Anthony Bourdain’s French Onion Soup

I hadn’t enjoyed a proper vacation in almost two years! The tumultuous times we live in had me keeping my nose steadily to the grindstone. Slowly but surely, the strains of life had been building up and I didn’t even know it. Then there came this opportunity for a whole week of vacation in the form of an invitation from friends in Salt Lake City. It would be great to see them, it had been a long time. There was real snow to jump into that was calling my name. But before that, there was packing. I hate packing. That coupled with life in general had me in low spirits that Tuesday morning. On the plane, my fingers wouldn’t stop beating a crazy tattoo on the airline seat. I’d left the daily grind behind but the subconscious mind wouldn’t rest or relax. It is hard to turn all your thoughts off like the flip of a switch. The brain just wouldn’t cooperate.

Then we got to Salt Lake City. It had snowed a couple of nights earlier and there it lay, a soft, white blanket covering the ground. It was a proper winter’s day; wonderfully crisp and bright, the ice crystals twinkling in the sun. There is a strange peace that reigns in the softness of it, and a hush, almost like every sound is muffled somehow. Next to the ocean, this was something else that soothed the senses.

Amey and Sanjeev have been friends even before Amey and I really knew each other. They survived college together, learned to play the guitar together, were in a band together. They have similar personalities yet each is very distinctly their own person. They argue, rib each other and criticize one another with ridiculous ease, one borne out of a long friendship that I’ll bet they never really talk about. Guys don’t do that kind of stuff. They hadn’t seen each other in almost four years. They talked, they laughed, they played guitar; two voices in harmony, sounds I haven’t heard in a long while. They did this often at one time. But life has evolved to new adventures now. A wonder of this evolution is Sanjeev and his lovely wife Vandana’s precious little baby boy. A bundle of the most beautiful smiles you ever saw. A couple of hours spent in their beautiful home, playing with this engaging little person, and the buzzing of things in my head faded away. It was like taking a deep, deep breath and letting go. The relaxation was inevitable. We drove up into the mountains in the next couple of days. The imposing snow-covered scenery was breath-taking and also an effective balm, taking away all remaining vestiges of care.

Aside from being fabulous hosts, our friends are also deeply interested in food and are great cooks. Of course, we’d started discussing a Thanksgiving dinner even before we all met up. There was some talk of turkey, but then we decided there wasn’t any need for a typical feast. In fact, the only thing typical of the Thanksgiving holiday was the sheer amount of good food that was cooked and consumed. We ate, and rested, then we ate some more. My only contribution to it was these poached pears. There was spaghetti in a tomato sauce that Amey made. The rest was all Sanjeev and Vandana. From the time we got there to the time we left, we were plied with delicious food. There were crisp salads, amazing bruschetta, gorgeous cheese with preserves, a butternut squash and coconut milk dessert to die for (which I intend to share at some point soon), utterly delectable potatoes, and this amazing, hearty French Onion Soup.

Sanjeev collects about as many books as Amey and I do, which means he has a lot of them. Among his books is this varied and interesting collection of cookbooks. One of them is Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook, from which the recipe for this soup is derived. It is easily one of the best French Onion soups I’ve had, all about the onion, as it should rightly be. The recipe is simple, though requiring some patience, which Sanjeev had in abundance as he browned the onions on the stove top and prepped the croutons with a good amount of cheer. His energy was infectious. I rarely enjoy cooking with other people, I much prefer solitude for it. This one time was an exception. I didn’t talk too much, mostly listened as Sanjeev and Amey discussed music and the travails of high altitude cooking, intermingled with the sounds of Vandana playing with her adorable little tyke in the next room. Adding to the symphony were the staccato rhythms of a knife on the chopping board, onions sizzling and sauce pots bubbling merrily away. There was a soothing serenity to it all. They say friends are the family you choose to let into your life. Never have truer words been spoken.

French Onion Soup
Adapted slightly from Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook
Serves 4

Sweet white onions – 4 large, sliced into thin slivers
Salted butter- 3 tbsp
Balsamic Vinegar – a couple of ounces
Pinot Noir- a couple of swigs
Chicken Stock – 1 1/2 box
Bouquet garni of dried thyme & bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste
Baguette – sliced thick

Olive oil to brush over the croutons
Gruyère – 3 cups, shredded

– Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Sauté the onion for 20 minutes or so, until they go soft and brown evenly.
– Increase the heat, add the wine and vinegar and stir to deglaze the pan. Add the stock and the bouquet garni. Let the liquid come to a boil.
– Reduce the heat to let the soup simmer. Season with salt and pepper and cook for 45 minutes to an hour. Periodically skim any foam that rises to the top.
– Pre-heat your oven to about 400 F.
– Fish out the bouquet garni. Ladle the cooked soup into crocks.
– Brush some olive oil over both sides of the bread and place on a tray. Put the tray under in the oven (on a broiler setting if you have one) to toast the bread for about four minutes, turning over the slices about halfway through.
– Place a couple of the toasted slices of baguette on top of the soup crocks and cover with generous amounts of grated Gruyère. Place the crocks into the oven in the top shelf until the cheese bubbles and browns.

Serve right away.

Cook’s notes:
The marriage of this onion soup and the Gruyere topped croutons is a match made in heaven! You crack into the crispy crouton on top and eat spoonfuls of soup with dunked cheesy croutons, it makes for scrumptious mouthfuls. You can use your home-made chicken stock if you make it yourself. Sanjeev used boxes of stock which worked very well, so don’t be afraid to use good store bought stock. Just check for salt content and season accordingly. The onions are the heart of the dish so they need to be evenly browned and well-softened. The time for the browning in the recipe is a guideline. You might require a bit more or less depending on what you are cooking in and where. We were a few thousand feet above sea level. So my timings may or may not work for you.

Good oven-proof bowls are required for this soup. Crocks are best but deep ramekins will do too. You can find these cheap at restaurant supply stores. Try and get good Gruyère. The flavours of this soup are simple. The quality of your ingredients will really come through.

I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving surrounded by friends and family. Because of good friends, we certainly did. An amazing weekend we are very thankful for.

6 comments

  1. suzy

    What a wonderful post! Beautiful photos and well written. I was captivated by your story… Full of gratitude!

    Thankyou for putting it up.

    Suzy

  2. SR

    Great post- have a lump in my throat- fabulous pictures- we enjoyed having you guys over just as much- Happy Thanksgiving!

    N, V & S

    • Chilli

      Thanks Sanjeev. It truly was such a wonderful trip. I wrote what I felt and it practically all got written by itself. Happy holidays to you guys! Here’s hoping all of us get to meet up again real soon!

  3. Elizabeth

    I’ve always wanted to go to Salt Lake City. It sounds like a wonderful time with friends. And, I kid you not, I have been thinking of french onion soup all afternoon. I think that gorgeous photo is a sign that I need to make it. I love the handles on the bowls too.

  4. Chilli

    Thanks Elizabeth. It is pretty out there with the mountains. You should defintely visit if you can, especially in the winter!
    As soups go, this one was very good! We used chicken broth, one would traditionally use beef, but it worked remarkably well. A rich soup, full of flavour!
    The soup crocks, of course, were genius and came out of our friends’ cupboards. To share a little story, one of the highlights of my cooking in their kitchen was when I tentatively asked Sanjeev if he had any vanilla and he asked me if I wanted bean or extract. For a split second, I was too surprised to answer! I had a choice? Wow, most people only have extract, that too if you’re lucky or they bake a lot. These guys had this amazingly well-stocked kitchen prepared for most cooking possibilities. A true passion for food and craft shone through it and the enthusiasm they both had only served to underline that.
    I treasure such experiences because they are so rare. The only other sharing-a-kitchen times that even stand out in my memory as fun were when my best friend Tinaz and I made pizzas out of leftovers in her home when we were fifteen. And earlier this year, when my friend Marie helped me bake an experimental upside down birthday cake for my husband.