The onion, author Jim Harrison once remarked, is one of God’s more perfect creations. I couldn’t agree more. I don’t know what the afterlife holds in store, but if there are no onions when I get there, I’m going to miss old Earth. One of the most amazing things you can (legally) do with an onion is caramelize it.
Wikipedia informs me that caramelization is a complex, poorly understood process that produces hundreds of chemical products and equilibriates anomeric and ring forms. I don’t think they are referring to the ring shape of an onion slice, either. The important thing to understand is that onions, cooked for a very long time over low, even heat, miraculously metamorphose from a crunchy bitter vegetable into a sweet, chewy, beautifully coloured one. In order to caramelize properly, you cannot allow the onions to stick and burn, which requires constant vigilance. A little blackened bit here and there is okay, but what you are wanting is amazing transition of a huge pile of white matter into a small pile of deep reddish brown matter. I like to read a book and sip from a glass of wine while I do this, preferably with some jazz in the background (I favour Branford Marsalis’s Eternal, for autumn evenings). Caramelized onions are required in dozens of dishes. Why then do so many recipes completely fail to address the issue of how to cook them? Most recipes, even by authors of the ‘Slow Cooking’ school, tell you something like “sauté the onions for at least thirty minutes.” Now, technically, that is accurate, but extremely misleading. A correct direction, such as the one I will give you here, is “sauté the onions for two whole hours, standing over the stove the entire time like an anxious parent.”
Caramelized onions are the basis for the three simple dishes given here: onions shreds, balsamic onion sauce, and French onion soup.
You will need:
a lot of brown onions. At least five.
Slice the onions finely! It isn’t so hard with a sharp knife. Just peel an onion but leave the root end untrimmed, which keeps all the layers together. Cut it in half, and then pare it away like a deck of cards. Note that five large yellow onions will produce a veritable mountain of slices. You might wonder how many people this will serve. Well, after cooking for two hours, you will be able to fit those onions into a single cup (it serves two).
Put the onion slices in a colander, lightly sprinkling salt on them and separating the segments. Through the miracle of osmosis, the onions will start to weep their liquid. Go away and leave them in private for a good quarter of an hour. Put down a layer of paper towels on a big cutting board, dump the wet onions on, layer more paper towels on top, and press out the liquid.
Heat a good splash of olive oil and a good chunk of butter in a big cast iron pot until the butter melts. I like cast iron because it allows even diffusion of the heat, preventing burning. This is important over long cooking times for something as fragile as an onion. Put in the onions slices, tossing them around to get them coated with oil. Keep the heat low – your patience will be rewarded. We don’t want a loud sizzling as the onions go in. Then cover the pot and leave it for twenty minutes. When you return and uncover them, you will find the onions have given up a lot of moisture. At low heat they will continue to do so for about an hour (uncovered).
First the onions will release moisture. Stir them occasionally.
Then they will wilt. Add a pinch of sugar to give the natural sugars the right idea.
Then they will turn brown. They need constant stirring now to prevent burning.
Then, finally, they will turn a beautiful red-brown. You are done!
These are simplicity itself, but to make them, you will need to push caramelization like you’ve never pushed it before. Just keep stirring until those onions are the color of oxblood. They should be sizzling lightly all over. Then take them out, and drain them on paper towels. They will dry crunchy. Use them as the tastiest garnish imaginable for a side of lentil and rice gruel. (I’m sorry, that should be pureé, not gruel. Where are my manners?)
Balsamic Onion Sauce
I cup caramelized onions
2/3 cup balsamic vinegar
¼ cup sugar
salt and pepper
For this one, add the sugar way back when the onions are starting to wilt. This will definitely make them caramelize faster. When the onions are brown and dry, add the vinegar. Put the heat way down, cover it, and let it simmer an hour. Season with salt and pepper, then drizzle it over steak and potatoes. It will keep a month in the fridge.
French Onion Soup
Before stumbling upon this recipe (I think it was from John Thorne, probably in the indisputable work of genius Outlaw Cook, but I couldn’t swear to it), I suffered through numerous bowls of lackluster French onion soup. I think I kept trying various recipes out of sheer peer pressure: it was so famous, I felt I had to enjoy it, despite the evidence (like Wii bowling). Anyway, as a good recipe will do, once I read this one, I understood the point behind French onion soup. It was demystified in a sudden flash of comprehension. This recipe differs from all of the other recipes out there on one simple, fundamental point: how to cook the onions. When they are browned to the point of extinction, then you can make true French onion soup. It is good, I swear. I have fed it to teenagers and they went back for more.
Once your onions are caramelized, add three cups of beef stock. I made real beef stock for this, which is another thing I like to do on autumnal days when nothing else is going on, but I’m not above pouring it out of a box. The onions will plump up again, but this time full of savory stock, not bitter juice. Simmer on very low for another half hour. Check the seasonings, but it should be perfectly salty by now.
Toast some slices of French bread on one side (I do it under the broiler, as I don’t have a one-sided toaster. My parents used to have one when I was a kid, though. It sort of flipped the bread around when you opened it to check what was causing all the smoke). You’ll need three or four slices per bowl.
Just before serving, add a dash of dry sherry to the soup. This will brighten it. Ladle the soup into good, deep bowls, put the bread on top toasted side down, and sprinkle with grated gruyere. Melt and slightly brown the cheese under the broiler.