Onions are one of the most basic ingredients cooking has to offer.
With more than 300 varieties, every grocery store in the country sells onions. The most common onions here in the United States are going to be yellow, white, red, pearl onions and shallots, sweet onions such as Vidalia and Walla Walla round out the basic availability. Some folks are familiar with pickling onions, generally found at the bottom of a martini glass. Green onions and leeks are not going to be considered part of the onion family for this column.
In addition to all the fresh onions found in the produce aisle freeze-dried onion and powdered onion are widely available. To enhance the flavor of these two choices some manufacturers toast them. Toasting spices is a common way to enhance a flavor profile.
Here in Illinois Chicago has its roots, no pun intended, in onion history. It is widely believed that the name Chicago was an Indian word for “land of stinky onions.” We can readily understand this from the strong pungent flavors and aroma of cultivated or wild onions. In our country the first cultivated onions were brought over with the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. It was then discovered that the Americas were ripe with wild onions.
All over the world onions are used as a foundation of flavor for almost all foods. From Mediterranean to Asian, from African to Brazilian onions are everywhere. Around here we put them on our burgers, a topping for pizza, salsas, soups, casseroles, meat loaf, onion rings, onion dip and on and on and on.
An old story is told that in ancient times it was believed that heaven consisted of seven layers. The onions of that era also had seven layers, therefore it was believed that onions were a heavenly food. It was divinity itself that moved people to incorporate the flavor of onions into such a vast array of recipes.
When purchasing your onions, be sure that there is no mold growing anywhere on the onion. Pick clean firm onions with no soft spots or blemishes. They will keep at home for quite a long time stored in a cool, dry place. Do not store them in the refrigerator as that will harm the flesh. The only exception is if you need less than a whole onion just cut off the piece that you need, wrapping the remainder in plastic and storing it in the refrigerator for up to three days.
Onions have a variety of B vitamins, as well as C, chromium, flavonoids and fiber. They are not as highly loaded with nutrients as other foods, such as green leafy vegetables. However, the wonderful flavors and aromas that they add to these other dishes help us to enjoy so many wonderfully nutritious foods.
Onions can be cooked in a wide variety of ways. One of the most common would be to sweat your onions, with a little fat, on a medium to medium low heat until they are soft and translucent, not browned. Next, would come browned onions which we would cook in the same fashion, only with a little higher heat to achieve the brown color. We can also caramelize onions which can take up to 30 or more minutes and develops a deep rich and somewhat sweet flavor. Caramelized onions are not to be confused with browned onions. Onions can be roasted. One of my favorite onion dip recipes calls for onions roasted in their skins for about an hour at 375. Once they've cooled, remove the outside skins and purée the roasted pulp with sour cream mayonnaise, cream cheese and some chopped green onion, salt and pepper to taste, of course.
Caramelized onions can truly be considered the king of cooked onions. At the restaurant where I worked in Florence, Italy we used to serve some delectable scalloped potatoes. The unique feature was a layer of caramelized onions in the center of all those thinly sliced potatoes. Here in the United States caramelized onions are most widely enjoyed in French Onion Soup. There are as many different ways to make this soup as there are pages in a book. But, one thing they all have is caramelized onions.
When caramelizing onions use some fat such as unsalted butter combined with a little oil to raise the smoke point of the butter. You don't want to burn your onions, nor do you want to burn your butter. Cook the onions over a low to medium low heat stirring every couple of minutes adding a little salt to help leach out the moisture. You will notice the volume of onions significantly decreasing the longer they cook. Try this recipe this week I'm sure you and your family will love it.
French Onion Soup
Serves 6 to 8
1 stick unsalted butter
1 Tbl canola oil
4 onions cut in half and slice 1/4 inch, separate
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 Bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh thyme
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup red wine
1/2 cup Sherry
3 Tbl all-purpose flour
2 quarts beef broth
1 baguette, sliced
5 ounces gruyere cheese
Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat, add the oil. Add in the onions with a little salt and toss to coat. Allow these onions to cook without burning, stirring every 2 to 3 minutes. They will slowly begin to caramelize and take on a deep rich color. After about 30 minutes add in your bay leaves garlic and thyme. Continue to cook for 3 to 4 more minutes.
Add in your red wine and Sherry and allow to reduce until they are mostly evaporated. Discard the bay leaves and sprigs of thyme. Sprinkle on the flour stir again and allow it to cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Add in the beef broth and bring it back to a full simmer whisking to blend the flour into the liquid. (Note, the beef broth can be preheated in a separate pot while the onions are cooking.) Simmer for 15 minutes.