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French onion soup warms from the inside

All the broth, cheese and crusty bread come together in every bite of French onion soup.A quick trip under the broiler produces the melted cheese topping on a savory bowl of French onion soup. (Matthew Mead/The Associated Press)

All the broth, cheese and crusty bread come together in every bite of French onion soup.A quick trip under the broiler produces the melted cheese topping on a savory bowl of French onion soup. (Matthew Mead/The Associated Press)

Nothing feeds the soul quite like soup.

Most soups are hearty in both taste and texture. One of the best things about soups: You can make a meal out of them. Add a salad and some crusty bread and dinner is served.

One of my favorite soups is French onion soup, an undeniable classic.

According to foodtimeline.org, the French onion soup with bread and cheese on top is a “direct descendant of modern French bouillon crafted in the 17th century.” Onions were used because they were common and took to many cooking methods.

French onion is one of those soups in which all of its parts come together in every spoonful. There are the onions that get their sweet flavor from being cooked down so that they release their natural sugar. Any onion, from white to sweet to yellow cooking onions, will suffice. When the sugars release from the onions, they melt and become caramelized.

Once those sugars caramelize, their color becomes dark. The darker the color of the onions, the deeper the flavor. Just don’t overcook the onions or they will burn and the soup will taste burned. When you see the color start to change, taste the onion to judge its sweetness.

I like to slice the onions in half circles a good ¼-inch-thick so they are discernible. If you slice them too thin, they will cook down to next to nothing. It will take about 30 to 40 minutes for the onions to caramelize. You’ll want to watch the heat, making sure it’s about medium. And stir only every so often. If you stir the onions constantly they won’t caramelize properly.

Most onion soups have beef broth or stock base, which add to their hearty taste. With packaged broths and stocks or soup bases or bouillon, I always use reduced-sodium versions. One brand of reduced-sodium soup base that I like is Better Than Bouillon. It’s sold in a 3½-ounce jar. Use 1 teaspoon to 8 ounces of boiling water. They also have chicken, vegetable and mushroom bases.

When it comes to the cheese, the type matters. Most recipes call for Gruyere, a cow’s milk cheese with a slightly nutty flavor, but you can use many kinds of cheese.

The original version of today’s recipe, adapted from Martha Stewart magazine, October 2011, calls for Morbier, a creamy and mild cow’s milk cheese from France.

But I used Muenster. Although high in fat, Muenster is a good melting cheese. Other semisoft cheeses, like fontina or a creamy havarti that melts well, can be substituted.

ONION SOUP WITH MUENSTER CHEESE

Serves 6

Preparation time 15 minutes and total time 90 minutes

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 pounds yellow onions, peeled, thinly sliced into half circles

¼ teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

½ cup sherry

8 cups fat-free, low-sodium beef or vegetable broth

4 sprigs thyme

¼ cup port wine, optional

½ French baguette, sliced ¼-inch thick

1 clove garlic, cut in half

6 slices, about 1-ounce each, Muenster or Morbier cheese

In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until dark golden and caramelized, 30 to 40 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the sherry and bring to a boil over medium-high heat; continue boiling until the sherry is reduced by half.

Add the broth and thyme. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer until onions are very soft, about 30 minutes. Stir in port, if using.

Meanwhile, heat broiler with rack in middle. Place the bread slices on a baking sheet and broil until lightly toasted. Remove from the broiler and rub the cut side of the garlic on the slices.

When the soup is done, turn the broiler back on and ladle the soup into 6-ounce ramekins. Top each with a toasted baguette slice or two. Drape cheese on top of bread so it hangs over the edge of the ramekin slightly. Place ramekins on a rimmed baking sheet and broil until cheese is browned in spots, about 2 minutes. Remove from the broiler and serve immediately.

PER SERVING: 243 calories, 44 percent from fat, 11 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 20 g carbohydrates, 11 g protein, 789 mg sodium, 20 mg cholesterol, 2 g fiber.

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