Where I grew up, we considered the restaurant in the mall, above the Nordstrom's, fine dining. I only ever ordered one thing when we went: French Onion Soup. It came in one of those silly, single-serve, iron crocks—slathered in cheese. These are formative experiences I now find myself chasing down, trying to recapture. As a vegetarian, the task is doubly difficult.
French Onion Soup is a deceptively complex, savory meal. The traditional stock will often include 2 or 3 kinds of meat—to make up for the fact that it only has one ingredient: onions. I've tried various recipes and tricks over the years, but only just stumbled upon a method, this last holiday season, I call: re-stocking. I make a fresh batch of stock, but instead of starting with water, I use my standard, vegetable stock. Basically, the general vegetable stock acts as a base for a a more robust version, with a focused umami quality.
5 cups vegetable stock
1 cup red wine
1 tbs tamari
1 tbs red miso
6 oz. baby portabella mushrooms, quartered
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 bay leaf
2 lg. yellow onions, halved and sliced
1 white onion, halved and sliced
2 shallots, sliced
1 small batch green onions, sliced top-to-bottom
¼ tsp celery seed
several slices dry, crusty country bread
emanthaler cheese, sliced (or grated)
In a large pot, combine all the ingredients for the stock (above) and heat on high until just boiling. Reduce the heat, cover it, and keep it a low simmer for at least an hour. As you start the next steps, eyeball the onions to make sure you have enough stock.
In another good sized pot, over medium heat, cook the various onions (except for the green parts of the the scallions) along with the celery seed—covered, but dry. They will sweat some, then begin to dry out. Try not to check on them too much. After they've dried enough to begin sticking to the bottom of the pan just a touch, remove the lid and hit them with a splash of olive oil and a pinch of salt. They should rapidly begin to carmelize.
After the onions have turned golden pour your restocked-stock, using a fine mesh strainer to withhold any solids. Add just enough to cover the onions by about an inch (you may have extra based on the size of your onions). Simmer this, uncovered for another half hour at least. You want the onions to become soft as possible and to thoroughly mingle with the stock's flavor. Salt it to taste at the end. With the tamari and miso in the stock, you want to taste the final product before adding more salt. Meanwhile, set your oven on high, broil even.
If you have oven-safe serving bowls, ladle a serving of soup into each bowl. Place a slice of dried, even stale, crusty bread on the top and then cover it with cheese. Place the bowls in the oven to melt the cheese, browning it slightly. Crack some fresh pepper over each bowl, garnishing it with green onion slices. Serve promptly.
If you don't have oven safe serving bowls, I'd grate the cheese, instead of slicing it. Simply place the bread on top of each serving and sprinkle a healthy dose of grated cheese on top. The cheese will melt more readily and generally be easier for the diners to deal with.
As the right combination of elements has proven so vexing—I'm still not sure quest is entirely complete—I thought a soundtrack about imposters, fakers and vainglorious delusions was only appropriate.