It’s been said many times before, but here it is again – there are few famous dishes from across the world that don’t start off with chopping or slicing onions. I challenge my readers to suggest any other vegetable that can claim this status.
When too did you last see a French onion seller on his bicycle? The ‘Onion Johnnies’ from Brittany are a tradition that dates back into the 19th century. Mine was on Pimlico Green outside the now defunct, once fabulous, Bouchèrie Lamartine in the 80s.
This said, so much twaddle is written about preparing onions -one of the worst for anyone following recipes, is when one’s told to sweat the onion ‘for 5 minutes or so, until it’s golden brown’. Sweating onions takes 30 minutes or more. Much depends on the quality of the onions, as it does on the skill of the cook.
Chop or slice them as you wish, add them to the pan already hot with EV olive oil, oil & butter or even goose / duck fat. Cook gently on medium heat, stirring from time to time to ensure they neither stick nor catch. The trick is to start with a lid on the pan for for first 10 minutes; then lid off for 5; lid back on for 5 and so on until they are perfectly softened and ready for use. To caramelise, cook on for a further 10-15 minutes.
The Les Halles classic Soupe à l’Oignon is just this process – sliced onions cooked down until they naturally caramelise – water or stock added and cooked on for a further 15-20 minutes. In caramelising, before adding the liquid, please don’t move away from the pan because this is where they can catch in an instant. To serve, on goes its ‘lid’ of bread topped with as much Grûyère (or other rich mountain cheese like Abondance or Comté) as a) you can afford and b) fits on the bread – the (a) will beat the (b) everytime in England.
Chopping and slicing has its technique too. I like to cut the onion, skin on, into quarters – peel the skin off but reserving the root. Then slice either across or downwards, depending on the desired shape. To finely dice, cut along through to the root and then back lengthways from the root end – lastly cut across into the size of dice you want. Joy will do this with far more élan, as she starts with the half onion, skin off / root on – then slices first horizontally and then downwards.
Remember I already posted about how onions will blunt your knife – and a blunted knife is a dangerous tool in the kitchen.
Go for onions that are shiny and firm – best to select your own rather buy in a pre-pack where so often the packers always seem to fit in one rotten one. Onions vary greatly in strength - English are generally stronger than Spanish, Italian white skinned onions are sweeter than both. Red onions I can’t abide.
Rosé pink onions from Roscoff (Brittany) are amongst the best – AOC status since 2009 – but have a short season and are a rare treat to find outside of a French market or hypermarket. There’s even a festival in Roscoff to celebrate their precious L’Oignon Rosé – check on www.frenchduck.com or other French tourism sites for details and dates. These, or other quality onions, are splendid in the Alsace classic Onion Tart – Tarte à Zewelwaï – essentially a Quiche Lorraine where the onions dominate.
Onions, slow roasted whole in their skins, are also a forgotten treat when served with roasted beef, veal, pork and, most specially, duck.
Remember that English onions in the shops now have been stored since last summer – better to look for fresher imported ones. Also, if you have onions which sprout, you should honour that. The Chinese deliberately sprout onions to use them as new growth from the old in their cooking The green shoots certainly carry energy as well as flavour.
The wonder of shallots and spring onions (scallions) we’ll leave for another post. Shallots, I couldn’t live without.
Salut Monsieur Onion Johnny from Roscoff and surrounds.Wish you’d get back on yer bike and come back to London.