so heavily that my soup becomes a lethal weapon. A cheesy raft of death.
I love cheese, but I don’t want to die by it.
The only person I trust to make French onion soup nowadays is myself, thank you very much. Except for one leeetle problem. I don’t make it myself. Because French onion soup is a complete pain in the ass to make. French onion soup requires lots of caramelized onions. Lots. Ever caramelized onions? It sucks, and here’s why: a) you need roughly 5 times the quantity of raw onions to get a decent batch of caramelized onions, which means that you are going to be chopping a hella lotta onions b) those onions need to be sliced very thinly and evenly, which requires a lot of time and a sharp knife and some mad knife skills c) the caramelizing process takes a seriously long time…at least an hour on the stovetop, with constant stirring and babysitting, because d) caramelized onions, once they finally caramelize, can turn on you in an instant, so if you don’t babysit them constantly, you could look away for two seconds and suddenly have burned, bitter onions which e) will in turn make you, the cook, bitter.
I don’t know about you, but this ^^^process^^^ sounds sucky enough that I’m going to never make French onion soup at home. Or at least I didn’t, until the latest issue of Cooking Light magazine arrived in the mailbox with a recipe for…drumroll…slow-cooker French Onion soup. The title of the recipe is a bit of a misnomer, since you use both the slow-cooker and the stovetop to make this soup, but the HARD part, the caramelizing of the onions part, takes place in the slow cooker. No babysitting, no constant stirring, no hand-wringing. That’s genius!
Alas, you still have to peel and slice a buttload of onions, but that part can’t really be helped, can it? It is onion soup, you know. Just make sure you have a sharp knife on hand to make shorter work of that task.
I did modify the recipe slightly, as it called for a teaspoon of “liquid amino acid” in the original recipe, and I had no idea what that was or where to go about purchasing it. I figured that it was an ingredient that boosted the “umamai” (aka: meaty, rich) flavor of the broth, so instead of using aminos, I relied on an old hack I use when I want to boost flavor into my soup stock: the rind of a hunk of Parmesan cheese.
I’ve talked about that trick here, so I won’t bore you with it, but I can tell you that it’s a crime to throw away the hard rind on the tail end of the Parmesan cheese. There’s flavor in there! Cut it off, throw it into a plastic bag, and freeze the sucker. Then use it to jazz up your soup stock when the time comes.
A dear friend came to lunch and I served her this soup, and let me tell you, it’s awesome. You’d never know that it’s a cheater recipe. It’s rich and hearty and oh-so impressive with the bubbly cheese topping. She was happy to be my guinea pig taster for this one. And although it’s satisfyingly cheesy, it’s not dangerously so. There wasn’t any fear of bodily harm involved.
This soup would be a terrific thing to serve over the holiday season. I’m going to serve it the day after Christmas, when I’ll undoubtedly be feeling a little blue. A warming bowl of this soup would cheer anyone up, even a half-assed Mrs. Claus with the post-Christmas doldrums.
Slow-Cooker French Onion Soup
slightly adapted from Cooking Light
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 pounds yellow onions, sliced thinly
1 pound sweet onions (such as Vidalia) sliced thinly
4 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, divided
1 tablespoon flour
1/4 cup brandy
1/4 cup white wine
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup finely chopped carrot
1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1 bay leaf
8 cups low-sodium beef stock
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon fish sauce
3 sprigs fresh parsley
1-inch hunk of Parmesan cheese rind
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 ounces French bread, cut into 16 slices
6 ounces Gruyere cheese, shredded (about 1 1/2 cups)
Place olive oil in the bottom of a slow cooker. Add sliced onions and toss to coat. Add 2 teaspoons of thyme. Cover and cook on high setting for 8 hours or until onions are deep golden in color.
Transfer onion mixture to a large Dutch oven. Add flour to the onions and cook over medium heat for a couple of minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in brandy and cook 1 minute. Stir in wine; cook 1 minute. Place onion mixture in a large bowl and set aside.
Return pan to medium heat and add 2 teaspoons oil. Add celery, carrot, mushrooms, and bay leaf. Cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add stock, Worchestershire, fish stock, Parmesan rind and parsley. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium and simmer 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand 10 minutes. Strain broth through a fine sieve and discard solids. Return broth to pan.
Add onion mixture to the broth, along with salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook 15 minutes.
Preheat broiler to high.
Arrange bread in a single layer on a baking sheet and broil until golden, about a minute. Set aside.
Ladle 1 cup soup into each of 8 oven-safe crocks or bowls. Top each crock with 2 slices bread and sprinkle evenly with cheese.
Working in batches if necessary, place crocks on a baking sheet and broil 1-2 minutes or until cheese is hot and bubbly. Garnish with remaining thyme.