Winter’s here, bring on the comfort food! This is the second chapter of ‘Crème de la crème’, a seasonal feature marking the tenth anniversary of The Everyday French Chef. On the menu are my favorite winter recipes (not including holiday recipes — if you’re still thinking about what to serve on Christmas or New Year’s, click here). First up, a soup that a Frenchman recently told me was an American invention. Nothing could be more wrong.
Soupe à l’oignon gratinée / French onion soup
French onion soup is known over here as une gratinée — because the soup is topped with a bubbly golden crust (gratin) of toast and melted cheese. It’s been around for several hundred years. According to one legend, it was popularized after being served to Stanislas Leszczynski, a former king of Poland and duke of Lorraine, who also happened to be the father-in-law of King Louix XV of France. He liked it so much that he learned the recipe and cooked it himself for the royal couple at Versailles. This was back in the 1700s.
According to the Grand Larousse gastronomique, my go-to book on French culinary history, onion soup served without the cheese hails from Lyon, while the cheesy version is Parisian. It was traditionally served in the wee hours at the huge market at Les Halles and at bistros in Montmartre. Among its other qualities (it’s healthy, inexpensive and easy to make), it was reputed to be the soup favored by drinkers, as the perfume of the onions was strong enough to disguise alcohol breath. This soup crossed the ocean only in the 1960s, when French cuisine became popular in the States. So, no, an American invention it is not.
I love serving French onion soup in winter because it’s one of those dishes that warms the vittles, as we said over there. While it may be served as a first course, it is hearty enough to be a meal on its own, accompanied by a green salad and a bottle of sturdy red. I make it once or twice a year — not because it’s difficult but because there are so many other wonderful cold-weather dishes to choose from.
So now for my list of favorite winter recipes. As fresh fruits and veggies are less plentiful than at other times of the year, these dishes feature root vegetables, shellfish, legumes and other ingredients that come into season in winter. As in my first Crème de la crème post this past autumn, I’ve chosen three dishes from each of the site’s categories — mix and match as you like. You will find some menu suggestions below.
Pasta and grains
Boulgour aux oignons rouges / Bulghur with red onion and mint
Pâtes aux moules et pecorino / Pasta with mussels and pecorino
Penne au safran, roquette et noix / Penne with saffron, arugula and walnuts
As an everyday French chef, how would I combine these dishes? Here are some examples:
For an everyday lunch, an open-faced croque-monsieur (ham and melted cheese sandwich) with a green salad. For a vegetarian version, French onion soup and flamiche (leek tart). For vegans, broccoli soup and red bean salad with walnuts. If you’re feeling ambitious, you could finish any of these selections with sliced oranges with star anise.
For an everyday dinner, herring with potatoes and beets followed by steak au poivre (steak with crushed black pepper in a cream sauce) or lamb and bean stew. For a vegetarian version, creamy lentil soup followed by cauliflower gratin. For vegans, a salad of lamb’s lettuce and beets followed by roasted winter vegetables.
For a weekend dinner, an oyster plate followed by roast chicken and roasted winter veggies, then a green salad, finishing up with tiramisu. For a vegetarian version, a roquefort soufflé followed by mushrooms julienne and a salad of lamb’s lettuce and beets, and concluding with crème caramel. You could add a cheese plate to either of these menus before dessert. For vegans, bulghur with red onion and mint, roasted winter veggies, a green salad and, for dessert, sliced oranges with star anise.
This may be the darkest time of the year, but we’ve passed the solstice, the days are already growing longer and as we cast our eyes toward spring I hope that these suggestions will inspire you to spend some happy moments in the kitchen. Wishing you all a joyous holiday season and a sparkling start to 2023. And…