Knowing your onions


COMFORTING French onion soup with big cheesy croutons is the perfect winter warmer.

Redmond Cabot

As well we know, the cold and flu seasons are upon us. An old folk cure for the cold was to put a sliced onion on the soles of your feet, apply socks then hit the sack. The remedy likely has its roots in onions’ impressive nutritional values, as they are rich in vitamins A, B6, C and E and the minerals sodium, potassium and iron.
These nutrients are at their highest if you eat your onion raw. You can make a tasty instant pickle (inspired by South Asian condiments) of very finely chopped onion – yellow or red – mixed with finely chopped red chili, a good pinch of sea salt and a squirt of lime. The lime juice removes that pungent aftertaste and onion breath. This pickle is lovely on any kind of curry dish. The chili will also quickly unblock a stuffy nose!

Taking stock
There’s no denying that some of these dark days are bleak. But a delicious dish can help the mood. Especially something deeply hearty with maybe a bit of sweetness thrown in. French onion soup always hits that spot for me. It’s a cheap meal and makes an excellent lunch – but note: it’s not a quick dish.
The classic version uses a beef stock, though some cooks prefer to use chicken stock. Make your own if possible. Vegetarians need to work harder to get that umami flavour, but it definitely is achievable. You can add a teaspoon of marmite, or soy sauce or miso paste.Depending on the flavour of your onions, you might need an extra spoon when you do your final taste adjustment before serving. I always add a Parmesan rind when I add the stock – it makes a world of difference.
For maximum flavour, make mushroom stock. Peel and dice a carrot, wash and slice a leek, roughly chop an onion, peel and half six medium garlic cloves, wash and quarter a kilo of button mushrooms. Get a few sprigs of parsley, six thyme sprigs, a bay leaf, two teaspoons of whole black peppercorns, 2.8 litres of water and a quarter teaspoon of sea salt. Heat a couple of tablespoons of veg oil, add the veggies (minus the garlic and mushrooms) stir for about eight minutes. Add the garlic and cook for a minute. Add the mushrooms, parsley, thyme, bay leaf, peppercorns and salt and cook for four minutes. Pour in the water, bring to the boil, then simmer for an hour. Strain and freeze what you don’t need.  

French Onion Soup
(Serves four)

What you need

  • 4 large yellow onions
  • 80g butter plus extra for the bread
  • Glug of olive oil
  • 3 sprigs of thyme
  • 1 tbsp plain flour or corn flour
  • 1 tbsp cider vinegar
  • 1 glass of white wine
  • Dash of brandy
  • 600ml stock

For the toasts

  • 1 crushed garlic clove
  • Half a French baguette
  • 100g grated Gruyère, Emmental or mature cheddar cheese

What you do
Peel the onions, quarter and cut thinly into half-moon slices. Melt the butter over a medium/low heat in a heavy-bottomed pan, add a dash of olive or veg oil, add the onions, coat all with fat and lower the heat. Season with salt.
The objective is to brown and caramelize the onions, so you can raise the heat a bit, but keep a keen eye on them and stir frequently. Do this for at least an hour, up to two, until they look ready (I mentioned it wasn’t quick!). Alternatively, place in the oven at 180ºC for three hours.
Next stage, add the thyme leaves and flour to the onions. Stir gently and well. Add the vinegar and a drop of the wine. Scrape up the bits stuck to the bottom of the pan, then pour in the rest of the wine, then the stock (plus a teaspoon of marmite, a teaspoon of soy sauce and the parmesan rind if using veg stock). Simmer for an hour.
Cut the French stick into eight thin slices, rub lightly with the garlic clove and brush with a bit of melted butter. Toast under the grill – when golden turn over and toast the other side. Remove the bread but leave the grill on. Add the brandy to your soup and adjust seasoning if necessary – and see if it needs more soy or marmite, if using.
Ladle into four ovenproof bowls, put two slices of baguette in each and a cover each crouton with a mound of cheese. Pop under the grill till the cheese is bubbling then serve immediately. A great winter warmer!

Red Cabot has had a lifelong interest in food. In 2010 he began selling fresh food sauces at Westport Country Market, open every Thursday at the Old Railway Hotel, North Mall, Westport, 8.30am-1pm.