Cheap, tasty, staggeringly versatile – what’s not to like about the humble onion? Housed within the tough, papery skin is a vegetable that is integral to cuisines from all over the world – from the curries of India to the pickled onions of the UK, served alongside steaming fish and chips. Italian, French, Greek, Spanish cooking, and countless others, would be very different indeed were it not for this glorious vegetable.
Onions are one of the oldest vegetables known to mankind. They have always been easy to grow, able to flourish in a myriad of climatic conditions, keep well and are easily transported, a property that made them important to ancient cultures.
They are, along with garlic, leeks, ramsoms (wild garlic), part of the allium family and were probably first cultivated by the Egyptians who worshipped the onion as a symbol of eternal life.
Now the majority are grown in China and India, although the capacity of the onion to grow in so many varied climates means that many nations don’t have to import them, instead growing their own and storing them once the season is over.
Although there are countless recipes that include onions, very few exist that put them on a pedestal all of their own. One notable exception, of course, is the nectar that is French onion soup (method to follow). Instead, onions tend to form an integral aspect of recipes and as such much be prepared, a task many cooks find frustrating.
Chopping onions the right way is one of those tricks that, once you learn, you’ll never use any other method. It is very simple and uses the root end to hold the vegetable together whilst you chop it from the top end (if you already know all this then feel free to skip forward).
The first step is to slice off the top half centimetre so that you end up with a flat end which you can put face down on the chopping board. Once you have done that slice the onion in half and remove the skin.
Next lay the onion down on its largest exposed flat surface so you have a hemisphere facing up towards you. Using a (sharp) knife make a series of cuts down its back all the way through, being careful not to cut through the root end which will continue to hold it all together. Finally, start cutting perpendicular to these and tiny little pieces of onion should start to fall away.
Depending on what you are cooking, these can be large chunks or miniscule pieces that will almost dissolve if they are cooked slowly in oil. If you wish to make slices, as opposed to dice, then dispense with the first step and just cut across the onion after you have skinned it.
Cooking onions, too, can present some problems, with many people trying to hurry the process and ending up with burnt, acrid tasting slices as opposed to sweet and fragrant. Many recipes call for onions to be ‘sweated’. This should be done over a gentle heat in a little oil and normally takes 10-15 minutes with occasional stirring. Once they have reached this stage – soft and vaguely translucent – they can then be’ browned’ by a further 5-10 minutes cooking. This will give you a sweetness thanks to the caramelisation of the naturally occurring sugars (a process known as ‘Maillard reactions’).
So, onto something more fun – French onion soup is a bona fide classic and one that is near impossible to screw up. It is warming, hearty and makes a delicious lunch or a first rate starter if you are having more than one course. It is the sort of food that you serve to people you really like – casual, no tablecloths necessary and many bottles of vin de table from Burgundy.
Naturally, there are variations to this dish which can elevate it to heights you never thought possible – bacon, red wine, rich beef stock, herbs – but sometimes a quick fix is all you need which is exactly what this method is. Should serve two, avec du pain, naturellement.
Thinly slice four or five onions and sweat them in fat (butter, oil, goose fat – whatever you have to hand. I used chicken fat today from a bird we roasted at the weekend) for 15-20 minutes. Crank up the heat and start to brown them. You should end up with some delicious crusty brown stuff clinging to the bottom of the pan. This is the fond and is most excellent.
Once they have been nicely browned (and this is the bit that will probably make a Frenchman raise his hands, scream ‘sacre bleu’ and weep into his beret) add about two tablespoons of balsamic vinegar. Not the good stuff, obviously. It will darken the soup and add a wonderful sweet acidity. Using a wooden spoon scrape the fond from the bottom of the pan and stir it into the onions.
Next pour in the stock (about 500ml), turn down the heat, stir and leave for another ten minutes. If you don’t make your own, stock cubes are ideal (chicken or beef will yield the best results. I don’t know about vegetable) for this and give results as good as anything I’ve done with homemade stock.
Whilst it is bubbling away and filling your kitchen with smells to make your stomach gurgle in anticipation, dry out a piece of bread in the oven. Good crusty bread is the best, day old baguette if you have it.
Pour the soup into a bowl, top with the bread and layer on a healthy slice of cheese (traditionally Gruyere but I think tradition went out of the window with the balsamic vinegar so anything melty will do), pop it under the grill until the cheese starts to brown and bubble.
Eat. Sigh a happy sigh and realise just how good the world is when you can make food like this for mere pence.
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