11.349 Onion Soup


19 (Sat) December 2020

Onion Soup


by me

at home

-Changgok, Sujeong, Seongnam, Gyeonggi, Republic of Korea-


Newbery 100 Medals, 100 Meals (26) (see 100 NEWBERY M&Ms)

While reading the 99 books that have been awarded the annual Newbery Medal since 1922 – leading up to the 100th winner to be announced next year – I will also attempt to create one dish for every book, a dish that is directly referenced in or indirectly inspired by the events of the book.  Food plays a strong role in many of the stories; not surprising as the characters in most of the books are faced with adversity of some sort, including poverty, so they’re often very hungry and thus grateful whenever they get a bite to eat – as we all should be at every meal, literally give us this day our daily bread.  The dishes will be featured as posts on Give Me This Day.

Holes (1999) by Louis Sachar.  The book is about 14-year-old Stanley Yelnats IV, who is wrongly convicted of a crime and sent to Camp Green Lake, a juvenile corrections facility in the middle of the desert, where he and other kids – Stanley soon becomes close friends with fellow inmate Zero – are forced to dig holes all day, supposedly to strengthen their character.  When Zero runs away in the face of relentless abuse from a camp counsellor, Stanley embarks on a rescue mission, setting into motion a series of events that climaxes an epic saga of love and vengeance, race and class, curse and fortune that spans generations and continents.

I adored this book.  From the very first sentence – “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.” – I sensed the good things to come.  Every element – every character, even the names of each character, every incident, every line of dialogue, every seemingly throwaway detail – is a puzzle piece that ultimately joins together with other pieces to reveal a complete and surprising picture.  It reminds me of the movie Back to the Future – e.g., Marty’s guitar playing, set up in the very first scene as a gag, becomes a critical plot device at the end – the screenplay is now studied in film school as an examplar of plot construction.  Of the 46 Newbery Medal winners that I have read thus far, Holes is currently my favorite.  Indeed, it is one of my favorite books of all time.

The only food that’s mentioned to any level of detail is onion – raw onion – and at several times throughout the book.  Even while suspecting that it would eventually play a key role later in the story, I could never in a million years have guessed how central – how laugh-out-loud fun, how unexpected, how perfect – that role would be.

700 grams onions (5 cups or 5 to 6 small-sized bulbs) – as I was slicing the onions, I suddenly realized how much joy I get from slicing onions; I can do that rapid-fire show-off thing to slice a half-onion in about 2 seconds.

[paraphrased in part]

Stanley dragged Zero closer to the hole.  He dug, then scooped some more water and let it pour out of his hands into Zero’s mouth.

As he continued to widen his hole, his hand came across a smooth, round object.  It was too smooth and too round to be a rock.

He wiped the dirt off of it and realized it was an onion.

He bit into it without peeling it.  The hot bitter juice burst into his mouth.  He could feel it all the way up to his eyes.  And when he swallowed, he felt its warmth move down his throat and into his stomach.

He only ate half.  He gave the other half to Zero.

“Here, eat this.”

“What is it?” Zero whispered.

“A hot fudge sundae.”

This wok-shaped saucepan from Le Creuset – a recent acquisition – is ideal for onion soup; in steep-sided pots, the bits of onion get stuck in the corners.

Soupe à l’Oignon is a French dish.  Onions are thinly sliced and cooked slowly in butter until they are fully caramelized, resulting in a thick, brown pulp, to which beef stock is added; optionally, the soup is ladled into small bowls, topped with croutons and cheese, and broiled to create a gratin.  A classic bistro dish.

I went with the recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which called for 30 to 40 minutes of sauté time – Thomas Keller’s Bouchon cookbook demanded 4 hours, no thank you; after 60 minutes, the onions still weren’t as dark as hoped, but good enough.

To represent Holes in this GMTD series, I decided to make onion soup, for a few reasons.  First, I didn’t feel like eating raw onion, though writing about that experience might’ve been kinda fun in a different way.  Onion soup – the objective being to break down the onion to its essence – is the extreme polar opposite of raw onion.  Upon trying the onion soup at Bouchon a couple years ago, I had concluded that onion soup isn’t one of my favorite things (see 9.357 Purée de Pommes de Terre … with Black Truffles), but I was open to try making it myself.  I went with Julia Child’s recipe in Master the Art of French Cooking.

(For additional posts on Master the Art of French Cooking, see Mastering the Art of French Cooking.)

After adding beef stock and white wine and simmering for another 30 minutes, the soup turned out pretty well and could’ve been served as is.

[paraphrased in part]

Stanley bit into an onion.  It didn’t burn his eyes or nose, and, in fact, he no longer noticed a particularly strong taste.

He remembered when he had first carried Zero up the hill, how the air had smelled bitter.  It was the smell of thousands of onions, growing and rotting and sprouting.

Now, he didn’t smell a thing.

“How many onions do you think we’ve eaten?” he asked.

Zero shrugged.  “I don’t even know how long we’ve been here.”

“I’d say about a week,” said Stanley.  “And we probably each eat about twenty onions a day, so that’s …”

“Two hundred and eighty onions,” said Zero.

Stanley smiled.  “I bet we really stink.”

However, I topped each ramekin with a slice of gouda cheese, shredded parmesan and bread crumbs – no croutons – and popped them under the broiler for a few minutes.

The onion soup turned out pretty well.  The shorter cooking time, resulting in less caramelization, left the onions softer in flavor while still retaining onion essence.  Without croutons in the soup – I served garlic bread separately – there was no mushiness, which usually turns me off.  It was so satisfyingly simple, yet deep and rich, as classic French bistro cuisine is meant to be.  Thanks, Julia, for reinstilling my faith in this dish, which Thomas Keller had failed to do.




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