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How to make a classic French onion soup

March 6, 2017

Gratin lyonnais (Lyon-style caramelized onion soup made with chicken stock, sherry and thyme with crouton and gruyere cheese) as prepared by chef Jim Drohman at Le Pichet on Friday, Feb. 3, 2017, in Seattle.

Jim Drohman was an aerospace engineer at Boeing, but his heart wasn’t in it.

When he turned his attention to cooking, it was with a highly technical, extremely thorough mind: How did the French build their classic flavors, each element of a recipe relying upon and enhancing the others?

He went to the source to study, training at L’Ecole Superieur de Cuisine Francaise Jean Ferrandi in Paris, working at restaurants including Le Boudin Sauvage and the Michelin-rated Le Coq de la Maison Blanche. Upon his return, he helmed the kitchen of Seattle’s storied, much-missed Campagne. Then, in 2000, he joined forces with business partner Joanne Herron to give us the gift of the restaurant Le Pichet. Later came its sibling, Cafe Presse.

When you see French onion soup on the Pichet or Presse menu — which you will every winter, until the chill is well-dispelled in April — you may rest assured that it is the product of intensive thought. Drohman eschews the common Parisian style, made with beef stock, in favor of the chicken-stock-based mode of Lyon; the lighter flavor of the latter, he maintains, better showcases the taste of the onions. You also may rest assured that it is delicious, with the simple flavors of onion and broth augmented with not just white wine, but also sherry, and garlic, and thyme, and something he and his staff call "duck Jell-O" — "the gelatin-rich duck juices that are left in the bottom of the pot when slow-cooking duck legs for confit," an addition he says is "typical of the French bistro kitchen, where nothing tasty is ever allowed to go to waste."

Unless you’re making duck confit at home, your version of Drohman’s soupe a l’oignon gratinee won’t be quite as rich as the bowlsful you’ll get at Le Pichet or Cafe Presse. But you’ll still have the sweet slipperiness of the caramelized onions; the bright, winey-tasting broth; the crispy-edged bread growing marvelously broth-logged; the nutty, creamy cheese pulling in strings from your spoon. And for the Seattle Times reader who wrote in search of vegetarian French onion soup, Drohman was kind enough to share the engineering behind the best vegetable stock for the job.

Whichever way you decide to make it — or if you decide to let Le Pichet or Cafe Presse do the honors — this is a soup that will keep you warm until spring is really, truly here, year after year.

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Jim Drohman’s soupe a l’oignon gratinee

Makes 8 servings

2 1/2 pounds yellow onions

4 cloves garlic, germ removed

1 sprig thyme

8 slices rustic country bread, preferably day-old

1/2 stick unsalted butter

1 1/2 cups sherry

3/4 cup dry white wine

1 bay leaf

2 quarts chicken stock (or vegetable broth — see below)

Salt and black pepper

2 cups grated Gruyere cheese

1. Peel the onions, and slice thinly. Slice the garlic thinly. Wash, dry and stem the thyme. Chop it finely.

2. Bake the slices of country bread on a sheet pan in a very low oven until dry and crispy.

3. In a large soup pot set over medium heat, sweat the onions and garlic with the butter, stirring often, until richly colored. Add the sherry, increase the heat and cook until the sherry is almost completely reduced. Add the white wine, and reduce by half. Add the thyme, bay and chicken stock, and bring to a simmer. Simmer to combine the flavors, about 20 minutes.

4. Carefully skim the soup to remove any fat. Correct the seasoning with salt and pepper.

5. Ladle the soup into individual bowls. Top first with the crouton, then with a nice layer of Gruyere cheese. Heat under the broiler until crusty and golden. Serve immediately.

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Jim Drohman’s notes on vegetable broth

Drohman’s recommendations for making a meat-free broth that’ll stand up to the rich flavors of soupe a l’oignon gratinee, in his words:

"Use roasted veggies. Roasting gives vegetables — especially onions and root veggies — a deeper, richer, almost nutty flavor that you just don’t get by putting the veg right in water, or even by sauteing the veggies in the pot before adding water. Here’s how to do it: Take some carrots, celery and root veggies, and scrub and rinse well, but don’t peel. Cut into about 1-inch chunks. Take your unpeeled garlic, onions and shallot, and cut in halves or quarters, again about 1 inch. Put all in a roasting pan or sheet pan. Drizzle with vegetable oil, stir well, then spread out in an even layer. Roast at 400 degrees, stirring every 15 minutes, until the veg is caramelized and golden. Put all into a stockpot, then deglaze the roasting pan with wine or water, scraping up all the roasty bits, and add the deglaze to the stock pot. Cover with cold water to 2 inches above the solids, and add herbs, bay, peppercorns, etc. Bring to a boil, skim well, reduce to a simmer and let cook about three hours (or more, if time allows). Strain.

"Dried mushrooms can add an earthiness (and, dare I say it, a certain meatiness) that would work well in onion soup. Just add a few to the above stock — say, 1 ounce for 2 gallons of water. I would use dried cepes (porcini), which give nice flavor but are much cheaper than dried morels.

"For adding flavor and color to stock, a time-honored French technique is grilling your onions before adding to the pot. Basically, you cut the onion in half the fat way (not from root to stem; the other way), and place the cut side on a grill or in a saute pan without oil until it is completely blackened. Then add the onion to the stock pot. We do this for all brown stocks, including veg, pork, chicken and beef."

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