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