Vegetarian French Onion Soup

One of the greatest joys of Paris, in my limited experience, is to enjoy a meal at a table on the sidewalk just outside one of the many temples of gastronomy scattered throughout that great city. On my first visit to Paris, we took a train from the airport, changed to Metro, then walked a few blocks to a tiny (and cheap) hotel, where we checked in. Embarrassingly, I had placed a reservation beginning the day before, forgetting that our plane arrived a day later than it departed. “We expected you yesterday, Monsieur…,” said the haughty clerk. A pair of Parisian eyes rolled to the ceiling. Mildly annoyed and amused at the idiotic American, he gave us our key and gestured at the toy elevator. Filling the deathtrap with our small bags and ourselves, we took our first (and only; the stairs seemed more sensible from then on) trip upstairs in the carpeted coffin. We dropped our bags in the comically small room and headed out into the streets.

It was around noon, it was November, and the sky was gray and low. I was tired, hungry, and somewhat disappointed, but the streets were crooked and narrow, and the chilly wind seemed to guide us to the river. After a mile or two of wandering, it appeared, brown and turbulent, confined by concrete walls. We crossed a small bridge and found a small bistro with tables outside. They were empty. We ducked inside the old wooden door, and in my crappy French, I asked if we could eat outside. “Bien sur que oui, Monsieur,” said the waiter, and he picked up a couple of menus and followed us out to a round table where we sat, still in our big wool overcoats. I ordered un ciquante of vin Bourgogne and some water, the waiter nodded and went back inside, and we applied ourselves to the menu. The waiter returned with the wine and water, we ordered, and, shivering, he disappeared again. The wine was unbelievably good, rich and fruity and wet. The waiter returned with a plate of paté de campagne, accompanied by a pile of the tiniest, sourest cornichons; a big plate of greens covered with foie gras, duck legs confit, and gizzards; a basket of baguette chunks that, for me, forever defined the concept of French bread: crispy, chewy, fluffy, full of holes, and barely salty; and a bowl of ridiculously fragrant onion soup, topped with a huge beret of molten cheese. I thanked the waiter, he smiled, and he returned to the comfort inside. It was still cold, still gray, still windy. I was still tired. But as I ate that meal, I had an epiphany. I was home again. For the first time.

Traditional French onion soup is normally made with long-simmered beef stock, and it is that rich stock that defines the authentic recipe. However….if you ever wanted to enjoy something very close to the original, but wanted a vegetarian version….well, here it is. It is, of course, still important that the stock be rich. I’m still perfecting my own vegetarian stock recipe, and one day I’ll put on HA, but until then, you’re on your own.

Vegetarian French Onion Soup
makes about 3 quarts

3 tablespoons olive oil
6 pounds yellow onions, peeled & sliced thin
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1-1/2 cups white wine
2 quarts rich vegetable stock

In a large French oven, heat the olive oil over low heat and add onions, salt, & sugar. Stir, uncovered, every 5 minutes until they are, as Julia would say, “the color of walnuts.” A nice light brown. The time required depends on just how low you set the heat and how big your French oven is. For me, it takes about 2-3 hours. I keep the heat high enough that there’s just barely a sizzle, but not high enough to brown too quickly.  Don’t burn it.

Add the wine & stock and simmer, uncovered for another hour. Taste for salt and serve.

Although you can certainly serve the soup plain, it’s obviously much better if you do the whole French thing. Preheat oven to 425º, ladle soup into oven-proof bowls, top with toasted bread (hearty French or multigrain is best), slices of Gruyere, and finely grated Parmagiano Reggiano. Place in upper middle of preheated oven on cookie sheet; remove when cheese is nicely browned, about 15-20 minutes.


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