The Soup Blog
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Vive le Vietnamese: French Onion Pho
Categories: Beef, Cheese, Onion

Three Colors or Pho?

I have been wanting to cook my version of French Onion Soup for quite a while, and this week turned out to be the perfect time.  Or so I thought.

Now, in case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been trying to make my soups accessible to meat eaters and vegetarians alike.  As a result, I’ve slipped into the habit of using vegetable stock as the base for all my soups.  For French Onion that’s a mistake.

Oh, things started out well enough. I cut several pounds of onions into thin slices and, to my daughter’s surprise, I did not cry at all.  Perhaps it because I was wearing reading glasses, but I don’t know exactly why.  Anyway, I proceeded to sauté the onions in oil until they were soft and sweet, and then added several cups of stock and some white wine.

Traditionally, French Onion soup is made with beef stock, and I suspect that not using it was the problem.  It could also have been the wine.  I have had some success with vermouth, but sauvignon blanc should have been just fine.

I placed toasted bread at the bottom of each soup bowl, ladled onions and broth on top and crowned the service with grated cheese that melted over the top.  But after all that, the soup just didn’t have any oomph.

As luck would have it, I was serving the soup with leftover slices of rare flank steak.

Now, if you’ll pardon a small digression I want to say that I really like rare roast beef, always have.

I know it’s not good for me, and may even be dangerous given the all too frequent “mix-ups” in the beef processing industry.  But it’s just so fresh…

When I was a kid my mom used to take us to this deli called the Wine Cellar where they would serve these bulging piles of thinly sliced, very pink roast beef sandwiched between slices of rye.  Nothing else.  No mayo, no mustard, no lettuce, no tomato. Just beef and bread. It was fabulous.

I like Steak Tartare too, although it’s a bit more rare than I’m comfortable with, as it is, in fact, raw. But Steak Tartare is French, so it will serve as a very tortured segue back to my French onion soup.

Recall that I was sitting at the dining room table trying to figure out how I could salvage a sweet and flavorful but rather ho-hum soup.  (What excitement!)

The answer came, as you may have guessed, from the beef.  But it wasn’t just a matter of reinserting beef into the recipe retroactively, although that’s a good guess. No, the inspiration came from a Vietnamese dish known as Pho.

NOTE: It’s not a completely inappropriate pairing, since Vietnam was once a French colony.  (Yes, we lost a war to a former French colony.)

When the waiter serves you Pho, he brings out a hot bowl of noodles in broth and a large plate of ingredients with which you garnish the soup.  These include basil, lime, bean sprouts, peppers and, my favorite, thin slices of raw beef.  Not to worry, the hot broth cooks the beef and it comes out really good.

So that’s what I did, and it was just the right thing to finish my French onion soup, only then became French Onion Pho.

It was a rare treat, not raw, just rare.

French Onion Pho
(serves 6-8)
3 ½ lbs brown or yellow onions, sliced
1-2 T olive oil
5 cups vegetable stock
1 cup dry white wine
Salt & pepper, to taste
Toasted bread slices
4-8 oz beef, sliced very thin
Gruyere cheese, grated

  1. Peel the onions and slice them as you would to garnish a hamburger (again with the beef), large round disks.
  2. Heat the oil in a 3 quart stock pot, add the onions and sauté until soft and brown, stirring occasionally.
  3. Add stock, wine and seasonings, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for 20-30 minutes (you know the drill).
  4. Serve by placing the toasted bread (your choice here, we used leftover bagels, which is probably sacrilege) in the bottom of the bowls, then spoon the onions and broth on top.
  5. Here comes the fun part.
  6. Put a few pieces of sliced beef into the soup (NOTE: you may want to use beef that you’ve already cooked, but please make it rare).
  7. Last you strew grated cheese across the top of the soup and serve.

Image Credit: Beef Vietnam over Tricolor by the author. (No offense intended.)

As I sit here now, I’m wondering where the term “rare” came from with respect to cooked meats.  Well done is obvious, rare, not so much.  If you know the answer, write it in a comment.  I’ll be reading and responding, and would love to hear.

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