Peeling The Onion
Peeling the onion is used as a metaphor for the layers of meaning, personality or complexity in life, the phrase invites a deeper look, beyond the papery skin, for answers. We usually think little of onions per se, they are just one of the building blocks, albeit very important aromatic ones, in cooking all manner of things from soups to stews, but onions are as diverse as people; sweet, tender, small, large, firm, sharp, pungent, flat, round, oval…. While the bedrock of a lot of cooking, onions can also be the star ingredient. A French onion soup, thick with strands of caramelised onion, poured over toasted sourdough bread and topped with melted cheese comes to mind. What a winter’s delight. Pissaladière, also from France, is a wonderful onion, anchovy and black olive pizza and in the same vein there is the famous Flammkuchen from Alsace, a pizza with onion, creme fraiche and Kaiserfleisch. From Morocco, a tagine of chicken and shallot or rather shallot and chicken is meltingly soft with more that half the bulk of the tagine given over to whole shallots, made extra sweet and luscious with the addition of honey. In Italy you can buy whole roasted onions in their skins at some specialty grocers. Peeling those onions reveals tender cooked layers ready to use; a great idea for Italians that don’t have a back yard complete with wood-fired pizza oven.
The onion can star in its raw state. I’m a great fan of the salad onion, purple or white, sold in bunches of 5 or more depending on size. Shaved into salads they are not astringent, just a pleasant bitey addition to a fennel and orange salad, a Greek salad or any other combination you desire. Tiny versions of bunch salad onions are perfect smothered in olive oil, wrapped in foil and roasted in the oven or on the barbecue until soft but still holding their shape. Dressed in olive oil, red wine vinegar and herbs these little morsels are a wonderful addition to a spread of grilled vegetables and dips. The multi layer architecture of the onion is perfect for hollowing out the centre, stuffing and slowly roasting in the oven. Stuff them with whatever you like but you can’t go wrong with herbs, breadcrumbs, chopped tomato and one anchovy rolled up in the centre and drizzled with olive oil. They will be delicious warm or days later served cold with grilled meats. A caramelised onion tart flavoured with a touch of grated nutmeg puts the beauty of the humble onion at the centre of the summer luncheon plate. There is a lot you can do when all you have on hand is a lonely onion, a packet of pasta and a few basic pantry items. Don’t despair, just crank up the Pavarotti, pour a glass of wine and start peeling the onion.