Onions are to many dishes as a tyre is to a car or a wing to a Boeing. It’s there, it must be there, and most of the time you don’t even notice it’s there, but you’d sure as hell notice if it wasn’t.
Without the metaphorical onion, the car would collapse to the tarmac and be rendered useless, a morose heap of self-pitying metal and unfathomable bits. I should perhaps explain that when it comes to cars and men, I am in the five percent who have no idea what makes it work, tick, go or stop.
Telephones, cellphones, iPads, calculators and a million other gizmos are just as much of a mystery to me. I know that if I talk into a telephone, somebody far away will hear what I am saying and explain the meaning of life to me, but if they tried to explain how it is that we can talk to each other on different continents just as if we were standing next to each other, both of us would need to take a day off work.
I am only grateful that if somebody shows me how to use one, and I get it to work, I have grown-up children who can explain how to do that should I lose the manual.
I would sooner leap off a cliff backwards singing Climb Every Mountain than lie under a car in Table View on a Saturday afternoon with a rugby commentary plugged into my ears, a spanner in my hand and the knowledge that if the jack dislodges itself, my beer boep will keep the car up.
I have more understanding of cooking, because it makes more sense to me, techno-challenged as I am. And I do not mean the chemical cooking of a Ferran Adria, a Heston Blumenthal or a Richard Carstens. I am in awe of such people, as I am in awe of people who can invent a cellphone, an iPod or a site called Instagram that you can later sell to Facebook for a billion US dollars, even if on paper it has no worth at all (what was that all about?), but ask me to invent something that I know I can pull off, and I will assemble some ingredients, balance some flavours and textures and create a dish which I hope will knock your senses silly. It is not much of a talent, but I may just as well relish in it.
And there are few dishes, outside of a dessert, in which I will not use the humble onion. You need it in a thousand soups, a million sauces, any number of stews, casseroles, tagines, stir-fries and curries. Chinese cuisine would be half of itself without the spring onion. French cuisine would have to be reinvented. And I suppose somebody, somewhere, has a recipe for onion ice cream, but that’s just silly. I’ve eaten smoked salmon ice cream, and once you get past the notion that it ought to be sweet, you soon realise that in fact it is a savoury dessert not unlike a smoked salmon mousse, only it is frozen to a creamy state. This, if memory serves correctly, was made by the self-same Richard Carstens, farflung disciple of Adria and Blumenthal, when he was at Grande Provence in Franschhoek.
It would be easy to just cook some sliced onions in butter or oil for 20 minutes and then develop it into a soup and grandly proclaim it to be “French onion soup”, but it would not be.
To make a good French onion soup, you need to take lots and lots of time. Roast the onions very slowly for hours and hours, the longer the better. Add liquid – stock, water – at intervals and let it cook down again. And another trick when making French onion soup is to love those dark, hard, treacly bits that collect at the bottom of a roasting pan when you have cooked and cooked and cooked, because the more flavour you can gather in this long process, the better your French onion soup is going to be.
French Onion Soup
4 large onions
3 Tbs butter
2 cups water
1 cup beef stock
1 cup chicken stock
4 slices baguette, lightly toasted
1 cup (250ml) Gruyère cheese, grated
3 Tbs sherry
First, peel your whole onions, slice them in half, salt them lightly, and place them in an oiled roasting pan in a 180° oven. Watch their progress. When the onions have attained a caramelised brown hue and are soft, add a cup of water, scrape up the bits at the bottom of the pan, and put them back in again to repeat the same process. Do this three times over a period of three or four hours, and you will end up with onions and a phenomenal amount of flavour.
Now remove them to a saucepan, scrape up everything you can and add that to the pot. Add a cup each of beef stock and chicken stock, more water if you like, and bring to a simmer. Use a knife to cut up the onions into pieces manageable for eating, but it need not be pretty and perfectly apportioned. Check for season and add salt and pepper to taste if necessary. Cool to room temperature and then cover and refrigerate until neeed. This is best made a day or even two days ahead of your dinner party.
An hour before you’re ready to serve your soup, remove from the fridge and bring to room temperature. Lightly toast the baguette slices. Add the sherry to the soup and ladle into bowls and place a round of toasted baguette atop each. Grate Gruyère and sprinkle on top. Place in the middle of a 170 to 180 degree oven and heat through, allowing the cheese to melt.
In the picture you don’t see the soup, because the crouton topped with Gruyère covers the top, but put your spoon in and it slips through, bringing to your lips that gorgeous soup with its cheesy surprise. If it turns out well, it should be no less exhilarating than taking wing or speeding at Le Mans, and much more fun than lying under a car on a Saturday afternoon. But to each his own.