Although February is in reality the shortest month of the year, I have always found it to be the longest month. When I lived in Chicago, the snow was the same dirty grey as the sky for four full weeks and the wind never seemed to stop blowing. Here in Paris, you get the occasional burst of bright sunshine, but otherwise the sky is grey and the rain slaps you in the face as the wind whips around the streets. As a cook, it's a slow month too: your selection of fresh vegetables is pathetically small and generally includes wilted greens and roots. It's difficult to be creative under the circumstances.
Last week (just barely still falling in the February doldrums) I found some beautiful shallots at the supermarket. Unlike he ones I've been buying for the last few weeks, they were firm and had no telltale green sprouts peaking from their tight brown skins. They looked...fresh. As a result, I bought a couple of kilos and started searching my cookbooks for inspiration on what to do with them. The first recipe I found came from Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking: an Italian onion soup. I love the French version. I even came up with an English version once. This Italian one interested me because it worked on the same principle (onions, starch, cheese) but did so with potatoes in the place of the bread and Parmesan in place of the French cheese. It gave the soup a more peasant, solid feel and was truly delicious. Of course, being me, I couldn't actually stick to the recipe exactly as written. But I don't think an Italian peasant would object to either of the small modifications I made to Marcella's recipe: lardons (pancetta, of course would be more authentic) and fresh thyme, both of which are delicious with onions and potatoes. The result is not exactly pretty I must admit, but it was hearty and filling and very tasty on a rainy day when spring feels an ice age away.
Italian Onion Soup (4 bowls)
1 1/2 kilos of shallots or other sweet onions
1 kilo potatoes
6 cups home-made broth (I used a flavourful chicken broth from a couple of roasted bird carcasses)
1-2 cups reserved water from boiling the potatoes
a handful of fresh thyme
a handful of lardons or pancetta cut in matchsticks
3 Tbs butter
3 Tbs olive oil
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
125 grams lardons or pancetta
Melt the butter in a frying pan with the oil. In the meantime, peel and slice the shallots in thin slivers. Add them to the pan and cook them until they are soft and starting to brown on the edges. Stir in the thyme and cook for a few moments. While the shallots are cooking, wash the potatoes and put them in a deep pan big enough to accommodate the soup and cover them with water. Cook until they are just tender. Drain the potatoes, reserving a cup or two of the cooking water.
Use a bit of the potato water to deglaze the frying pan with the onions and then pour them into the large pan. Add the broth and begin heating to a simmering point. Peel the potatoes and cut them in cubes small enough to fit on a spoon. Add them to the broth. Wipe out the frying pan. (If you have deglazed well you shouldn't need to wash it.) Heat it on a high flame and add the matchstick lardons. Fry them until crispy and brown and then drain them on a paper towel.
Meanwhile, check your soup for salt and pepper - it will probably need pepper but go easy on the salt as you'll be adding smoked meat and cheese when you serve. Depending on how long you simmer it and how strong the broth is, you may want to add some of the reserved potato water at this point. Using a large spoon, crush some of the potatoes against the side of the pan to add thickness to the consistency. Serve each bowl with a generous handful of cheese, a grinding of pepper and a sprinkle of crisp lardons.