Patricia Wells , in The Paris Cookbook, noted that there are "few Parisian traditions as solid as the late-night onion soup feast at the Brasserie Balzar on the Left Bank." Had I been fully aware of this, we probably never would have set foot in the place. We would have assumed it would be crowded and overpriced and full of grumpy waiters and determined tourists. We would have been not have been 100% off base in those assumptions. But we wouldn't have been 100% right, either.
I was in Paris for a few days with L, my cousin and friend, having come over from her home in England for a few days, without a lot of money to spend. We had a Left Bank hotel bargain and plans to meet up with her Parisian friends S. and husband J-L. for one really nice meal, which had been planned by J-L, a clever fellow about food, who loves to figure out special food and wine treats. Other than that we were really just wandering around having a relaxed, wonderful unplanned time, oogling the flower markets, listening to free concerts and eating more or less on the fly-picnicing and so on.
One evening though, we returned to the hotel pretty hungry, after a lot of time on our feet in hilly Montmartre, and had not done anything much about food. We decided to spend a bit and go out for some supper. The Brasserie Balzar was near our little hotel, and looked fine, dark wood , brass and all. It was only about 6:30, early for dinner, so not too crowded. We had some really very nice roasted chicken, a tomato salad, and an exemplary creme brulee, for not too much more than it was all worth. Though the waiters made it clear that they were extremely unimpressed with us, they weren't hostile. The service was, while not actually pleasant in any way, reasonably efficient, and we thoroughly enjoyed our meal.
The place looked the complete Parisian brasserie in every detail, almost like a cartoon. As I was eating and looking around, an American mother and her teenaged daughter came in and both ordered only onion soup. (Evesdropping was unavoidable; we were seated at the next table.) This seemed an odd order for the time of day, and I started putting two and two together. I realized it was that place, and they were ordering the obligatory onion soup- only earlier than prescribed time.
Thus, though I have been to this iconic spot, I did not try the onion soup there. I have always liked traditional gratineed onion soup, and have not tired of it, or decided that it is old hat, or anything of that sort. I suspect that it is uncool, but then, so am I. In fact, I was thinking I'd like some for supper tonight. I am not working today- it is chilly, and I am spending the day indoors, nursing an incipient cold, napping with cats, and being entirely lazy, except for some unavoidable laundry.
Instead of just starting to make some soup, I decided to lazily potter around looking at some recipes, and came across the Balzar one in Ms. Wells' book. She answered a question which had puzzled me- Isn't onion soup at midnight asking for trouble? Sure, it would be warming and fun, but talk about indigestion.... going to sleep on a big gooey pile of cheese and dark cooked onions seems like tempting fate, no? According to Ms. Wells, this is a much more digestible version than some others, in part because chicken stock, rather than beef broth, is used. All over, the recipe is a bit lighter than the usual- but don't worry, you won't be hungry. It suited me, as I had a supply of homemade chicken stock, but no beef stock. I only adapted it slightly, to suit myself. I'm not going to be saving it for midnight. It's awfully good - and this is how you do it.
3lbs onions, peeled and sliced very thinly
6 tbspoons unsalted butter
3 tbsps canola oil
1 tsp sea salt
4 tbsps flour
3 cups rich homemade chicken broth and jellied juice from a roast chicken, if you have it
2/3 cup dry white wine (I used Muscadet)
freshly ground pepper
sprigs of thyme and 2 bay leaves, which I put in my recently acquired large stainless teaball for easy removal
thin slices of toasted good bread ( pref. the sort with a chewy interior )
2/3 lb of freshly grated gruyere, best you can afford
This is what you do:
Melt butter in a big soup pot. Add oil, onions, salt. Cook, stirring, over a low heat until onions are soft, but not browned. Sprinkle with the flour, and stir to coat. Add stock, wine and a quart of water, pepper and herbs in tea ball. Bring to a boil, turn down, and simmer gently, uncovered for half an hour. correct seasoning.
When you are ready to serve, preheat the broiler. Ladle soup into individual heatroof bowls. Top each with toasted slice of bread, and plently of grated gruyere. Broil. When the cheese is clearly bubbling, remove and serve, with warnings to watch for burning. This is incredibly hot, as soup should be. It is pretty important to use very nice stock and cheese, which can make all the difference. I happened to have some onions from my CSA farmbox as well, which were lovely and crisply fresh.
I believe that both onions and chicken soup are good for the treatment of colds. I feel quite well treated.