French Onion Pastina

Pastina is little pasta shapes, often used in soups. In Italian families it’s also baby food, usually boiled and served plain or with some butter mixed in. When I saw this recipe for a variation on French onion soup, I had to overcome my small pasta prejudice. I’m glad I did, because I’m adding this recipe to the “keeper” category.

Here’s what I started with:

Le mise

Not too many ingredients – 1/2 pound of pasta (I used acini de pepe), beef stock (which I made while cooking boeuf bourguignon), two large onions (one pound), a teaspoon of flour, and 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme.

The key to good caramelization of the onions, which is the backbone of the recipe, is to slice them as thinly as possible. I used a hand-held mandoline, which produced paper-thin onion slices. They went into a pot with two tablespoons of olive oil set over medium high heat.

Onions, before

I stirred the onions every five minutes. When the bottom of the pot developed a good, crusty fond, I added a quarter cup of the beef stock and stirred to dissolve the brown bits. I did this twice; the third and final time I added a quarter cup of dry sherry, a traditional addition to onion soup. After a bit more than half an hour I wound up with caramelized onions:

Onions, after

I removed a few tablespoons of the onions for a garnish. I sprinkled the flour over the onions in the pot and stirred until I couldn’t see any floury bits. Then I added 3 1/2 cups of beef stock, which had been simmering while the onions cooked. I brought the mixture to a boil, added the thyme, then lowered the heat to a simmer. After correcting the seasoning with salt and pepper I added the pasta, covered the pot, and cooked until the pasta was al dente.

While the pasta cooked, I heated a nonstick pan over medium low heat. Using a round biscuit cutter as a guide, I added 1 1/2 tablespoons of grated parmesan to make four circles:

Parmesan crisps, before

When the cheese started to brown at the edges, I flipped it over and crisped the other side:

Parmesan crisps, after

The pasta was ready by the time the crisps were finished. The recipe calls for stirring in additional parmesan, but I used shredded gruyere instead. It’s the traditional cheese topping for the gratinee version of onion soup, and I had some left over.

The pasta went into bowls, topped with the resreved onions, some chopped parsley, and the parmesan crisps:

French onion pastina

The pasta was the ideal hybrid of onion soup and a good risotto. The pasta starch made the soup creamy, but it still retained the strong onion flavor of the traditional version – minus the soggy crouton. The nutty gruyere was a nice contrast to the sharp, salty parmesan crisp. I served a simple green salad on the side to provide a light, crunchy contrast to the hearty dish.

After overcoming his aversion to the parmesan crisp (“What’s that funky smell?”), Miles gave the dish a thumbs up. Definitely a keeper.

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2 Responses to French Onion Pastina

  1. This sounds so good! Maybe I’ll try it.

    • David says:

      It’s really easy. Just be sure to use decent beef stock – Swanson’s organic is OK – and slice the onions as thinly as you can manage.

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