Friday, February 18, 2011

Low Sodium, Big Flavor French Onion Soup

This week, I accepted a challenge from my friend Jess to revamp a favorite recipe into a very low sodium version - less than 40mg per serving. Jess has a fabulous blog AND a book coming out next year. Not only does Jess like to come up with creative ways to make flavorful, low sodium recipes, she also has to for her health. Jess was impacted by a severe onset of lupus while we were in college, and while she has made an awesome recovery, her kidneys cannot regulate sodium levels the way that a normal person's kidneys can, which means - no salt.

While we might not all have conditions like Jess, I think it is important for us all to think about our sodium intake. We might focus on calories, carbs, and fat, but sodium intake has risen dramatically in recent years and can have long-term affects on your health. There are little ways that I try to cut back but I know I need to be more mindful of it. One easy first step is trying to avoid products that already have a lot of unnecessary sodium added to them - such as chicken/vegetable stock, soups, and canned goods - and buy a low-sodium or no salt added version instead. You can always add your own seasoning and in most cases will end up adding much less than what the full-sodium version contains. I do this with vegetable stock, canned tomatoes, and many other things.

This challenge was all about taking a traditionally high sodium favorite - I chose French Onion Soup - and trying to remake it to a very low sodium version. The trickiest part of this was the stock - even low sodium varieties have far higher sodium levels than the 40mg dictated by Jess' low sodium rules. So, I had to be creative, and ended up coming up with a flavorful soup based on Julia Child's version which incorporates vermouth and cognac, and adding depth by using herbs, balsamic vinegar, molasses, and most importantly, carmelizing the onions very well. This is not a quick recipe, but it isn't difficult either if you have the time!

Low Sodium, Big Flavor French Onion Soup
Serves 4 as a main dish, 6 as a starter

Active Time: 1 hour
Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

2 1/2 lbs. yellow onions, thinly sliced
3/4 lb. shallots, thinly sliced
2 T. unsalted butter
1 T. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 t. dry mustard
1/2 t. brown sugar
2 T. flour
4 c. hot water
1 fresh bay leaf or 2 dried
1 T. fresh thyme leaves
1 T. balsalmic vinegar
1 T. molasses
5 T. Cognac
1 c. dry white vermouth
Black pepper
Crusty white bread
Low-sodium swiss cheese (I used Sargento baby swiss)

Melt the butter and oil in a large stockpot or dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until the onions are tender and translucent, about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occassionally.

Stir in the dry mustard and brown sugar. Cook until the onions are well browned, about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occassionally. It's ok (and good) if you get a lot of brown bits at the bottom of the pot, this will help deepen the flavor of the soup. You can scrape up some of the brown bits as you're stirring the onions. However, if it starts to burn or smell like burning, turn down the heat a little.

Add the flour and cook another 1 to 2 minutes. Add the Cognac, dry vermouth, molasses, and balsamic vinegar, scraping up the brown bits. Stir in the water and add the thyme, bay leaves and 1/2 t. pepper. Bring to a low boil and then partially cover and let simmer, over low heat, for about 45 minutes. Taste and add additional pepper or balsalmic vinegar to brighten it up if desired.

To serve: Preheat the broiler. Ladle the soup into oven-proof bowls or crocks and lay a piece of bread in the middle of each bowl. Lay a slice of swiss cheese on top of the bread. Put the bowls on foil-lined baking sheet and broil until the cheese is bubbly and starting to brown slightly. We served this as a main dish along with a big green salad. Enjoy!

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