Note from Curator Rozanne Gold: Alan Seidman, former legislator from Orange County District 12 in upstate New York, embodies what it means to be a distinguished citizen. Countless man-of-the year awards and lifetime-achievement awards do not do justice to the thousands of people he has helped through his philanthropic and professional endeavors. His personal journey – graduating with a master of science degree from Emerson College in speech, to owning a liquor store, a variety store, an ambulette company, to the ranks as Chairman of the Orange County Legislature, makes him one of the more interesting people I have met. Just last month this serial entrepreneur chaired an event for the Purple Heart Award with General Petraeus and more than 550 attendees to raise money for the “Purple Heart Hall of Honor” Museum. I'm a better person for knowing him.
Mr. L’s Onion Soup by Alan Seidman
It’s the beginning of June and hardly the time one stops to consider a bowl of onion soup but, nonetheless, it is what I made this week for my son Adam who is just home from college. A rising junior at Elon University in North Carolina, he is generally away at school during cooler weather and never gets to enjoy this soup anymore. Adam grew up loving this recipe, one I learned to make from the elderly gentleman who I transported to and from dialysis appointments three times a week in my shiny then-new ambulette more than 25 years ago.
Mr. L. was an elegant man who was born and raised in Pennsylvania and worked his entire career for one employer here in the Hudson Valley, where I live. In spite of his physical challenges, he remained upbeat and we had great discussions during the trips…some of those chats were about our shared love of cooking. He held his recipes “close to the vest,” but I managed to get him to share a recipe for French onion soup. I’m not sure if it was his not wanting to divulge everything or wanting to make me do some experimenting, but he was never clear about the cup or crock measurement for bouillon, so I split the difference in his slightly oblique instructions. (I use eight bouillon cubes for twelve cups of water.) One thing Mr. L. was very specific about, however, was that the bouillon had to be Knorr’s Beef Bouillon or, he admonished, it would not come out right. I once tried it with another brand and it did not taste the same (nor was it as good). I even tried it with my own homemade beef broth long ago but, it too, was lacking in character.
The recipe is written in Mr. L’s own handwriting, since mine is rather illegible. It is prepared with the requisite slice of toasted French bread and topped with melted Swiss cheese. It is something I make frequently when we entertain over the winter and it is always a hit with our guests. I think it is the generous amount of Harvey’s Bristol Cream Sherry that makes it sing. (At times I have noted that a generous amount of this sherry also makes me sing.)
I had been an active member of the Cornwall volunteer Ambulance Corps. for decades and had my own transportation business for more than a dozen years, and I think about the thousands of wonderful people I met during those times. There is a quick intimacy that develops
in stressful times and a vulnerability that ensues when one is elderly or dealing with illness.
Mr. L. and I became good pals over the years. His handwritten recipe is now well-worn with numerous Xeroxed copies all over my kitchen.
(By the way, I am informed by Ms. Gold, that the original recipe for onion soup contained no broth whatsoever, because the French peasants who devised it could no way have afforded rich beef stock and one needed a saint's patience to darkly caramelize a massive quantity onions in order to get the right color and flavor.)
The first spoonful tastes a bit salty, but with the addition of booze it reaches perfection. I thought about what I might drink with the soup to make it more compatible for imbibing in warmer weather (I owned a liquor store for years) and thought a full-bodied rose from Bandol or a cellar-temperature pinot noir from Oregon might do. But I think Adam and I will drink a few beers instead.
adapted by RG from Mr. L's recipe
Serves 6 - 8
5 to 6 medium onions (about 2 pounds)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 (extra-large) Knorr beef bouillon cubes (2.3 oz. pkg.)
12 cups water
6 tablespoons Harvey’s Bristol Cream sherry
6 or 8 slices toasted French bread (cut 1-1/2 inch thick)
6 or 8 slices Swiss cheese
Note: a jigger is a measure of 3 tablespoons or 1-1/2 ounces.
Peel and thinly slice onions. (Cut them in half lengthwise and then across into half circles.) Melt butter in a very large pan. Cook onions until very dark brown, stirring often, about 25 minutes. Do not scorch.
In a large pot, put bouillon cubes, 12 cups water, and ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Bring to a boil, then whisk over low heat until bouillon dissolves. Add cooked onions to bouillon and bring to a boil. Lower heat to medium-low and cook 30 minutes. Add cream sherry. Put soup into individual serving crocks. Add a slice of toasted French bread, and put a slice of cheese on top. Put in a preheated 275 degree oven for 5 to 10 minutes or until cheese is melted. (You can put under the broiler for a minute to brown.) Serve while hot.