October 26, 2009


My friend Larry Miller has always thrown the best bashes with more divine food than almost anyone I know. At his rambling shingle-style house from days past I've met playwrights, composers, and movie critics. I've had perfect drinks and elegant but not fussy dinners. Last holiday season, I received a delightful package in my mailbox, "Food For Thoughts. Thoughts For Food." It's a charming collection of fifteen or so recipes with accompanying stories from Larry. He wrote, "These recipes are as accurate as I can make them. Mostly, I cook by eye so assigning precise measurements is a bit of wishful-thinking and a bit deviltry."

Larry's story for Recipe No. 2, Onion Soup:

In 1959 and 1960, when I lived in London, I had occasion to travel to Paris a few times. One of my fondest food memories derives from a 2 a.m. trip to the food markets at the old Les Halles with my friends, Pierre Balmain and Bill Frohlich. Of course, they knew all the great Parisian restaurants and fancy food places like Fauchon and Hediard... but, "Larry, you must have the onion soup at Les Halles." It was a trip I made every time I went to Paris, until the great iron and glass structure was torn down to make way for a shopping center in the early 1970s.

Au Pied Du Couchon illustration by artist, Dr. Shirley Levine, Onion Soup Au Gratin image,
courtesy gourmettraveller.com

A decade later, I discovered this wonderful recipe in a book published in 1907, "Gastronomie Pratique" by Ali-Bab {Henri Babinski}

Soupe à l'Oignon Gratinée

[serves 6]

1 - baguette, cut into 1/2-inch slices [about 25 to 30]
9 - tablespoons butter, softened
9 - ounces Ementhaler cheese, finely grated
8 - medium yellow onions, thinly sliced [about 12 cups]
1 - tablespoon kosher salt, more to taste*
1 - cup tomato purée

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

1. Spread a generous layer of butter on each slice [you will need about 5 tablespoons], then lay the slices close together on a baking sheet and top with all but 1/2 cup of cheese. Toast the baguette slices and let them cool.

2. In a large saucepan, melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Add the onions, season with salt and sauté, stirring occasionally, until very soft and golden, about 15 minutes.

3. In a 5-quart casserole, arrange a layer of bread slices [about 1/3 of them]. Spread 1/3 of the onions on top, followed by 1/3 of the tomato purée. Repeat for two more layers. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 cup of cheese. To avoid boiling over, the casserole must not be more than 2/3 full.

4. In a saucepan, bring 1 + 1/2 quarts water* to a boil. Add the salt. Very slowly pour the salted water into the casserole, near the edge, so that the liquid rises just to the top layer of cheese without covering it. [Depending on the size of your casserole, you may need more or less water.]

5. Put the casserole on the stove and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, then transfer to the oven and bake uncovered for 1 hour. The soup is ready when the surface looks like a crusty, golden cake and inside is unctuous and so well blended that it is impossible to discern either cheese or onion. Each person is served some the the baked crust and some of the inside, which should be thick but not completely without liquid.

* You can replace the water with beef stock. If you do, you won't need as much salt.

So, as summer becomes a distant memory and the cold air quickly moves in, it's Larry's distant [but unforgettable] memory of Les Halles and onion soup that's my next inspiration. A perfect soup, made for good friends—served with a large salad of local greens and a simple, fresh Beaujolais.


  1. A great article for this rainy day in Portland. Thanks for warming me up!

  2. i love it -it's so you... one foot in the past and one foot ready for what's coming next - a cold nor'easter and a cauldron of delicious onion soup.

  3. Such fun to read about your memories of Les Halles. The onion soup at Au Pied du Couchon (Les Halles) was famous worldwide and the recipe for it in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking - Volume 1 - is the closest to the original. I'm delighted that you used my watercolor of our Julia onion soup bowls! Thanks for the credit.

  4. I use a combination of beef stock and chicken stock (and chuck in some fresh rosemary from the garden as an afterthought.) Perhaps not as traditional, but it never fails to please.

  5. I agree about using stock and what a super idea to combine them. I've never thought of adding rosemary but I bet just a stem while cooking is great!!


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