There's a sort of magic in caramelizing an onion; it doesn't seem possible that all that sugar is hiding inside the sulfurous bulb. And it's that surprising sweetness that makes French onion soup one of the most comforting foods I know.
While I'm always soothed by French onion soup, I'm rarely left full, and I've long plotted to somehow bulk it up. But filling up on baguette seems unimaginative, and simply throwing some cooked noodles into the pot, as you might do with a chicken soup, doesn't feel like a coherent dish. So I've devised what you might call a mock risotto, in which acini di pepe (a pastina, or little pasta, named for its peppercorn shape) is cooked directly in the soup, absorbing all of its sweet, oniony flavor. As with risotto, any unabsorbed liquid is thickened by the starch to form an almost creamy sauce. But, unlike risotto, there's no stirring or incremental ladling of stock.
It wouldn't be French onion soup without the cheese, so I stir some grated Parmesan into the finished pastina and top it with a Parmesan crisp. The crisp is a fussy, and optional, extra, but little flourishes like this one always make me feel better about cooking on the cheap. The dish, after all, cost just $6.85 to make.
The Shopping List
Note: Items bought in large quantities, like the pasta and Parmesan, have been pro-rated for cost. Ingredients a cook can reasonably be expected to have on hand are considered "Pantry Items" and are not factored into recipe cost.
2 large onions - $0.86 1 quart beef stock - $3.29 1/2 pound acini di pepe - $0.85 (total cost of item - $1.69) 3 ounces domestic Parmesan - $1.85 (total cost of item - $3.09)
Pantry Items Dried thyme; flour; olive oil; salt and pepper
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 pound onions (about 2 large), very finely sliced
- 1 tsp flour
- 3 1/2 cups beef stock
- 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 pound acini di pepe, or other very small pasta (orzo, stelle, seme di melone)
- 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Parmesan crisps (recipe follows)
Cook onions in oil in a large, deep saucepan, stirring occasionally, until onions are very soft and a deep brown color, 25-30 minutes. As the onions cook down, they may start to stick to the bottom of the pan; whenever this happens, deglaze with a small quantity of cold water, scraping with wooden spoon to dissolve brown bits.
Remove about 1/4 of onions from pan, reserving for garnish. Season with salt and pepper and cover to keep warm.
Sprinkle flour over the onions in the pot, stirring to incorporate. Add beef stock and dried thyme and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer, adjust seasoning, and add pasta. Cover pan and simmer, depending on type of pasta, for 6-9 minutes, or until pasta is al dente and most of the liquid is absorbed. Stir once or twice during cooking to prevent sticking.
Remove pasta from heat and stir in shredded Parmesan. Adjust seasoning if necessary. To serve, top with reserved onions and Parmesan crisp.
Heat a nonstick pan over medium-low heat. Sprinkle a small handful (about 1 1/2 tablespoons) of grated Parmesan into the pan to form a circle about 3 inches in diameter. Cook until cheese is somewhat melted and beginning to take on color, 1-2 minutes. Using a spatula, gently loosen the cheese and flip, cooking for an additional 30 seconds.
Place on paper towels to cool, or, for a curved shape, immediately drape over a rolling pin or other cylindrical surface.