Everybody loves French onion soup, and with good reason. Caramelized onions swimming in a rich beef broth flavored with a splash of red wine or brandy and topped with broiled Gruyere cheese? Every warm, gooey mouthful lights up your taste buds like a pinball machine. It's exactly what you want on a cold winter's night.
But it is not light. In my quest to slim down this French classic I turned to Italy. I caramelized the onions in olive oil, rather than butter, swapped out the Gruyere in favor of Parmigiano-Reggiano (less fat and bigger flavor, 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 flavor, 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 Gruyere 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 even can 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
2 ounces chopped pancetta
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 pounds yellow onions, thinly-sliced
1 cup red wine
5 cups low-sodium beef or chicken broth
1 tablespoon white or cider vinegar
4 large eggs
1 1/2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, finely grated (about 1/2 cup)
Ground black pepper
8 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 caramelized. 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 2 batches. Cook for 3 minutes, then use a slotted spoon to lift each egg out (letting excess water drip away).
To serve, ladle the soup into 4 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 2 toasts on the side.
Yield: 4 servings