Winter is not my time of year. As seasons go, I rank it last, in the kitchen and everywhere else. I’m cold, there’s nothing fresh to cook, and it makes a curmudgeon out of me. But increasingly, I’m realizing that winter cooking has an upside.
With less to work with, you focus on what you do have. You think past your typical impulses, reframing the usual suspects. For the often overstimulated and overwhelmed, this can be freeing.
At mealtime, it means paying due attention to one of the most common yet underestimated ingredients of everyday cooking: onions. Not spring’s precious bunching onions with their grass-green tops, or even the sweet specialty onions of summer. I mean plain, round storage onions, the ones we rarely think about – until there’s a crisis because they’re not in the house.
Elizabeth Robins Pennell, an American who wrote about food in 19th- and early-20th-century London, spared no drama when praising the onion’s essential nature. “Banish it from the kitchen, and all pleasure of eating flies with it,” she wrote in an essay called “The Incomparable Onion.” “Its presence lends color and enchantment to the most modest dish; its absence reduces the rarest dainty to hopeless insipidity, and the diner to despair.”
Onions are both foundation and finishing touch, so common to our cooking habits that to leave them out must be deliberate. Yet despite this reliance, how often do we summon the onion for its own sake?
Not often enough, and perhaps that’s because we tend to undervalue anything we have perennial access to, anything dependable and ubiquitous. Winter, with so few fleeting distractions outselling this humble vegetable’s charms, is my annual cue to yield more space to them on the plate.
Sometimes that means rummaging through my pantry and old notes to scavenge for ideas I never seem to have time for in spring, summer or fall. Other times it means letting the onion speak for itself. When I need a nudge in that direction, I turn to cooks such as the late food writer Richard Olney who remind me that simplicity and restraint can be as compelling as the glitz of novelty and complex orchestration. Olney’s selection of onion dishes in his book “Simple French Food” reads like a study: onions baked into a delicate pudding; onions layered in a brothy, cheesy panade; onions bathed in cream in a gratin; onions glazed with vinegar and rolled into an omelet (which he classifies as an “attractively vulgar presentation”); onions braised in beer.
Each of those treatments is a meditation on the onion’s possibilities: gently stewed until mild and sweet; caramelized to jammy, bittersweet depths; simmered long and slow until silken and creamy; sauteed and lashed with acid, still racy and willfully bright.
One maxim worth repeating is that you should always, when cutting onions (or any other vegetable, for that matter), use a sharp knife. A dull one will bruise the flesh, which leads to ragged slices that are prone to stick to a pan’s surface.
Likewise, avoid nonstick cookware when cooking onions; it discourages proper (and delicious!) coloring.
These recipes also employ two cutting techniques. One applies the knife across the grain, to produce the familiar onion ring shape. Slices like these will break down more quickly, so I’ve called for this approach in the soup, where the onions will help thicken and sweeten at the same time.
Cutting onions with the grain, from end to end, produces crescent-shaped slices. Incidentally, onions are also less pungent when sliced this way, so I call for this slice in the beet salad, as well as in the pasta dish, where they stand up a bit better to the higher cooking temperature.
When you begin to cook, take a moment to linger on the onion’s fragrance, the way it fills up the room with warmth. As Elizabeth Robins Pennell wrote, with reference to a Stevenson poem: ” ‘Rose among roots,’ its very name revives memories of pleasant feasting; its fragrance is rich forecast of delights to come.”
When those delights are in winter, all the better.
BEETS AND ONION IN UME VINEGAR DRESSING
Makes 4 to 6 servings (about 2½ cups)
Once the beets are roasted, this earthy, tangy salad comes together quickly. Leftovers will hold up well in the refrigerator, although the salad’s bright flavor will give way to an earthier, more mellow profile after a few days.
Unhulled sesame seeds will add a bit more crunch than their typical hulled counterparts. Find them at natural foods stores.
Ume vinegar can be found in the Asian section of Whole Foods Markets and at Asian grocery stores.
The salad, without the sesame seeds, can be made and refrigerated up to 4 days in advance. Bring it to room temperature before serving.
12 ounces small to medium red beets (about the size of a golf ball, preferably all the same size)
1 small red onion
2 tablespoons ume (umeboshi, or plum) vinegar (see headnote)
1 teaspoon sesame seeds, preferably raw/unhulled (see headnote)
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Trim the beets’ root ends. Wrap each beet in just enough aluminum foil to cover with one layer. Place directly on the middle oven rack and roast for 45 minutes to 1 hour or just until tender. (Smaller beets may take less time to cook; larger beets will take longer.) The beets are ready when they are easy to pierce with the tip of a sharp knife. Let cool, which may take up to an hour.
Unwrap the beets; loosen and discard their skins under cool running water. If the beets are small, cut them into small wedges. If they are medium-sized, cut them into 1-inch cubes. Transfer the beets to a mixing bowl.
Cut the onion in half from top to bottom. Cut each half lengthwise into thin slices. Transfer the onion to the bowl with the beets. Add the ume vinegar to the bowl, toss well and let sit for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, toast the sesame seeds in a small skillet over medium heat for a few minutes, tossing occasionally, until they darken a shade and smell fragrant. Let cool.
Whisk together the lemon juice and the oil in a large liquid measuring cup until emulsified, then pour over the beets and onions, tossing to coat.
To serve, spoon onto plates and sprinkle the sesame seeds over each portion.
ONION SOUP WITH PORCINI AND THYME
Makes 4 servings
This soup gets its earthy flavor from a handful of dried porcini mushrooms. To balance the sweetness of the onions, be sure to use a good baguette or sourdough loaf for the toast. Anything too dense or grainy will contribute a sodden texture and a too-sweet overall flavor.
The soup can be refrigerated in an airtight container up to 4 days in advance. Reheat on the stove top while you toast the bread, just before serving.
4½ cups water, 2 cups’ worth brought to a boil
½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1½ pounds yellow onions
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
1 cup dry white wine
¼ teaspoon fresh-cracked black pepper, or more as needed
8 baguette slices or 4 slices sourdough bread, cut ¾-inch thick
Pour the 2 cups of boiling water over the dried mushrooms in a bowl; let soak for about 20 minutes while you cook the onions.
Cut the onions in half, top to bottom. Cut each half crosswise into thin half-moon slices.
Heat a wide, heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add the oil and swirl to coat, then stir in the onions and ½ teaspoon of the salt. Cook for about 30 minutes, stirring a few times, until the onions begin to break down somewhat but are not falling apart. Reduce the heat as needed to keep the onions from sticking or browning excessively; they should remain a pale golden color.
Stir in the garlic and thyme; cook for 5 minutes, then add the wine. Increase the heat to medium-high and cook for 5 minutes or until the wine has reduced by about half.
Place a fine-mesh strainer over the pot; pour in the mushrooms and their soaking liquid, reserving the rehydrated mushrooms. Add the remaining 2½ cups of water; once the liquids in the pot start to bubble at the edges, partially cover and cook for 10 minutes.
Chop the rehydrated mushrooms into small pieces. Add them to the pot along with the pepper and the remaining ½ teaspoon of salt. Partially cover and cook for another 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven (or a toaster oven) to 400 degrees.
Toast the bread until crisped and barely golden. Place the slices in the bottom of individual soup bowls. Ladle the soup over the toast; serve hot.
ONIONS STUFFED WITH HERBS AND CHEESE
Makes 6 servings
Onions are both vessel and filling in this pretty herb-and-cheese-stuffed vegetarian main dish. Use a variety of onions – red, white, yellow – for a colorful spread.
For a vegan version, omit the cheese.
The onions can be hollowed out and stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. The stuffed, baked onions can be reheated in a 400-degree oven for 35 minutes; tent loosely with aluminum foil for the first 25 minutes, then remove the foil for the last 10.
6 large onions, weighing about 12 ounces each (see headnote)
5 ounces day-old bread, cut into 1-inch slices
4 cups no-salt-added vegetable broth, half of it heated to a boil
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 cloves garlic, smashed and then finely chopped
¼ cup chopped fresh herbs (a combination of parsley, marjoram, thyme, celery leaves and/or oregano)
2 ounces fontina cheese, grated on the medium-size holes of a grater
1 ounce Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated on the small holes of a grater
¼ teaspoon cracked black pepper
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Cut about ½ inch off the top of each onion and reserve for another use, if desired. Cut a very small slice from the bottom so the onion will stand upright. Use a melon baller or grapefruit spoon to scoop out the inside of each onion, leaving a shell that’s about two layers thick. Chop enough of the onion pulp to equal 1½ cups, which you’ll need for this recipe. Reserve any excess for another use.
Arrange the bread in a double layer in a shallow dish. Pour the 2 cups of boiling broth over; allow the bread to soak for 10 minutes.
Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Add all but 2 teaspoons of the oil and swirl to coat, then add the chopped onion and salt; cook for 7 or 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent, with a bit of color. Stir in the garlic; cook for 3 minutes, then add the herbs and cook for 1 minute. Turn off the heat.
Squeeze the bread gently with your hands. It should be moist but not dripping. Working over a medium bowl, tear the bread into small pieces. Scrape the onion mixture into the bowl with the bread, then add the cheeses and pepper. Mix gently, then spoon the stuffing into each onion cavity, mounding it slightly.
Arrange the onions in a deep baking dish just large enough to hold them, and drizzle the tops with the remaining 2 teaspoons of oil. Pour the remaining 2 cups of broth in the bottom of the baking dish, and tent the dish with foil.
Bake (middle rack) for 45 minutes, then remove the foil. Baste the tops of the onions with the liquid in the baking dish, and continue to bake for another 30 minutes, until the tops are browned.