Matchmaker: French Onion Soup and Beaujolais Nouveau

A hot, full-bodied soup needs a light, fruity wine
Nov 18, 2004

Rogue chef Anthony Bourdain, author of the controversial Kitchen Confidential, has published his first collection of recipes, Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook (Bloomsbury). This no-nonsense guide explains bistro classics such as moules à la marinières, skate grenobloise and steak au poivre with Bourdain's acerbic wit, as if the chef were standing behind you as you fumble through a coq au vin.

I've chosen to feature my favorite dish from Les Halles (which just happens to be down the street from Wine Spectator's New York offices) and my favorite lunchtime belly-warmer: onion soup. Next time you pass a bistro on an icy afternoon, peek inside the window and notice the heads bowed over the tables, as if praying to their plates. Those are fellow members of the onion soup cult. And they're not praying, they're inhaling.

As Bourdain stresses below, the two ingredients that make or break an onion soup are onions and stock. Undercooked onions and cheap, industrial stock will always result in a bad soup, no matter how much gruyère and crouton your throw on top. Make sure your onions are well-caramelized before adding any liquid to the soup, and use the best stock possible. Feel free to substitute veal stock for some (or all) of the chicken stock--just use the best product you can find.

Wine Pairing

The last thing a hot, full-bodied soup needs is a hot, full-bodied wine. A dish with such strong, complex flavors served at mouth-searing temperatures needs a contrasting wine pairing. Zippy, fruity, food-friendly Beaujolais Nouveau fits the bill. Served frais, or slightly chilled, the wine is a palate cleansing cooldown after a bite of hot soup. High acidity and low alcohol create a refreshing match that won't overwhelm the soup's beefy, caramelized flavors or the nutty, slightly sweet gruyère. The just-released 2004 vintage offers a few soup-worthy wines, and we've also included a couple of the better 2003 Cru Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages, if you're looking for something more rustic.

From Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook: Onion Soup Les Halles
Serves 8

6 ounces butter
8 large onions (or 12 small onions), thinly sliced
2 ounces port
2 ounces balsamic vinegar
2 quarts dark chicken stock
4 ounces slab bacon, cut in 1/2-inch/1-cm cubes
1 bouquet garni (1 sprig of parsley, 2 sprigs of thyme, 1 bay leaf bundled in cheesecloth)
Salt and pepper
16 baguette croutons (sliced and toasted in the oven with a little olive oil)
12 ounces grated Gruyère cheese (real, imported Gruyère!)

Large, heavy-bottomed pot
Wooden spoon
8 ovenproof soup crocks (Restaurant supply shops sell these by the hundreds. Be sure to use ovenproof.)
Propane torch (optional)

Prepare the broth:
(The better and more intense your stock, the better the soup's going to be. This soup, in particular, is a very good argument for making your own.)

In the large pot, heat the butter over medium heat until it is melted and begins to brown. Add the onions and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and browned (about 20 minutes). Onion soup, unsurprisingly, is all about the onions. Make damn sure the onions are a nice, dark, even brown color.

Increase the heat to medium high and stir in the port and the vinegar, scraping all that brown goodness from the bottom of the pot into the liquid. Add the chicken stock. Add the bacon and bouquet garni and bring to a boil.

Reduce to a simmer, season with salt and pepper, and cook for 45 minutes to an hour, skimming any foam off the top with the ladle. Remove the bouquet garni.

The croutons and cheese:
When the soup is finished cooking, ladle it into the individual crocks. Float two croutons side by side on top of each. Spread a generous, even heaping amount of cheese over the top of the soup. You want some extra to hang over the edges, as the crispy, near-burnt stuff that sticks to the outer sides of the crocks once it comes out from under the heat is often the best part.

Place each crock under a preheated, rip-roaring broiler until the cheese melts, bubbles, browns, and even scorches slightly in spots. The finished cheese should be a panorama of molten brown hues ranging from golden brown to dark brown to a few black spots where the cheese blistered and burned. Serve immediately--and carefully. You don't know pain until you've spilled one of these things in your lap.

If your broiler is too small or too weak to pull this off, you can try it in a preheated 425ºF/220ºC oven until melted. A nice optional move: Once the mound of grated cheese starts to flatten out in the oven, remove each crock and, with a propane torch, blast the cheese until you get the colors you want.

Half-assed alternative:
Your broiler sucks. Your oven isn't much better. Can't find those ovenproof crocks anywhere. And you ain't ponying up for a damn propane torch, 'cause your kid's got pyromaniac tendencies. You can simply toast cheese over the croutons on a sheet pan, and float them as garnish on the soup. Not exactly classic--but still good.

Note on the propane torch:
This is a very handy-dandy piece of equipment, especially if your stove is not the greatest. Nearly all professional kitchens have them; they're not very expensive and they can be used for a variety of sneaky tasks, such as easily caramelizing the top of crème brûlée or toasting meringues.

--Anthony Bourdain

Beaujolais Nouveau 2004

Wine Score Price
MOMMESSIN Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau Château de Montmelas 2004 84 $13
This round red offers bright cherry and berry flavors, with enough tannin for grip. It's balanced and clean. Drink now. 85 cases imported. --T.M.
JOËL ROCHETTE Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau 2004 84 $11
This chewy red shows more body and depth than most Nouveaus this year. It offers black cherry and licorice flavors, with herbal notes. Drink now through 2005. 600 cases made. --T.M.
PASCAL CHATELUS Beaujolais Nouveau 2004 83 $9
This shows lively black cherry and plum flavors, with enough tannin for grip and a licorice note that adds complexity on the finish. Drink now. 2,000 cases made. --T.M.
GEORGES DUBOEUF Beaujolais Nouveau 2004 82 $10
This round red shows ripe flavors of black cherry and plum, with just enough tannin for grip and lively acidity that keeps it fresh on the finish. Drink now. 200,000 cases imported. --T.M.

Beaujolais 2003

Wine Score Price
GEORGES DUBOEUF Moulin-à-Vent Domaine des Rosiers 2003 90 $14
Great core of blackberry and currant fruit, with ample chocolate, spice and briar notes. This is structured like its colleagues, but manages to end on a lush, creamy note. Drink now through 2005. 9,000 cases made. --J.M.
GEORGES DUBOEUF Morgon Grand Cuvée 2003 88 $12
Deliciously ripe, with black cherry and blackberry fruit, sweet smoke, violet and bramble notes and a fresh, juicy finish. Drink now through 2005. 20,000 cases made. --J.M.
GEORGES DUBOEUF Beaujolais-Villages Domaine J.C.-J. Paquelet 2003 87 $9
Crammed with blueberry and grapefruit, this pure, vivid offering is lushly textured and lengthy as well, albeit with minimal structure. Hard to deny its fruit though. Drink now. 4,000 cases made. --J.M.
DOMAINE DE LA MADONE Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau 2003 87 $14
Vivid purple in color, this offers a solid core of dark cherry, plum and raspberry fruit, with firm yet rich structure. Solidly built, with enough fruit to stand up to its structure. Drink now. Tasted twice, with consistent notes. 1,000 cases made. --J.M.
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