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
- Cut half the onions into manageable chunks and pulse in a food processor until you get a medium to small dice.
- Cut the remaining onions in half, and then cut each half in turn into quarter segments. Julienne these segments into thin strips with a sharp chef's knife. Instead of a half moon, you should be slicing through triangular shapes (see the photo above for how the finished cuts look).
- Place 2 cups of your stock into a small sauce pan and heat on a low flame while you do the next few steps.
- Put a large saucepan over a medium flame and heat the butter and olive oil. Put all of the onions into the pan, cover and heat until the onions are translucent--about 8-10 minutes. Stir as needed.
- Remove the cover, turn the flame a bit higher and add the salt and sprinkle the sugar over all the onions and stir until blended. The sugar helps to brown the onions. Cover and cook for 30-40 minutes, stirring to prevent burning periodically. You want the onions to caramelize to a dark tan color. In the event that the onions are drying out or sticking to the pan, splash in a bit of hot water and stir.
- When the onions are a dark tan color, dust the onions with the flour and cook while stirring for a few minutes until they turn into a textured onion paste. At this point, add the pepperoncino and stir well. Remove from heat to cool for several minutes.
- After they have cooled down, add the hot beef stock to the onions, stirring and mixing well. Place the pan back onto a medium flame, bring to a simmer and then slowly add the rest of the stock, the Cognac (or Grappa) and the 1 cup of Marsala wine. Let simmer several minutes so the excess alcohol burns off.
- Add the rind of Parmigiano Reggiano to the soup. This adds a ton of richness.
- The final step is to simmer slowly for 1 - 1/2 hours on a low flame with the lid slightly ajar. You don't want a tight cover on the pan to help some of the liquids to reduce. If the soup looks like it's reducing too much toward the middle of the cook time, add a bit more water or stock.
- First, cut the ciabatta into 1" cubes. You need 1/2 to 1 cup of cubes per traditional onion soup crock sized bowl. If you want to press your cubes down into the soup, but still want the have a mounding of bread on top, then use more per bowl.
- Using the 1/4 inch holes of a box grater, grate the Fontina cheese.
- Using French Onion style soup bowls or crocks, place about 1 -1/2 cups of onion soup into each (it depends on the size of your bowls... fill to about 3/4" below the rims). Pile your bread cubes on top, mounding them above the rim of the bowl. If you want to have a thick, rustic, bready soup, gently push the bread cubes down into the soup without overflowing the bowl. If needed, mound some more cubes on top.
- Place the shredded Fontina on top of the bread cubes. You want the bread and cheese to look "heaping", higher than the top of the bowls.
- Turn on the broiler of your oven.
- Place all the soup bowls into a sturdy sheet pan, and then into the oven. Do NOT walk away. Broil the cheese until it melts down in between the cubes, starts to bubble, and until you see a bit of browning here and there.
- Carefully remove the pan and soup bowls from the oven using oven mitts. Transfer the hot bowls onto small serving plates. Top each bowl with a sprinkling of dried (or fresh) oregano.
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...