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Classic comfort: Melty onions and gooey cheese

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By David Hagedorn

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Few things are more promising than a piping-hot bowl of French Onion Soup placed before you on a brisk day, its fragrant liquid beneath a toasted raft topped with golden cheese that will soon be stringing from your mouth.

I decided to work through what it takes to make a soul-satisfying version. Onions became the focal point of my tinkering with other cold-weather classics, including croque monsieur, baked stuffed onions and a savory tart.

The soup has three make-or-break components: broth, onions, cheese. An excellent rendition is layered with flavor and nuance. It starts with an excellent stock; without it, your soup will be average, at best.

The goal in caramelizing onions is to get some color, and, therefore, flavor, on them quickly and cook them long enough to get rid of their water (10 cups of raw will reduce to barely 2 cups cooked) and deepen their flavor.

To that end, I place a large saute pan over medium-high heat. When it is very hot, I spread the onions in the pan and don't touch them for several minutes so their moisture starts to evaporate. Then, I add fat and still let them be for several minutes, until I notice that caramelization has begun. At that point, I season, stir, reduce the heat and cook for about 25 minutes, stirring and scraping up browned bits from the bottom every so often. Result: deeply browned strands of concentrated flavor and sweetness.

Into a pot they go with the stock for simmering and melding, fortified with bay leaves and finished with port wine and fresh, chopped thyme. Adding those ingredients too soon diminishes their impact greatly.

Gruyere, a firm cow's-milk cheese from Switzerland, is the standard for onion soup because of its distinctive nutty notes. But I found that a mixture of cheeses provided more complexity and interest. Plus, when Gruyere browns, it can leave a bitter aftertaste. After experimenting, I settled on semi-soft fontal, a melty and much less-expensive Italian cheese, which added the creamy note I sought. I also tried, and rejected, combinations with raclette and fontina.

Along with the addition of caramelized onions, mixing cheeses made the difference in my version of croque monsieur. In addition to the fontal/Gruyere mix, I included a layer of camembert. Remember, it's all about layering the flavors — even for a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich.

To build the sandwich, use soft butter on the outsides of bread slices and Dijon mustard on the insides for a nice acid note. Toast the sandwich over medium heat in a saute pan on both sides. If you rush it, it will toast before it cooks in the middle. For browning the cheese topping, use the upper third of the oven to broil.

Deli hams contain a lot of water. To ensure the sandwich would not be soggy, I microwaved the ham portions briefly between paper towels and blotted them before adding them.

While I was putting all this together, I eyed the sliced ham, Mornay sauce and caramelized onions sitting on the counter and had a light-bulb moment. Using scraps left over from making two pies that day, I rolled out a third crust and blind-baked it in a 9-inch tart pan.

I covered the baked shell with the onions, topped them with ham and Mornay sauce and broiled what became a gooey, onion-soup-meets-croque-monsieur tart. A small slice makes a perfect winter first course; a larger one with a simple green salad is entree-worthy.

David Hagedorn is a contributing writer to The Washington Post.

French Onion Soup

Gooey, bubbling cheese and caramelized onions make French Onion Soup enticing, but it is the stock that makes the difference between a great soup and a lackluster one. Use the very best you can get your hands on; pretty much any rich, full-bodied stock will work (chicken, turkey, veal, beef, duck) and that means not using store-bought stuff that comes in cartons.

Gruyere cheese (from Switzerland) is usually the go-to cheese for onion soup for its distinctive nutty tang. It is costly, but a good result can be had with using a half-and-half mixture of Gruyere and fontal cheese, an Italian semi-soft melting cheese.

Which alcohol you use for this recipe is really up to you. I think port wine provides the right level of body and caramel notes that enhance the onions the best.

Make ahead: The soup can be made well in advance and frozen. The baguette toasts can be made several days ahead and stored in an airtight container.

1 baguette, cut into 1⁄2-inch slices

2 pounds (4 medium-size) yellow onions, peeled, halved from top to bottom and sliced into 1⁄4-inch half-moons

4 large fresh bay leaves, divided

2 tablespoons canola oil

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small cubes

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1⁄2 teaspoon onion powder

8 cups homemade veal, beef, chicken stock or smoked chicken stock (see headnote)

1⁄3 cup port (may substitute Madeira, sherry or dry vermouth)

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves

2 cups grated Gruyere cheese

2 cups grated fontal cheese

Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

Spread the baguette slices in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake them for 15 to 20 minutes, until they are lightly browned and hard.

Heat a large saute pan over medium heat for several minutes. Spread the onions evenly in the pan, along with 2 of the bay leaves, and let them sit untouched for a couple of minutes. Drizzle the oil evenly over them and dot with butter. Do not stir them for several minutes. (The goal is to let some of the onions' moisture evaporate and to get some color on the onions at the start. When you stir, water will be released, and the caramelizing will end until that water evaporates.)

Stir the onions, using a flat-edge wooden spoon to scrape the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let the onions cook, stirring often, for 20 to 25 minutes, until they are golden brown and nicely caramelized.

Transfer the onions to a large pot and add the 2 remaining bay leaves, the onion powder and the stock. Season with 1⁄2 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and let the soup cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes, adjusting the heat to keep it at a very slow boil.

Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and heat the broiler to high. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil, and place 8 onion soup crocks on it.

Stir the port and thyme into the hot soup, and ladle it into the crocks, stopping a half-inch short of the rims of the crocks. Discard the bay leaves. Float 2 or 3 slices of baguette on top: You want to cover the surface of the soup without the bread overlapping. Combine the Gruyere and fontal cheese in a small bowl. Sprinkle 1⁄2 cup of the cheese mixture evenly over the toasts in each crock (don't skimp!) and broil for 3 or 4 minutes, until the cheese is bubbling and browned. Serve immediately.

Makes 8 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 440 calories, 25 grams fat, (13 grams saturated), 95 milligrams cholesterol, 21 grams protein, 29 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams dietary fiber, 670 milligrams sodium

Sausage-and-Chard-Stuffed Onions

Baked stuffed onions make a nice winter entree, especially when served with roasted root vegetables. To make this dish vegetarian, substitute additional mushrooms or cooked farro for the sausage.

Make ahead: The onions can be assembled as long as two days in advance.

Nonstick cooking spray

6 large white onions, peeled

Water

Salt

11⁄2 pounds Swiss chard, center veins removed and cleaned well (12 cups packed)

3⁄4 pound Italian sausage, mild or hot

2 tablespoons canola oil

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small cubes

Freshly ground black pepper

12 ounces cremini mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed and diced

11⁄2 cups heavy cream

3 medium-size cloves garlic, chopped

3⁄4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

3 cups panko bread crumbs

2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease a baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.

Cut a half-inch from the top of each onion and trim the bottom just enough so the onion stands upright and even. Use a melon baller to scoop out the onions' insides, leaving the two outer layers intact and reserving the scooped-out flesh.

Place the hollowed-out onions in the prepared baking dish and roast them for 40 to 45 minutes, until they are fork-tender on the inside. Remove them from the oven and reduce the heat to 350 degrees.

Chop the reserved onions.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, add the chard and cook for 5 minutes. Pour the chard into a colander to drain, and rinse with cool water to stop the cooking process. Squeeze the water from the chard, then chop the chard.

Cook the sausage in a small pan over medium heat until it is cooked through, using a flat-edge wooden spatula to break it into little pieces. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the sausage to a large bowl.

Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat. When it is very hot, spread the chopped onions evenly in the saute pan and let them sit untouched for a couple of minutes. Drizzle the oil evenly over them and dot them with butter. Do not stir them for several minutes.

Season the onions well with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often, until the onions are golden brown, for about 4 minutes.

Add the mushrooms and cook for another couple of minutes, stirring often. Add the reserved chard. Stir in the cream and cook for 1 minute. Transfer the mixture to the bowl with the sausage and add the garlic, cheese, panko and oregano. Stir to combine well.

Holding an onion in the palm of one hand, spoon some of the sausage mixture into it and press it in to give the onion a full, round shape. Mound more of the mixture on top of the onion to make a generous portion. Repeat to stuff all of the onions.

Return the onions to the baking dish and bake for 45 minutes, until well browned.

Makes 6 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 630 calories, 41 grams fat (22 grams saturated), 125 milligrams cholesterol, 22 grams protein, 46 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams dietary fiber, 790 milligrams sodium

Oniony Three-Cheese Croque-Monsieur

Croque-monsieur is the classic French grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich, topped with cheese sauce and passed under a broiler until it's golden brown and bubbling. The recipe usually calls for nutty Gruyere cheese only, but this decadent version includes fontal cheese, a semi-soft Italian melting cheese, and camembert, which adds a note of richness and dimension. The sweetness of caramelized onions nicely balances the cheese's tang.

Mornay sauce is a fancy term for cheese sauce, made by adding grated cheese to bechamel, a fancy term for white sauce.

Deli ham in grocery stores often is loaded with water. It is a good idea to portion the ham for your sandwiches, place the portions on a plate between a double thickness of paper towels and microwave the ham for 30 seconds. This releases a lot of the water. Blot the ham with the paper towels as much as possible.

Make ahead: If you make the components ahead of time, assembling the sandwiches to order will be easier. The onions can be prepared several days in advance. The Mornay sauce can be made a day in advance.

For the onions:

1⁄2 pound (1 medium-size) yellow onion, peeled, halved and sliced into 1⁄4-inch half-moons

1 small fresh bay leaf

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into 4 cubes

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

For the Mornay sauce:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons flour

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

A few grates of fresh nutmeg or 1⁄8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 cup warm milk

1 cup grated Gruyere cheese

For the sandwiches:

1⁄2 cup grated Gruyere cheese

1⁄2 cup grated fontal cheese

8 slices country bread, about 7 inches across and 1⁄2-inch thick

4 tablespoons (1⁄2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

4 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard

1⁄2 cup caramelized onions

6 ounces Camembert cheese, cut into 1⁄4-inch-thick slices

8 ounces very thinly sliced Virginia or Black Forest ham (see headnote)

1 cup Mornay sauce

To prepare the onions: Heat a large saute pan over medium heat for several minutes. Spread the onions evenly in the pan, along with the bay leaf, and let them sit untouched for a couple of minutes. Drizzle the oil evenly over them and dot with butter. Do not stir them for several minutes. (The goal is to let some of the onion's moisture evaporate and to get some color on the onions at the start. When you stir, water will be released, and the caramelizing will end until that water evaporates.)

Stir the onions, using a flat-edge wooden spoon to scrape the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let the onions cook, stirring often, for 20 to 25 minutes, until they are golden brown and nicely caramelized. The yield is about 1⁄2 cup.

To prepare the Mornay sauce: Heat the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat until it bubbles. Whisk in the flour, salt, pepper and nutmeg, and cook for 2 or 3 minutes, to create a nutty-brown roux. Slowly whisk in the milk, beating constantly to prevent lumps from forming. Cook the sauce for 2 or 3 minutes, until it is well-thickened and bubbling. Remove it from the heat and add the cheese, stirring until it is melted. The yield is about 11⁄4 cups.

To prepare the sandwiches: Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and heat the broiler to high. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Combine the Gruyere and fontal cheeses in a small bowl.

Cover each slice of bread with butter on one side and mustard on the other side. Place 4 of the slices in a large, nonstick skillet, buttered side down. Top each slice with 2 tablespoons of caramelized onions, Camembert slices, ham slices and 1⁄4 cup of the grated-cheese mixture. Top each with a slice of bread, buttered side up.

Cook the sandwiches over medium heat until they are golden brown, for 5 to 7 minutes, lightly pressing down on them with a spatula to ensure even toasting.

Carefully turn the sandwiches over and toast them on the second side until they are golden brown, for 4 to 6 minutes. Transfer the sandwiches to the baking sheet and spread about 1⁄4 cup of Mornay sauce over each. Broil for 3 or 4 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling and nicely browned. Serve right away.

Makes 4 sandwiches

Nutrition information persandwich: 820 calories, 52 grams fat, (28 grams saturated), 160 milligrams cholesterol, 38 grams protein, 50 grams carbohydrates, 0 dietary fiber, 1,900 milligrams sodium

Croque a l'Oignon Tart

This terrific tart is what happens when a croque-monsieur — a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich topped with broiled cheese sauce — collides with onion soup. With a green salad on the side, it makes a perfect lunch offering. On its own, it is an excellent first course for a dinner party.

Make ahead: The onions can be prepared a few days in advance. The tart shell can be baked 1 day in advance. The Mornay sauce can be made 1 day in advance.

For the onions:

11⁄2 pounds (3 medium-size) yellow onions, peeled, halved and sliced into 1⁄4-inch half-moons

2 fresh bay leaves

2 tablespoons canola oil

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small cubes

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1⁄2 teaspoon chopped, fresh thyme

For the Mornay sauce:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons flour

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Pinch grated fresh nutmeg

1 cup warm milk

1 cup grated Gruyere cheese

For the tart:

One 9-inch, baked tart shell, in its pan

3 ounces very thinly sliced Virginia or Black Forest ham

To prepare the onions: Heat a large saute pan over medium heat for several minutes. Spread the onions evenly in the pan, along with the bay leaves, and let them sit untouched for a couple of minutes. Drizzle the oil evenly over them and dot with butter. Do not stir them for several minutes. (The goal is to let some of the onion's moisture evaporate and to get some color on the onions at the start. When you stir, water will be released, and the caramelizing will end until that water evaporates.)

Stir the onions, using a flat-edge wooden spoon to scrape the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let the onions cook, stirring often, for 20 to 25 minutes, until they are golden brown and nicely caramelized. Stir in the chopped thyme. Keep the onions warm on low heat if you are making the tart immediately; or, cover and refrigerate for as long as 3 days.

To prepare the Mornay sauce: Heat the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat until the butter bubbles. Whisk in the flour, salt, pepper and nutmeg, and cook for 2 or 3 minutes, to create a nutty-brown roux. Slowly whisk in the milk, beating constantly to prevent lumps. Cook the sauce for 2 or 3 minutes, until well thickened and bubbling. Remove from the heat and add the cheese, stirring until it is melted.

To prepare the tart: Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and heat the broiler to high. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Place the baked tart shell on the baking sheet. Spread the warm onions evenly in the bottom of the tart shell, cover with the ham slices and top evenly with the Mornay sauce. Broil for 4 or 5 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling and nicely browned. Serve immediately.

Makes 6 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 550 calories, 37 grams fat (20 grams saturated), 95 milligrams cholesterol, 14 grams protein, 42 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams dietary fiber, 670 milligrams sodium

 

 
 


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