In Season: Onions!
By Linda Brandt Tanner
From Radiance Fall 1996
The arrival of fall brings with it a desire to enjoy hearty, soothing, aromatic foodsfoods that encourage family and friends to gather around a steaming fragrant dish. The most fragrant of falls produce is the onion and some of its relatives: shallots, garlic, and scallions. This aromatic group is the flavor backbone of much good cooking, and it is part of the ensemble that makes the symphony of a fine meal.
A member of the lily family, the allium, or onion, is grown mainly in California in the spring. After fall harvest, it is stored to rest and "harden." This allows the onion to develop the tough, papery, brown skin that protects the fragrant tender interior during shipping, marketing, and storage. Purchase onions when they are fresh in the market, hard and solid to the touch,with no damp or squishy places and no sprouting from the top. Store them at home in a dark, cool, well-ventilated place. A basket is perfect. Onions do not store well in the refrigerator.
The most wonderful fact about onions is that they are full of natural sugar. Looking at a raw onion, you wouldnt know that. Slicing one, youre sure its not the sugar that makes your eyes water as they do. Biting into a raw slice of onion may not taste sweet. But, apply heat in the form of a grill, a hot skillet, or a toasty oven, and the onion is transformed. Into ambrosia. Into something no meal should be without. The aroma of cooking onions is evocative of good things to come. Which brings to mind French onion soup.
My first experience with French onion soup happened abroadin France, fortunatelywhen my nose led my aching feet into an intimate café not far from the Hotel Ritz on the Place de la Concorde. There could have been no better place to experience my first bowl of this heavenly brew. Paris! It was March 1976. Rainy, windy, with a sky as gray as the cobbles on the street. Cold to the bone, and with a growling tummy, I was seated in plush raspberry-colored chair at a table beautifully covered with a downy white tablecloth, heavy silverware, and a single pink tulip.
Nestling into this cozy cocoon waiting for my lunch to be served, I sipped a glass of red wine and consumed a good portion of the baguette and sweet butter placed in front of me. My soup was served with a graceful flourish of a white linen napkin, a grinding of fresh pepper, and a flirty smile from my waiter. As my spoon broke through the burnished cover of melting Gruyere cheese and toasted crouton and dipped into the steaming broth, I gratefully inhaled the fragrant aroma of caramelized onions and rich beef stock with its veil of cognac. That blissful sensation still lives in my memory today. I yearned for nothing more: all my senses were satiated. I should add that I treated myself to that ritual several times more during my stay. Within days of returning home, I recreated the same soup for my family, thanks to my mentor, Julia Child. (Her fabulous recipe is in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. written by herself and coauthors Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, published by Knopf in 1966.)
Is there a reader out there whose mouth doesnt water at the aroma of frying onions? Theres a natural connection between our noses and our salivary glands. In my grandmothers day, there was a saying: If dinner isnt ready by the time the "man of the house" comes home, just get some onions frying quick! Although the adage is thankfully out of date today, it is still true that the smell of onions cooking does stimulate our senses and creates a feeling of well-being. Ive compiled a few of my favorite uses of the onion family for your fall enjoyment.
A staple in my kitchen are sautéed caramelized onions. Like a dependable rich chicken stock in your freezer, they can be called on to be the backbone of, or a savory complement to, a variety of dishes. I cook up a large batch, which will keep, covered in the refrigerator, for four or five days. Or you can freeze the precooked onions in small quantities in plastic bags for use as you wish.
Heres how to prepare them. Peel and halve four to six yellow onions and cut into thin slices. (I also add two cloves of minced garlic, but this is optional.) This may look like a lot, but the onions will cook down. Heat a large skillet over a high flame and pour in one to two tablespoons of olive oil. Add the onions and a bit of salt. Stir, coating the onions with the oil. Continue to sauté for about five minutes over the high heat. Then turn the flame down to medium-low, leaving the onions to sauté slowly. Stir them often, for about ten more minutes, until they reach a golden brown color. If you desire, add a bit of white or red wine at this point. Continue cooking, turning down the heat to simmer if you need to, so as not to scorch the onions. Continue for another five to fifteen minutes, or until the onions begin to caramelize and develop a rich, deep golden brown. There should be some caramelized brown goodies adhering to the bottom of the pan, so deglaze them with a bit of chicken stock or white wine and stir them into the onions. Add salt and freshly ground pepper, and remove from heat. At this point, the onions, along with any of their accumulated juices, are ready to store in the refrigerator or freezer. And you are prepared to create any number of tasty goodies.
A quick pasta? Heat a cup or two of the caramelized onions in a shallow pan. Add some fresh thyme, a bit of lemon zest, and a squeeze of lemon juice. When this is hot, toss in some just-cooked pasta, and then top it all with grated Asiago cheese and garlic-buttery toasted bread crumbs. At this point, you can stir in any hot cooked vegetable that appeals to you: tiny green peas, sautéed mushrooms, halved cherry tomatoes, asparagus tips, sugar snap peas, mushrooms, and so on. An extra grind of pepper is nice to finish.
A last-minute toothsome canapé? Slice a fresh baguette lengthwise and spread it with some of the caramelized onions. Top with a shaving of Parmesan cheese or crumbled goat cheese with some chopped Kalamata olives. Pop this under a hot broiler until everything is bubbly. Serve with a glass of wine or sherry.
A quick soup? Mix up to two cups of the caramelized onions with fresh or canned chicken stock. Add fresh thyme or chervil, a clove of garlic, a large peeled and cubed potato, and cook until the potato is tender. Purée the mixture in a blender and return it to the pan. You can now add a bit of half-and-half, or a dollop of butter, some black pepper, and a dusting of grated Parmesan cheese.
Frizzled scallions as a garnish. I use this treatment now and then to embellish a piece of grilled fish for a simple meal. Heat a bit of canola oil in a shallow pan until hot. Toss in some scallions sliced julienne style (long, thin strips). The scallions will turn golden brown in a minute or two and frizzle up to make a curly garnish. Salt and drain on paper towels.
Marinated onions provide a zingy counterpoint to many dishes. Their ruby red color and sweet-sour taste are perfect alongside sliced cold ham, hot barbecued chicken, or as a piquant addition to a roast pork sandwich. Remember to tuck a chilled jar of these into your late fall picnic basket. There are many variations of this condiment. Heres mine.
Halve two onions, set them flat side down, and slice them into thin half-moons. With your fingers, separate the little slices, and put these into a dish. Set aside. In a nonreactive saucepan (stainless steel, glass, or enamel-coated), heat one cup of raspberry vinegar,* one cup of good red wine, three-quarters cup of white sugar, and six whole cloves. Bring this to a boil and simmer until the sugar dissolves.
Pour this over the thinly sliced red onions. Mix thoroughly, submerging the onions in the marinade. Watch how the acid from the vinegar and wine intensify the color of the red onions. The onions will wilt a bit, but retain a crunch while absorbing the flavor of sweet-sour-spicy. Cover and chill. I let this marinate for three or four hours before use. These onions will keep for a couple of days in the fridge, if you can resist them for that long. They look gorgeous garnishing a platter of asparagus. Just drain them and then distribute the thin beet-red slices over the cooked asparagus.
To enjoy the garlic that is so welcome this season, I select fat, solid heads of garlic, about the size of small potatoes. The whole garlic as it is sold in the market is called the head. The cluster of individual little papery "toes" are called cloves. For succulent roasted garlic, I start by cutting about an inch off the top of the head of the garlic and then drizzle the exposed papery cloves with olive oil. I sprinkle on some salt, and place them, allowing about one large head per person, in an ovenproof dish and bake at 375 degrees for about forty minutes. They are done when the garlic is golden and soft and the cloves begin to pop up out of their papery skin. Use your fingers or a toothpick to remove the garlic. Eat it as an appetizer, spread it on flat bread or crackers, or whip the soft pulp into your next batch of mashed potatoes.
Fried onion rings. I remember the long-ago days when a trip to Mels Drive-In meant an order of deep-fried onion rings and a cherry Coke. We thought it was the perfect combination: greasy, salty fingers and maraschino cherries! Todays version of fried onion rings might be grilled scallions. When I am grilling, I rub olive oil on a few scallions, add coarse salt, and toss them on the hot grill. I cook these until they get grill marks and begin to wilt, and then I turn them over to grill on the other side. A squeeze of fresh lemon before removing them from the grill is nice, especially if they are going to accompany grilled lamb. This can also be accomplished in a hot broiler, but youll miss the lovely smokey grill taste.
I wait patiently for the white, crunchy Vidalia or Maui onions, with a sweetness as mellow as honey, to create my favorite sandwich. Made with those special onions, thinly sliced, cucumber, and a swipe of mayonnaise or sweet butter, plus salt and pepper, its a sandwich worth waiting for all year. If you like, add a slice or two of crispy bacon. Yum! The Vidalias grow mostly in the South and are harvested in the spring or summer. They are more tender and perishable than other onions, and are not as readily available. So watch for them and pounce as soon as you see them in the market!
For the ultimate in falls comfort food, prepare these balsamic roasted onions. They are glossy beauties, burnished with the balsamic juices and so easy to prepare. Ive written down the measurements here for two servings. By all means, expand my recipe to suit your needs. Begin with two medium onions, peeled and cut in half from tip to stem end. Rub with butter and place these, cut side down, in a shallow baking dish. Sprinkle with a bit of salt and a tablespoon of maple sugar. If you cant find maple sugar, use two tablespoons maple syrup. Roast at 375 degrees for about forty minutes, flip over, and drizzle with two tablespoons of good balsamic vinegar. Turn down the oven to 350 degrees and roast for another twenty-five minutes or so, basting two more times with the pan juices, until the onions become gooey, savory, and slurpy. These are a must alongside a baked chicken. The bonus is that they are great hot or at room temperature, they travel well, and they will keep for several days in the refrigerator.
The colors of a fall sunset are reflected in this salad of sliced red onions and oranges. I mix a combination of thinly sliced red onions, peeled and sliced navel oranges, and, if they are available, a few blood oranges, too, for their glistening ruby color. I toss all these with a sweet raspberry vinaigrette and chill until serving. Experiment with another dressing by adding a smidgen of chili powder, cumin, honey, and fresh lime juice to the gathered juices of the sliced oranges. Chop a few leaves of cilantro for a Southwestern flavor. A sprinkling of toasted pine nuts or chopped pistachios on top add extra color and crunch.
Experience all that is best about fall: its lovely deep colors, heady aromas, and comforting tastes. Buy some onions and experiment with your own fall palate. ©
*I like Kozlowski Farms red raspberry vinegar, made in Northern California, and sold in gourmet markets all over the country.
LINDA BRANDT TANNER is one of a committee of passionate people currently working on The Edible Schoolyard, a pilot project at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California, which began in response to school lunchrooms closing down across the country. Their goal is to teach youngsters respect for the planet and for one another through on-site, hands-on experience in gardening and food preparation in a program that will become part of the California school curriculum.