We've been making authentic French Onion Soup for many years, mostly using Julia Child's techniques and ingredients. The last few years, I discovered that I preferred using a sharp Provolone cheese in place of the usual Gruyere, putting a slight Italian touch on the dish. But this year, I though I'd see just how Italian I could go, making our
Zuppa di Cipolle Italiano.
So first, instead of any type of onion, I thought I'd use my favorite sweet onion... Vidalia. It sounds Italian, doesn't it? I know, I know, the name isn't Italian--they are named after a town in Georgia, but they are very sweet. I thought I'd also swap out the Vermouth for Italian sweet Marsala wine. The two have very similar flavor profiles. I usually use a Cognac like in the original Child recipe, but this time I'd use Grappa. Pepperoncino (red pepper flakes) would add a bit of heat in the soup itself, and for the cheese, I would use creamy Italian Fontina... a sprinkle of Oregano to top it off.
I always hated the way most restaurants put one large, crusty-edged, crock-filling slab of bread on top of the soup, and then melt the cheese on top of that. First, it's nearly impossible--using a spoon--to cut a small piece of bread from the crusty, toasted slab. Secondly, the cheese often melted into a solid mat on top of the bread, often coming up in a thick sheet when you're trying to get just a small amount on your spoon. I've eaten French Onion Soup (they just call it "Onion Soup") in France where the cheese was grated and melted down into the soup, forming creamy strands of cheese that mixed with every spoonful. For the bread, I wouldn't use French baguettes slabs, but cubes of ciabatta. In this way, each and every spoonful gets some soup and a piece of bread, with the added bonus of the cheese melting down into the soup and becoming part of it. If you gently push the bread cubes down into the soup before putting the shredded Fontina on top, you'll get a texture similar to some of the bread soups alla povera (peasant style) I've had in Italy.
The other thing I changed was the texture and cut of the onions themselves. I've had some versions where the onions were cut so thick and in such long strands that they attempt to choke you as you swallow--especially if they weren't property caramelized. So, my method is taking half of the onions and cutting them into a dice, with the second half cut in quarter-circles, so the strands are much shorter. In this way, you still have a decent texture, but with the diced onions permeating every part of the soup.
8 cups onions (about 3 pounds), half diced/half quarter-julienne
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar (to help with caramelizing the onions)
1 teaspoon pepperoncino (red pepper flakes)
2 tablespoons flour
64 ounces (8 cups) beef stock (2 cups should be hot)
4 tablespoons Cognac, Brandy or Grappa
1-1/2 cups sweet Marsala wine (the real wine, NOT a "cooking Marsala")
1 leftover rind of Parmigiano Reggiano (or cut the rind from a new wedge)
Salt and fresh ground black pepper at the end to adjust the finished flavor
1 loaf of Ciabatta bread, cubed as need
Fontina (we used Bel Gioioso brand, or Fontina Val d'Aosta if you can find some)
Oregano for dusting the finished soup
When the soup is finished, taste it and adjust for salt and ground black pepper. I added only about 1 teaspoon of sea salt to mine, but it depends on if the stock was salty or not. Trust your palette. In the end, I think I added about 20 cracks of black pepper.
Ready to Serve
There you have it. The taste is luscious, rustic, hearty, sweet and definitely more Italiano than French.
I hope you enjoy my Zuppa di Cipolle Italiano...
Let me know how yours turned out...
Copyright 2017, Jerry Finzi/Grand Voyage Italy - All Rights Reserved
My son, Lucas loves the animated film Ratatouille, and so do Lisa and I. It's a wonderful jaunt through a vintage Parisian kitchen through the eyes of "Little Chef", a rodent who loves to cook. After seeing the film, Lucas wanted to make ratatouille, so we set out to do a rustic, delicious version and have made it many times since.
But ever since re-discovering our Italian roots during our Grand Voyage of Italy, we have been concentrating more on Italian recipes. Well, this time we though we'd combine the best of both worlds--French country cuisine with the height of Italian culinary skills--in the making of a great risotto. I think we succeeded with our Ratatouille & Risotto. It's perfect for autumn or winter--a stick to your ribs supper. But this dish has two distinct personalities... the obvious simplicity of making the ratatouille--basically a vegetarian peasant stew--and the technically demanding risotto.
For the Ratatouille
Ratatouille is a very basic vegetable stew made in Provence and around Nice in southern France. It uses several basic ingredients: eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, onion and pepper. There are many variations on the recipe, but the one I use is fairly rustic and traditional.
1 large Vidalia (sweet) onion - diced
1 bell pepper, diced
2 medium sized eggplant-skinned, cut into 3/4 -1" cubes,
(the larger the eggplant, the more seeds and more bitterness)
5-6 whole garlic cloves
3-4 young, slim zucchini - skin on, sliced once lengthwise, then into 3/4" half moon slices,
(smaller & younger are more sweet and less seedy)
1-16 ounce can of diced tomatoes (I use Del Monte, oregano & basil spiced, in summer use fresh heirloom paste tomatoes)
1 cup chicken (or vegetable) broth
1/4 cup port wine
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons oregano
1 tablespoon rubbed sage
3 bay leaves (remove after cooking!)
40 cracks of fresh pepper (from a pepper mill, fine grind)
1/2 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
Olive oil for sauteing
For the Risotto
We mainly use Arborio rice when we make risotto, but even better is if you can find Canaroli rice--it makes an even creamier risotto and is a bit more forgiving. The trick with making risotto is patience. It can take the better part of an hour or more--constantly adding broth and stirring--until the starchy exterior of the rice breaks down enough to make a creamy risotto, while still keeping a pasta-like "tooth" in the cooked rice. You don't want any crunch, there shouldn't be any mushy rice, and the texture when finished should be loose, glistening and creamy. While there are some tricks for making risotto faster, but there's no substitute for a strong arm and standing at the stove top for up to an hour...
2 cups arborio or carnaroli rice
2 tablespoons light olive oil
1 medium sweet onion (or half a large Vidalia)-diced finely
1 cup dry white wine (Frascati or Pinot Grigio, or one of your choice)
6 cups of chick or vegetable broth, heated in a saucepan (for ladling into the rice)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1-1/4 cups of finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (plus additional for topping off the dish)
Toward the end, you will notice the starch in the rice being released to make a creamy consistency. Occasionally, taste the rice to make sure it is cooked through while still having a little bit of "tooth". You do not want it mushy, but you don't want crunch on individual grains. You will also know when the rice is nearing completion when you experience a sort of "wave" when you stir the rice, making a circular motion with the flat edge of your spoon around the bottom of the pan. Italian chef's call this the all'onda (wavy) effect. When your spoons passes and the rice behind it slides back in a slow motion like a silky wave, the risotto is at the right texture.
Some recipes say that this will take only 30-35 minutes, but I have found it takes me 45-65 minutes until the rice is cooked and getting creamy. Risotto should be served immediately when completed, so timing is key. But in the event you have to let your risotto sit for a bit, just leave covered, unheated... then before serving, revitalize it by heating it with a little bit more hot water on a medium low flame until the water is incorporated and it has reached the "wave" stage once again.
To service, place a portion of the risotto on your plates and add some ratatouille on top, toward one side (let the creamy risotto show itself off too). You decide to have a hearty Italian Chianti or a nice French Bordeaux with the dish... after all, it does have a split-personality.
I'd also like to add that the risotto recipes used in this dish is a basic risotto recipe. Once you learn how to make this, you can experience with adding all sorts of other things into the risotto... mushrooms, saffron, peas, shrimp, etc. And the ratatouille recipe is great topping a pizza, with pasta or even as a filling for a stuffed baked potato!
Copyright 2016, Jerry Finzi/Grand Voyage Italy - All Rights Reserved