Everybody loves French onion soup, and with good reason. Caramelised onions swimming in a rich beef broth flavoured with a splash of red wine or brandy and topped with broiled Gruyère cheese? Every warm, gooey mouthful lights up your taste buds like a pinball machine.
But it is not light. In my quest to slim down this French classic, I turned to Italy. I caramelised the onions in olive oil, rather than butter, swapped out the Gruyère in favour of Parmigiano-Reggiano (less fat and bigger flavour, so you can use less of it), and moved the croutons and cheese off the top to make room for a poached egg. Finally, I added some pancetta for flavour, because we have to have at least a little fun.
I took much of my inspiration for this recipe from Cesare Casella, a brilliant Tuscan chef who used to hold court at Beppe, a wonderful restaurant within walking distance of my home in New York years ago, now long gone. I thought Casella's soup really improved the French original. I especially like the addition of the egg. The yolk makes up for at least some of the richness lost when the Gruyère goes bye-bye.
But unlike Casella, I don't have home-made beef stock just hanging around my kitchen, so I used chicken broth as the base. Once upon a time I couldn't find store-bought beef broth that made the grade. Now Rachael Ray has come out with a good one. I recommend it.
If you'd like, you can even get a jump on this recipe by poaching the eggs ahead of time. Just cool them off after you're done by transferring them with a slotted spoon to a bowl of ice water. Then store them in the refrigerator on a plate covered with plastic wrap until you're ready to reheat them. All you need to do is submerge them in a pan of barely simmering water for a minute or two.
Traditional French onion soup is a rich first course. This Italian-style onion soup is a full meal in a bowl.
Italian-style onion soup topped with a poached egg.
Start to finish: 1 1/2 hours (20 minutes active)
2oz chopped pancetta
3tbs extra-virgin olive oil
3lb yellow onions, thinly-sliced
1 cup red wine
5 cups low-sodium beef or chicken broth
1tbs white or cider vinegar
4 large eggs
1 1/2oz Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, finely grated (about 1/2 cup)
Ground black pepper
Eight 1/2-inch-thick baguette slices, toasted
In a large saucepan over medium heat, cook the pancetta until it is golden. Transfer it to a plate using a slotted spoon.
Return the saucepan to medium heat. Add the olive oil and onions, then cook, covered but stirring occasionally, until very soft, about 20 minutes. Remove the cover and cook, stirring frequently, for another 35 to 45 minutes, or until the onions are golden brown and caramelised. Add the wine and boil until it is reduced by half. Add the broth and simmer for another 20 minutes.
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a low simmer. Add the vinegar.
Crack each egg into a small glass. One at a time, gently and slowly pour each egg into the simmering water, bringing the lip of the glass right down to the water so that the egg slides in. Depending on the size of your pan, you may need to cook them in two batches. Cook for four minutes, then use a slotted spoon to lift each egg out (letting excess water drip away).
To serve, ladle the soup into four bowls. Top each with a poached egg, sprinkle with some of the cheese, some of the pancetta and pepper to taste. Serve each portion with two toasts on the side.
Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's 'Sara's Weeknight Meals' and has written three cookbooks, including Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners.