Vegetarian French Onion Soup and Why Comfort Food is "Comforting"

In the past, I have touched on both the psychology of salads and sandwiches. That leaves one more “s” food category to cover; soups. Believe it or not, I can generally take it or leave it when it comes to soup.  I don’t know, it just is not something I classify as a “comfort food”. There are certain occasions when I want a bowl of something warm and inviting, like this vegetarian French onion soup I made the other day but those usually involve 2 conditions; it’s cold and there is bread involved.
Vegetarian French Onion Soup
So what is it about these so-called “comfort foods” that actually makes them comforting? Some researchers suggest that it actually fulfills the need to belong. One study actually involved feeding people chicken noodle soup and then testing them with a word completion task. First they were asked to rate whether or not chicken soup was a comfort food for them. Half of the participants were fed soup and half were not. After consuming the soup (or not consuming it if they were in that condition) they were given a list of relationship-related word fragments which they had to finish. For example, they might be prompted with “wel-” and have to generate the “-come” ending. What they found was that those who had rated chicken noodle soup as a comfort food and physically consumed the soup completed more words than those for whom chicken noodle soup was a comfort food but did not eat any. But there were no differences in the number of words completed for participants who consumed vs. did not consume chicken noodle soup when they did not find it to be a comfort food.
The second part of the study, participants had to write a series of essays. They were again split into 2 groups, one of which had to write about a fight with a significant other while the other did not. They then either had to write about an experience with a comfort food or a new food. When asked to report their current feelings of loneliness at the end of the study, those who had to write about a fight experienced less loneliness if they also wrote about a comfort food rather than a new food.
Both parts contribute to the idea that comfort food is emotionally significant because it is connected to relationships and reducing loneliness. Now next time you have a bowl of soup and experience that heart-warming feeling, perhaps this is why that occurs. It does make me curious what mechanisms in the brain are actually involved in such processes. Clearly some more research needs to be done. In the meantime, let’s eat some soup!
Vegetarian French Onion Soup
Vegetarian French Onion Soup

Vegetarian French Onion Soup
Serves 5

Ingredients

2 large yellow onions
1 cup white wine
6 cups vegetable broth (or beef broth if you are not concerned with making it vegetarian)
salt and pepper, to taste
5 slices baguette, cut 1/2″ thick (plus more for dipping)
5 slices Swiss cheese (Gruyere, Emmental, etc.)

Instructions

1. Slice the onions into thin strips. I do this by slicing them in half, putting the flat side on the cutting board and then I work my way from one side of the half moon to the other.
2. Put a pot over medium heat and sauté the onions until they begin to brown, about 5 minutes. Turn the heat down to medium/low and continue to cook for about 20 minutes, stirring often to ensure the onions become evenly golden. At some point during this process you can salt the onions to help them release any additional moisture.
3. Once the onions are golden, turn the heat up to high and add the wine to deglaze the pan. Using a wooden spoon (or whatever utensil you have been using to stir the onions) scrape the brown bits off the bottom of the pan. Not only do they make the broth a beautiful, rich colour, they also contribute to the flavour.
4. Allow the wine to reduce by half before adding the broth. Bring the whole thing to a boil and season with salt and pepper to taste. At this time you can also preheat your oven to broil.
5. Ladle the soup into french onion soup bowls or whatever oven-proof serving bowl you choose to use. Place a slice of baguette on top of each, with a slice of swiss cheese on top of the bread.
6. Broil until golden and bubbly. Most ovens have both low and high broil settings. I opt for low and leave them in a bit longer so the bread does not burn. In my oven it took about 5 minutes but this will vary so just keep an eye on them.
7. Serve immediately. But watch your tongue, they will be hot! I always make sure I slice lots of extra bread because my family loves dunking it in the broth once the original cheesy crouton has been eaten. Enjoy!

Vegetarian French Onion Soup
Vegetarian French Onion Soup

References

Troisi, J. & Gabriel, S. (2011). Chicken soup is really good for the soul: “comfort food” fulfills the need to belong. Psychological Science, 22(6), 747-753. doi: 10.1177/0956797611407931

10 thoughts on “Vegetarian French Onion Soup and Why Comfort Food is "Comforting"

  • November 6, 2013 at 4:23 pm
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    I don’t know if I would consider soup a comfort food, but it sure is good once the weather gets cold. And any soup with a layer of broiled cheese on top is a definite winner in my book!

    Reply
    • November 6, 2013 at 4:28 pm
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      I can’t say it is for me either, I would opt for a bowl of mac n’ cheese instead. Although I am a sucker for the caramelized onions in this!

      Reply
  • November 6, 2013 at 4:38 pm
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    Love reading this post! Interesting research behind it. Soup is not in my comfort food list because I didn’t have it growing up. In other hand, I have other comfort foods which reminds me of my mom’s cooking and It does create the warm, comfort and peaceful feeling in me. I love your take on food and psychology!

    Reply
  • November 8, 2013 at 3:56 pm
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    I definitely consider soup a comfort food – and I loved this info about the science behind why I might feel this way! Cool post. Love the wine in the soup to give it that “twang” – you know, a nice highly-culinary term. 😉

    Reply
    • November 8, 2013 at 4:44 pm
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      Thanks so much, I’m trying to do something a bit different than just providing recipes. When I think “twang” I think “Southern drawl” but I like your use of it in a food context!

      Reply
  • December 15, 2013 at 2:15 am
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    just made this using better than bouillon vegetable base instead of boxed/canned vegetable broth. definitely yummy! my only problem was that the slice of bread soaked up ALL off the broth! i think i either need bigger bowls or should try toasting the bread first.

    Reply
    • December 15, 2013 at 3:54 am
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      Both would be good ideas. Obviously the bread can only soak up the broth to a point so the more broth there is, the more that will remain in the soup.

      Reply
  • January 10, 2014 at 4:23 am
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    Great vegetarian version of French Onion Soup! It was perfect for the cold week we have had.

    Reply

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