Port Ludlow “French” Onion Soup… a Balm for the Soul

It did seem like we received more wind from the SE this winter than we did last winter.  Most likely that is a misconstruction on my part.  We were snowbound for a few days in February, a typical occurance out here on the Peninsula, but we remained warm and cozy in Great Northern.  In mid-February we had a week and a half of sun, robin egg blue skies and ice free docks.  I do know that we’ve put the heavy down parkas back in the closet.  The light down is now out for daily use.  Still… next year might find us in a more southerly wintering location.  Emphasis on might… we wouldn’t want to miss the March progression of new growth on trees, the purplish-magenta of new growth on the brush surrounding meadows, crocuses pushing up through the flower beds, daffodils blooming, budding rhododendrons, and the return of migrating birds.  Water everywhere.  It’s a balance, eh?  To have the warm and really appreciate it, it’s not a bad thing to experience a bit of cold.

On the health front, starting in late September and really coming into its own in early October… I’ve been struggling with sciatica. Suffice it to say… I have a crappy back.  Years of abuse, of course.  Mostly my bad.  The rest… genetics and age. At first the sciatica was bad enough to keep me in bed for about 5 days. Thanks to the intervention of a few meds I happened to have on board, and an excellent physical therapy group, Active Life, just down the road about a half mile… I’m on the way to a manageable solution for now.  Then… just as I was rounding my recuperative corner, Les tripped on a root lurking under the duff on the Talbot trail.  She’d been maintaining a daily hiking schedule that included 5 to 6 miles per day on the local Port Ludlow trails.  The Talbot is one of the flatter and easier trails she usually hikes.  She’d just finished the Osprey trail, which is one of the more difficult.  Avulsion fracture on the left ankle.  Damn.  Not a terribly bad one, no surgery needed, but it has definitely set her back…  It was a scary phone call I got from her.  It was a bit beyond “Blair, I’ve fallen down and can’t get up!” I raced up to Talbot in our car, and trotted to the trail using the Google maps locator to her position.  I found her hobbling along, leaning on this little old guy about half her size.  Her arm over his shoulder and in the other hand… a large tree branch rather like a Gandalf staff that she was using as an improvised crutch.  Quite the picture.  She didn’t walk out of the woods, but with a broken ankle she was upright.  Don’t mess with an old equestrian I say… they are a tough breed.  Just ask our friend Jacqui… who has helped us out by sending us a rather nice recirculating ice bath device to keep the swelling under control.  Les has started PT just this week to make sure all is well down the road.

On the more positive side of the health equation, we’ve been in the business of shedding pounds.  Less weight on the frame, less stress on the muscles… you know the drill.  As of today… Les is down 34 pounds and I’m down 24 or so depending on the diet of the day.  We do control our diet closely, more veggies, fruits and less meat.  Salads… salads… made more interesting by the addition of tasty dressings multiple types of greens, broccoli, cauliflower, seeds… the usual.  Everything that passes our lips is logged and evaluated and… adjusted accordingly.  So far so good.  Les and I are closing in on our ideal body weights for our frame sizes and age.  That is all on the good side of the ledger.

Les and I believe that we’ll be able to restart our seasonal pilgrimage roaming about the Salish Sea and parts North.  We have Desolation Sound, the Discoveries, the Octopus and further North the Broughton Islands in our sights.  The Broughtons will most likely be the farthest we venture North.  We are considering going up over the end of Vancouver Island and making our way down the Western Coast, back to the Strait and into the Salish sea, but that all depends on how well the boat is working, our remaining stores, fuel, projected weather, etc.  We’ll see how all that feels when we are ready to leave the Broughtons.

Enough of all that.  The rest of this post is about one of our occasional epigastric indulgences.  When we were living in Coronado we frequented a French restaurant, Chez Loma.  One of their specialties was of course, French onion soup, and on Wednesdays all wines by the bottle were half off.  That is how we learned about Saldo zinfandel.  If you’ve never tried it… I suggest that you buy a bottle to find out how wonderful a zin it is.  Point Loma and Port Townsend do not have a French bistro per se… that has an offering of French onion soup, so… I thought I’d explore the best ways to create one on the boat.  What follows is the result of some experimentation.  It is a combination / amalgam of at least 5 internet recipes and techniques I’ve condensed into what I will call Point Loma French onion soup.  Here it is for you to ponder.  Heck, don’t ponder, try it.  Add your thoughts.  It is a wonderful soup, and though it appears on the surface to be a bit tedious, it is not.  Besides, to make it one does have to crack open a nice red wine.

For starters you need to have proper oven proof bowls.  La Crusete sells them for $32. They are gorgeous things and of very high quality like all of their wares.  But, I choked on spending $64 on a pair that I would seldom use.  And… the handles might make them more difficult to store, living on a boat and all.  I found these two delightful, heavy, ceramic wonders (picture below) at the Goodwill.  $1.99 for both of them.  This is recycling at its very best.  Williams Sonoma sells the same IDG Japanese ceramic bowls for $41.50 each!  Ha!  It does pay to snoop around a bit…

Behold them. Heavy, thick glazed ceramic.  Just imagine the soups and stews that they’ve held in their cauldron-like arms.  Smiling faces gazing down upon them, shimmering sustenance wafting back.  Thick walls to hold heat unlike a modern plastic that exudes undesirable, unnatural contaminants and solvents.  None of that here folks.  Honest soup bowls at large.  Don’t mind the little black dots of pepper.  I wiped them off…  although I’m not sure why.  What’s a few grains of vagrant pepper anyway?

So.  The process boils down to creating a nice broth, caramelizing onions, baking croutons (why buy croutons when they are so easy to make), assembling the lot, topping with cheese and baking it all together until the cheese melts into the croutons and floats over the broth and onions.  Easy.

Here is what you will need for 2 servings:

IngredientHow muchComment
Good quality beef broth3 cupsYou could make your own… buy why?
Garlic3 clovesSmashed, peeled, and finely diced
Dried thyme¼ tspItalian seasoning would work just fine as well
Salt / pepperTo tasteI use regular salted beef broth so I don’t need much added salt
Butter4 tbspFor the beef broth (hey this is French cooking!) I know what you are thinking… fa-getta-bout-it! Don’t skimp.
All-purpose flour1.5 tbspThis gives the broth a nice mouth feel without thickening it
Dry red wine½ cupZin, cab… whatever you are drinking (hint… hint…) I mean, once you crack it open what else can you do?
Worcestershire Sauce1 tbsp 
Dijon mustard½ tspThat’s right.  Dijon mustard.  Don’t even think about substituting.
Dried mushrooms (shrooms I say)2 tspDon’t ask, just do.  Any dried type really, crimini, porcini, wild.  Grind them in a spice/coffee grinder.  This is the bomb for that ultimate umami taste.  Don’t skip it.  Sometimes it’s hard to get fresh shrooms when cruising about in a boat, so I always have dried shrooms aboard.  They are available just about everywhere.
Red / white / brown onions5 or 6I used 4 red and 2 white on my last batch.  It’s what I had on board.  All red, all white, or all brown.  Whatever I have on hand.  Not sure it matters
Gruyere cheese1 to 2 cupsGrated.  I go with 2 cups.  We like cheese.  Leo loves cheese
Small sourdough roll or French baguetteSmallEnough to make about a cup of croutons.  Or… make more for salads later etc.
Good quality olive oilIn the how toLife is too short for poor quality olive oil or bad wine

Phase 1:  Chopping

For me chopping is a rather meditative affair.  It’s similar to concentrating on your breath, or riding dressage or rock climbing if you’ve ever done those sorts of things.  It isn’t the repetitive motion… it’s the concentration required so you don’t cut a finger off, get bucked off, fall off…  Those types of activities require your full attention and help to shut out all non-relevant activities.  I sense a book at hand:  “The Meditation of Chopping”, but I digress…

Turn on the oven to bake at 350o to heat up. 

  • Cube whatever bread you’ve acquired (or have) and place in a medium sized bowl.  Set aside.
  • Peel and chop the onions.  Not too coarse, set aside in a bowl.
  • Smash the garlic cloves with a good whack under a broad bladed knife (you know the drill), peel and finely dice.  Set aside.
  • Phase one is complete… and the oven should be ready for phase 2.

Phase 2:  The Croutons.

Our local QFC has cute little baguettes, about 6-7 inches long.  Perfect.  I’ve also used small sourdough rolls.  Day old is just fine.

  • Drizzle 1-2 tablespoons of good quality olive oil over the bread chunks.
  • Lightly salt and pepper, add a bit of powdered garlic.
  • Toss to coat.
  • Place on a heavy sheet pan lined with parchment paper (or not).  Place the sheet pan in the oven and set a timer for about 8 minutes.  We want them lightly toasted, not hard as rocks.

Phase 3:  The onions.

Place a heavy pot on medium heat (I use a small La Crusete casserole gifted to me by a dear friend for Christmas, many years ago (Janice C).  It will outlast me!).  Pour in 2 tablespoons of olive oil and when heated up, dump the bowl of cut up onions into the pot.  Dump, I say dump.  No worries about bruising the little niffers. Stir to coat and put on the lid to help them steam / cook down. Constant vigilance is required to caramelize them… so every 3-4 minutes open up the pot and give them a good stir.  If they start to dry out I add a bit of beef broth to the pot.  (The French would probably just add butter!)

Nearly there. Keep going!

Phase 4:  The broth For the record, this is really more of an au jus, eh? (credit to Kimberly Killebrew for much of it)  Plain broth is just so unimaginative, now isn’t it? This broth is what makes the soup.  I think you will agree once you taste it.  You are going to cook this at some point, right?

  • Place a 2 quart pot on low medium heat and put in all of the butter to melt.  That’s right.  All of it.  There is French in the name of the soup after all…
  • When nicely melted, toss in the diced garlic.  That’s right.  Just toss it in.  It won’t mind.  Cook while stirring a bit.
  • Ah!  The oven timer just went off.  Remove the croutons from the oven to cool.
  • Back to the au jus:  Whisk in the flower and simmer for a minute or so to cook it up a bit.
  • Slowly add in the red wine while stirring to avoid clumpage.  Yes, that’s a highly sophisticated term.  Get used to it.  Savor it.  Foment it.  Propagate it.  Why not?  Simmer for 2 minutes… perhaps 3.  It is now time to sip a bit some wine.  Oh!  You haven’t had any yet?  Well get on with it!
  • Whisk in the beef broth and let it simmer for 3 minutes until it slightly thickens
  • Add the thyme, Worcestershire, mushroom powder and Dijon mustard.  Stir to meld the flavors. You are swiftly becoming a chemical engineer, an alchemist if you will…
  • Add the caramelized onions.
  • Stir and let simmer.  Nearly there… nearly there…
  • Now would be the time to salt and pepper to taste, and give it a bit of time to meld together.  Just about enough time for a sip of wine… or two… and relish advances in your alchemical prowess.

Phase 5:  Assembly

  • Ladle au jus / onion mixture into each bowl, leaving room for the croutons and cheese
  • Float croutons on top of the au jus.
  • Sprinkle cheese freely to cover the croutons
  • Bake in the oven until the cheese is melted and slightly golden.  Alchemy in action…
  • CAREFULLY remove the piping hot bowls of oniony, cheesy, umami enhanced bliss from the oven.  Now is not the time to drop it on the floor.  It will scald the dog, now wouldn’t it! I use padded silicone mits.  You should too.  Great grip.  Highly protective.

Phase 6:  Pour another glass of wine and one for anyone near at hand.  ENJOY!

The Soup
The croutons
Yeah Baby!
The Golden Hue
All about safety…

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