Hello and Welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophe, your bi-weekly peak into the soul of a madman. I’m your host and head…well, if my understanding of Latinate structure and word deconstruction is correct, “vu-eur” (Which should roughly mean the reverse of a Voyeur: literally, “One who is seen” versus “One who sees”) Jon O’Guin, and I hope you’re ready for some more French, because today is going to be…mostly about other things. But the focal point is French Onion Pasta, a dish I had shockingly never heard of before last month.
I say “shockingly” because French Onion Soup is one of my favorite foods. Partly because its rich, warming nature makes it splendid when it’s cold or wet outside, and I grew up in a region known for being both of those things for 8 months of the year, and partly because it’s part of my Kitchen Test Foods, which I covered last Wednesday. If you didn’t read that one, and don’t want to now: It’s a dish I can order so I can get a feel for how a business approaches their food. Because French Onion Soup is, either in despite of or because of its simplicity, quite variable. But what is it, and how do you make it? Also, isn’t this about the Pasta? Don’t worry, we’ll get there.
A Brief History of Soup (Thyme not Included)
The first thing you should know: based on ancient etymology, you probably think of soup ‘wrong’. See, when most people think of soup, they think of “food in liquid”. And the original ‘soups’ were actually ‘sops’, as in “Sop up that broth with this bread.” The Latin word suppa meant “bread soaked in broth”. So originally, soups were the foods you used to ABSORB the liquids. But eventually the idea of ‘broths’, ‘stews’ and ‘sops’ all kind of coalesced into “soups”. And using that new general definition, onion soups were EVERYWHERE. Why? Because it’s really easy to heat water and grow onions, dummy. Yes, onion soup, like a staggering number of dishes in Classic French cuisine, the cuisine of high class, originally was peasant food. Because France was a land of silly poor people during the Roman Empire.
A people too poor for shirts, but utterly killing it in the fashion department anyway.
(Brief aside: the word “restaurant” was first used to describe a type of (concentrated, cheap) soup sold in the 16th Century. Then a guy opened up a shop where people could buy and eat them, and thus the word became associated with the place. In modern terms, this is like if we called college dorms “Ramens”. )
But, traditionally, the ingredients of French Onion Soup are simple: Caramelized Onions, Beef Broth, Thyme, and maybe some red wine. Topped with Bread and Cheese. More specifically “gratinéed” with Bread and cheese, meaning “Served with a browned topping”, which is what makes them potatoes au gratin: You browned the cheese on top.
So, if that’s the soup, then what’s the pasta? Well, it’s basically just an attempt to replicate the same deep rich flavor of the soup in Pasta form. You caramelize some onions, add some aromatics, and boil pasta in the flavors. Bada-bing bada-boom, as they say.
“We’ll get you a used car, maybe one of these women, it’s gonna be great kid, trust me.”
So, let’s dive in and dish up some French Onion Pasta, hey y’all?
Thyme on my Hands
Weird number of tihyme puns today. Don’t really know why.
Anywho, let’s talk about caramelized onions. And how they are a temporal paradox. Because, in my experience, the time it takes to caramelize onions is always “Longer than you want”. The recipe I was using said it would take 15 minutes to caramelize one onion on medium-low heat.
Here’s what my onions looked like after 15 minutes.
The problem with purely informational pictures is they’re harder to make funny. Like, what do I mock here? The fact that softened onions look like someone really screwed up cutting calamari? The fact that I see Earthworm Jim in them, like a 25 year old food Rorsach?
I wouldn’t even call that BEGINNING to caramelize, but I was trying to get it done in time to really buckle down and…watch an episode of Castle. Yeah, I didn’t really have anything pressing, so I just kept cooking them. But that is, in many ways, the beauty of caramelized onions: if you leave them on low, you’re basically free to do whatever the heck you want. I have, in the past, turned on pans of onions before I took a shower and got dressed, and come out 20 minutes later to toss the pan a bit.
But once you’ve got the onions as caramelized as you want them, it’s time for the aromatics. This recipe uses Thyme, a traditional herb for this dish, and the root of half of today’s puns. You need a tablespoon, so just get some sprigs of thyme, and de-leaf them. The fastest way to do this is to just drag a heavy knife down the sprig. You can also lightly pinch the sprig and pull your hand down it. Both methods are pretty fast and easy. They are also kind of messy, but that’s pretty unavoidable in my experience. But yeah, you toss a tablespoon of thyme in with 2 cloves of garlic, which I of course used the largest cloves I could find, because I’m always doing as much as I can while following the exact wording of my instructions.
And I do it in a thymely manner, too! Alright, I’ll stop, I swear.
On top of the thyme and garlic, you throw French Onion Soup Mix, because this recipe is a cheater. See, legit French Onion Soup can take as long as 3 hours to make. This pasta, assuming you can magically get your onions to caramelize in 15 minutes, takes 35 minutes. Even with mine taking over twice as long, I was still eating in just over an hour. And that soup mix is the key. Cook that just about a minute, just long enough that everything gets fragrant, and throw in water, pasta, and beef broth.
Simmer the whole shebang for 20 minutes, and you’re ready for the last step. One that almost prompted me to ignore this recipe entirely: You add cream to the liquid. Now, I’ve had French Onion Soups both good and bad over my life. You what not a single goddamn one had in it? Cream. Wikipedia tells me it happens sometimes, but I’m doubtful. I convinced myself it was fine, and toss in the cream with some Gruyere, which is one of the better cheeses to top French Onion Soup with. (The other two are Fontina and Comte. ) Luckily, my family had recently made 6 lbs of mac and cheese, and so had Gruyere handy.
I assume that you, like me, can identify different white cheeses by sight. It’s an important skill, which is why JJ is a bully for saying a Cheese-based magazine is not “Desperately relevant to my interests.” But, then, he thought this was PARMESAN. *Rich People Laughter*
In the end, I ladled out a bowl, popped into the recliner, and got my first impression. How well does the pasta mimic the soup? Pretty damn well, in fact. Not spot on, but within the ballpark. In fact, this dish reminded me of my complaints when I made the Chicken Khao Soi. That one was just wrong enough to be a let-down, while still being MOSTLY right. This one is just that hair closer to right to be a success. I guess even a stopped clock is right some of the thyme.
French Onion Penne
2 tbsp butter
1 large onion, thinly sliced
Salt & pepper
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
1 packet French Onion Soup mix
1 lb penne pasta
2 c beef broth
2 c water
¼ c heavy cream
1 ½ cup shredded Gruyere
- Using a large skillet, melt the butter over medum-low to medium heat. Toss onions in butter, and caramelize. Season with Salt and pepper.
- Add garlic, thyme, and soup packet, and stir until fragrant, just over 1 minute.
- Add the broth, water, and penne. Bring to a boil, then simmer about 20 minutes, until pasta is al dente, and most of the liquid is absorbed.
- Add the cream and 1 c of the Gruyere, stirring until cheese is melted, and noodles coated.
- Top with remaining Gruyere, and serve.