"You are going to blog this, aren't you?" asked the Critic after the third spoonful of soup. "Mm-hm." One minute later, "You really should blog this soup, you know." Okay, okay, I get the message.
We have been suffering, collectively, from a series of colds this winter. We had a slight respite around Christmas, but it came back again with the start of the new year. And so, walking to work on a cold wet morning, I mused about my favourite soups. Chicken and dumpling (more of a stew really). Leek and Stilton. French onion soup.
And then I had an epiphany. (Which was actually quite appropriate, being as it was the 6th of December and the Christian holiday of Epiphany.) What if I combined the Stilton AND the onion soup. Had anyone else come up with this clever idea? When I got home, I quickly googled "stilton soup onion". And I found that Anthony Worrell Thompson had made a creamy onion and Stilton soup. But according to the wonderful reference tool that is Google, I was the first to come up with a French Onion style soup with English Stilton Cheese. English Onion Soup.
Having started with the reaction of the Critic, you already know it worked. Of course the Critic's two favourite cheeses being a nice sharp cheddar and a ripe Stilton I had a pretty good chance of getting it past him. (The wonderful range of French cheeses available all around us are wasted on the poor man.) But I agreed: it was a great combination. As we have already demonstrated quite a few times, cheese and onions are fantastic together, the sweetness of the onions being balanced by the sharp cut of the cheese. And Stilton responds beautifully to being melted in a soup: it mellows and takes on a more earthy flavour at the same time.
Stilton also has a completely different effect on the structure of the soup. While gruyère gets satisfyingly stringy when it melts, it can often be difficult to cut through as it cools on the toast floating in the soup. Gruyère also remains largely separate from the liquid of the soup. Stilton, on the other hand, remains gentle and soft on the toast, easily cut through with a spoon. And it melts down into the soup, giving every bite - even after the toasted bread and cheese are gone - a lovely Stilton flavour. It really was an epiphany.
English Onion Soup (makes three medium bowls, or two large, takes about 40 minutes to make)
4 medium onions (I used Roscoff pink onions, which are fairly sweet even before cooking)
4-6 large shallots
2 small cloves of garlic
1 tsp dried tarragon
1 glass sweet sherry (Marsala wine would probably make a decent substitute)
600 ml / 2.5 cups turkey stock (or any meat stock, really, preferably home-made or at least low-salt)
6 small slices of whole-wheat bread
100-150 grams (about 3/4 cup) crumbled Stilton cheese (you could try substituting a mild blue cheese)
Special equipment: deep, oven-safe bowls
In a saucepan, melt a few tablespoons of butter. Slice the onions in thin half-rounds and the shallots in long strips. When the butter is frothing, add the onions and shallots and pressed garlic. Cook at a fairly high street until they are soft and browned and smell deliciously sweet. Add the tarragon and cook another minute or so. Add the sweet sherry or Marsala and let it bubble away merrily until the sweet smell is overpowering and the liquid is reduced by at least half. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Taste for salt and pepper. If you are a tarragon fan, you might want to add a little more: its sweet flavour goes very well with blue cheese and with caramelized onions.
Toast the bread lightly. (It works on the same principle as making stuffing: you want to remove the moisture from the bread so that it will absorb the flavourful liquid you are adding instead.) Carefully ladle soup into the bowls. Float a couple of pieces of toast in each bowl and top with a generous helping of crumbled Stilton. Slide under the grill on you oven at a high setting and leave it until the cheese is bubbling and the toast is starting to brown a bit.
Serve immediately. You'll probably burn your tongue on the soup as the smell wafts up to your nose. But it's worth it. Almost worth having a cold...