The Budget-Friendly Recipe Book: French Onion Soup

I love cooking and baking at home, and I also love it when I can do them at home in a budget-friendly manner.  Eating at home is always cheaper than eating out to begin with, but there is a certain rush that I get when I can get something on the table that tastes amazing, was pretty low-effort, and only cost pocket change to make.

A few posts ago I talked about how we’re trimming down financial waste in the kitchen, and I figured why not share some recipes once in a while that fit in nicely with that theme?  So here’s a new series for you all — The Budget-Friendly Recipe Book.

And we’ll start with one of our favourites around here:  French onion soup.

 

The Owls’ Nest French Onion Soup

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If you’ve ever bought a giant bag of onions because it was so cheap but then have no idea what to do with them, look no farther than French onion soup.  Also, the method below calls for a fresh loaf of bread that you toast up in the oven, but if you happen to have some bread going stale in your kitchen, this recipe is a perfect way to use it so that you don’t waste it and don’t break your teeth trying to eat it.

It deviates a little from the traditional preparation of French onion soup, but trust me — it doesn’t stray too far from what you’d normally expect and it’s totally worth it.  It’s honestly my favourite soup because it’s simple to make, friendly on the household budget, and so delicious any time of year (but especially yummy on a rainy day).

Have a bowl of it on its own for a meal that’s light but terrifically satisfying, or for something more filling, fry up a Toulouse sausage and make a simple mesclun salad tossed lightly with lemon juice and olive oil.  The recipe below makes enough for 4  or 5 generous meal-sized servings but you can dish up smaller bowls if you’re having it as one part of a larger meal.

Ingredients:

  • 12-14 white onions (small to medium in size, depending on what’s in your giant bag of onions)
  • Olive oil
  • 250g diced pancetta or sliced bacon
  • Bay leaves
  • Herbes de provence
  • Cayenne pepper
  • 6 to 8 cups of stock (beef or vegetable)
  • Bread (such as a baguette)
  • Butter
  • Minced garlic (a few cloves of fresh garlic or 1 to 2 tbsp of pre-minced garlic from a jar)
  • Cheese (Gruyère is traditional, but you can try any cheese that melts down nicely such as Swiss, Jarlsberg, or sharp white cheddar)

Method:

  1.  Preheat oven to 375F/190C.
  2.  Peel, trim, and slice 12-14 white onions into thick wedges. Put onions in an oven-proof pot (such as an enamelled Lodge cast-iron dutch oven), toss them with a drizzle of olive oil to separate them and coat them evenly, and put in the oven.
  3. Check on onions every 15-20 minutes or so and stir.  They will caramelize and soften over the course of 1 to 2 hours.  The speed of this process depends largely on your oven (since every oven is slightly different) but the depth of browning is up to you.  Just remember, you’re going for rich caramel brown onions, not blackened ones!
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    If you’re wondering why on earth I’m telling you to bother with doing the onions this way instead of on the stovetop, there are a three main reasons why. First, onions can get really smoky in a pan on the stove, especially when trying to cook a large amount of them at once. Second, to make sure they don’t burn in the pan you have to keep stirring them around, meaning you’re standing over a smoky pan of onions trying not to ruin them. Third, when you have so many onions in one container it can actually be a little hard to make sure they’re all sufficiently cooked and caramelized — meaning you might end up biting into an undercooked onion which is just not what you want to be tasting in a soup like this. By cooking them in the oven in a big pot or dutch oven, you’re cooking them low and slow to allow for optimal caramelization, and doing so in a vessel that is incredibly good at getting everything inside it cooked.  You can also leave it in the oven on its own while you’re working on other parts of the dish or if you just want to go sit down for a while. With this method, the only way you’re going to end up with burned onions is if you literally forget you’ve got them in the oven.  You can also do this step ahead of time if you know you won’t have two hours on the day you want to have the soup; just keep them in the pot until you’re ready to make the rest of it.

     

  4. While onions are cooking, brown 250g of diced pancetta or sliced bacon in a nonstick pan until crisp.  Drain off fat and set aside.
  5. Spread butter and minced garlic on to several slices of bread. Toast them until they are crisp and set them aside to cool.  (Whatever type of bread you’ve chosen, you’ll need at least enough to be able to cover at the top of your soup in the bowls you have available.)
  6. Once onions are caramelized, remove them from the oven and add to the pot 1 or 2 bay leaves, 2 tsp of herbes de provence, a pinch of cayenne pepper, the cooked pancetta/bacon, and 6 to 8 cups of beef or vegetable stock. 
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    If you’re looking closely you might notice that there are little purple specks in my herbes de provence.  The blend I use is from The Silk Road Spice Merchant and contains lavender — another slight twist on traditional ingredients that adds a little something special to this soup.  Don’t worry if your herbes de provence doesn’t have anything extra in it, though, because your soup will still taste amazing! In regards to the pinch of cayenne pepper, how big or small that pinch is you put in is entirely up to you.  If you don’t want any cayenne pepper in your soup then don’t add any — as it usually goes with home cooked food, it’s all up to your own personal taste!

     
  7.  Simmer the entire pot over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 10-15 minutes.  If there are any browned bits (fond) stuck to the sides of your pot, scrape them down as you stir, because the fond adds a nice dimension of flavour to the finished soup.  This soup won’t reduce very much in 10 to 15 minutes, but you can definitely let it simmer for much longer if you want a thicker consistency and a more concentrated flavour.
  8. Taste your soup and see if it needs any salt and/or pepper.  Depending on your pancetta/bacon and your soup stock you might not need any extra salt, so be sure to taste your soup before you season it!  Also, when you taste it don’t forget to try and get a little bit of everything — a piece or two of pancetta or bacon, a few of those soft caramelized onions, and a good spoonful of broth — so that you’re getting as full a flavour profile as possible from your tasting spoon.
  9.  To serve, remove the bay leaves from the soup and ladle the soup into your bowls.  Place your garlic butter toast on the surface of the soup and top it off with sliced cheese.
  10. Put your bowls on a baking sheet/cookie tray and broil for 5 minutes in the oven until the cheese is melted and golden-brown.  Keep an eye on it and do not leave the kitchen — unattended food under the broiler has a knack for charring to a blackened mess very quickly!
  11. Enjoy!