Not-so-French onion soup
Confession time: despite the content up until this point on Golden, I am not vegan. In fact, I quite enjoy a wide variety of animals – don’t get me started on chicken wings! However, I am trying to shift the percentage of what I am eating to be more plant-based than not for many reasons; it makes me feel awesome, it’s good for the environment and I want to live to be 102. Anyway, that’s why most of the stuff I plan to post here on Golden will be sans animal, but don’t be surprised if I sneak in a wing recipe every now and then.
Part of the fun in this quest to make flavorful and satisfying food without using animal products comes in the challenge of taking something that typically relies on meat or dairy and tasking myself to make a plant-based version that rivals the original. That’s where this soup comes in. I love making french onion soup this time of year when the days begin to get shorter and the air turns crisp and have cooked it for years with the same ingredients: a rich stock that’s half beef and half chicken simmered with onions that have been caramelized in lots of butter and madeira topped with a crusty hunk of bread and a pile of oozing gruyere. Sound good? It is! For my revamped version I decided not to play that game and got rid of the bread and cheese which often overshadows the hot liquid beneath it. Instead I focused on developing a deeply flavorful soup that could stand on its own.
The hero in this story is the shiitake, which is funny because I’m a known mushroom hater. It’s true, my affection for the fungus hasn’t always been strong, but there are certain things I love about mushrooms; like the rich flavor they impart, and there are certain things I hate; like their texture and general creepiness. The thing about shiitakes (especially dried shiitakes) is that they have an extremely high concentration of umami, not unlike that of meat, so I decided that they would make an ideal base for my soup (plus once they lent their flavor to my broth I could fish them out and say buh-bye). Equally as important are the sweet caramelized onions which I cooked down to a golden brown in grape seed oil with great results. Last, a sizable splash of balsamic vinegar which adds some additional sweetness and balance with a nice acidic note. The sum of these simple ingredients was definitely bigger than their parts and in the end I had a soup that more than satisfied my craving, but that would have Escoffier rolling in his grave.
Not-s0-French onion soup recipe
2oz dried shitakes
8 cups water
4 white onions sliced lengthwise
1/4 cup grape seed oil (or any other high heat cooking oil)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
2 1/2 teaspoons additional kosher salt (or to taste)
finely diced chives for garnish (optional)
Combine the dried shiitakes and 8 cups of water in a pot and bring to a simmer. Cover and continue to simmer for 30 minutes. Take off heat and set aside.
While the shiitakes are simmering, heat the oil over medium heat and once it’s hot add the sliced onions along with 2 teaspoons of salt and the freshly ground black pepper. Stir all of the ingredients together so that the onions are coated with the oil, salt and pepper and reduce the heat to medium low. At first, stir the onions occasionally to make sure they aren’t browning too quickly. They will go through some stages. You’ll notice that they’ll lose volume in the pot as they become soft and translucent and then they’ll begin to give off a lot of liquid. Once this starts to happen you should check on them more frequently as they will start to stick to the bottom of the pan and create a flavorful fond. Using the flat edge of a blunt wooden spoon scrape the golden bits off the bottom of the pot and reincorporate it back in to the onions. Continue to do this as long as you can stand it – I usually cook the onions for about 45 minutes to an hour total time. When they are done, the onions that once barely fit into your pot should have reduced dramatically in size and they should be a light golden brown.
Using a fine mesh strainer, strain the shiitakes while adding their broth to pot with the caramelized onions. (I should point out that you can save the rehydrated shiitakes for use in another recipe, like a stir fry or veggie burgers, if you’re into that sort of thing.) Let the onions and shiitake broth mingle over medium low heat for at least 15 minutes and then top off with the balsamic vinegar and remaining salt. As with most soups, this one tastes better the next day, but I’m never that patient.
Photos by Bess Friday and Lauren Godfrey. Once again, thank you Bess for all of your beautiful work!