“Poole’s: Recipe and Stories from a Modern Diner.” By Ashley Christensen. Ten Speed Press, 2016. $35

There is something quintessentially American about eating at a diner: The close proximity of other customers. Watching cooks in action. Spinning on a vinyl upholstered stool.

For me, a good diner requires multiple visits to get a true sense of the food, the vibe and the clientele. Then, with credentials confirmed, they become favorite and frequent haunts.

Similarly, it took several trips inside the pages of “Poole’s: Recipes and Stories From a Modern Diner,” before I grew comfortable. The nearly 300-page book is much more than a quick flip through a litany of recipes. This is Beard Award-winning chef Ashley Christensen’s loving ode to her Raleigh, North Carolina, diner; her philosophy on modern comfort food; and an essay on why she calls her patrons “guests,” not customers.

Chapter titles like Counter Snacks, Vinaigrettes, and Bowls & Such at first glance lacked clarity, and I wished there were more pictures of the finished dishes. But when I learned Christensen uses “vinaigrette” as a synonym for salad, I caught on. Her four go-to recipes for quick and flavorful oil and vinegar combinations also helped. I can vouch for the deliciously simple Bibb Lettuce Salad. The Pork Ribs with Mustard Sorghum Sauce, from the Counter Snacks chapter (think appetizers), were another hit with my own guests.

Taking the time to read Christensen’s story is worthwhile. My copy of “Poole’s” now has sticky notes dotting each section. The book is written in a witty, whimsical manner that encourages adventurousness in the kitchen. Whether it was something as simple as learning why spices should be scattered from eye level (more even diffusion) or making a tarragon-infused white wine reduction, I felt my skills improving.

Maybe that’s why I opted to test drive the Caramelized Onion-Tomato Soup with Jarlsberg Croutons. My previous soup experience begins and ends with a can opener and a heat source. This recipe called for two pots, the aforementioned tarragon reduction, a combination of patience and timing, more salt than I’ve ever used in my life, and the faith that combining two classic soups was even a good idea.

Sure enough, I learned a few things, like:

Four cups of wine is greater than one standard bottle.

Two pounds of thinly sliced onions barely fit in the skillet to start but after cooking ended up not even covering the surface.

They must use really large serving crocks at Poole’s because this makes way more than six servings.

Two days later my house still smells like onions.

And, as the three empty soup crocks on my table proved, this recipe produces a rich, flavorful soup that can stand as a meal.

Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or:

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CARAMELIZED ONION-TOMATO SOUP WITH JARLSBERG CROUTONS

Serves 6

1/2 cup olive oil

6 cloves garlic, crushed

2 (28-ounce) cans diced organic tomatoes

Sea salt

2 tablespoons neutral vegetable oil

2 pounds yellow onions, halved and thinly sliced (about 6 cups)

4 cups dry white wine

1/4 cup white wine vinegar

6 to 7 whole sprigs tarragon, leaves intact

1 tablespoon whole grain mustard

CROUTONS

1 tablespoon neutral vegetable oil

1/2 baguette, sliced into 1/4-inch thick slices

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1/2 cup grated Jarlsberg (any nutty, melty cheese, such as Gruyère, would work well here)

1. In a large Dutch oven, combine the olive oil and garlic. Place over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is toasted, about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and 2 teaspoons sea salt and increase the heat to a boil. Reduce to a simmer. Cook for 45 minutes; the tomatoes and garlic will be falling apart and the flavors will be cohesive.

2. Meanwhile, in a high-sided sauté pan, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat. Add the onions and 2 teaspoons salt. Turn the heat to high, stirring frequently. Once the pan is hot (about 1 minute), reduce the heat to medium and cover; cook, covered, for 20 minutes. When you remove the lid, lots of moisture will escape and the onions will have begun to caramelize. Cook, stirring, until the onions are thick and deep brown. Transfer the onions to a bowl and return the pan to high heat.

3. Add the wine, vinegar and tarragon. Cook until the liquid has reduced down to become thick and syrupy. Add 6 cups of water and bring to a boil, then remove from the heat.

4. Strain the tarragon infusion into the stewed tomato mixture, discarding the solids. Stir in the caramelized onions, mustard and 2 teaspoons salt. Bring the soup to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and let simmer for 20 minutes.

5. While the soup is simmering, make the croutons. Line a plate with paper towels. In a large skillet over high heat, heat the oil. When it shimmers, add the baguette slices in an even layer; when they begin to turn golden on the bottom, add the butter, turn the heat down to medium, and swirl to coat. Fry the bread for 3 to 4 minutes on one side, until it is dark, golden brown. Transfer to the paper-lined plate.

6. Stack three croutons in the center of each of six ovenproof soup bowls, placing a small pinch of cheese between each layer. Ladle the soup around the stacks of bread to fill the bowls. Sprinkle a last pinch of cheese in the center of each bowl. Place the bowls under the broiler and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the cheese is melted and bubbling. Serve.