Is any ingredient more hardworking, yet humble, than the onion?
The part you eat grows in the ground, surrounded by dirt and worms. Once cleaned and peeled, it dresses up nicely and is used in an endless assortment of dishes.
Usually, it acts as a small part of a whole, just one flavor singing in the chorus. Because it can have such a sharp taste, it frequently is used in fairly small amounts and appears on the palate as an undertone, a bit of an earthy note to help underscore the more prominently featured ingredients.
But what happens when onions are made the main focus of a dish? When this root, long buried underground, is turned around and given a chance to shine in the sun?
One of the best ways to bring the true onionness of onions is to slice them thin and cook them in butter for a long time, at least 45 minutes. That allows the sugar in the onions to caramelize, giving them a sweet, nutty, mellow flavor.
But there is a problem, as anyone knows who has tried to slice onions: Yes, they taste wonderful, but making them can literally bring tears to your eyes. Shawn Thomas, a cook at the Glendale Garden Cafe in Toledo, Ohio, had a possible solution: When he slices onions, he freezes them first for 10 to 15 minutes to cut down on the eye-irritating juice spraying into the air.
"This may be an old wives' tale or the placebo effect, but it seems to work for me, at least a little," he said.
Thomas said it is important to use a sharp knife when slicing onions. Onions aren't hard to cut, but they aren't easy, either, and knives can slip if they aren't sharp, he said. And a sharp knife makes it easy to create slices that are consistent in size — if the slices are the same width, they will all caramelize at the same rate.
When pondering the best ways to use sliced, caramelized onions, I immediately thought of onion soup. Then again, much of my time is spent thinking of onion soup, so that really wasn't much of a surprise.
I have seen recipes for French onion soup that call for the onions to caramelize at very low heat for up to 10 hours at a time. But I decided that wasn't worth the effort, so I turned instead to a recipe that is more likely to be cooked by real people. In this version, the onions cook for only 45 minutes before you add the broth. Yet the soup has a marvelously rich taste, the result of both the caramelization and all the butter that they caramelize in. It's an unbeatable combination.
Of course, I placed a toasted round of bread on top of the soup, covered it with cheese, and stuck it under the broiler until the cheese was bubbling and just starting to turn brown. For many people, onion soup is just an excuse to eat melted cheese on bread, but in this version, the soup can stand on its own. But why would it want to when you can cover it with cheese?
Spurred on by my success, I decided to make a variation on French onion soup, this one from the province of Alsace. The fundamentals of this soup are the same, including the relatively brief time for caramelization, but it has a couple of fascinating additions. Apples go into this soup — apples are always a good combination with onions — and also a hearty dash of sherry. The melted cheese on top is different, too, Muenster instead of Gruyere, because Muenster goes with apples even better than onions do.
And then I thought, "What the heck? Why not make a third onion soup?" So I found a recipe for a beer-and-onion soup that calls for using a stout or a porter. It also requires a varying amount of sugar to counteract the bitterness of the beer. The stout I used was a little more bitter than I bargained for, and I didn't add enough sugar. Frankly, I was a bit disappointed.
However, by the next day the flavors had mellowed and the bitterness had disappeared. Overnight, the beer-and-onion soup became a star. There are a couple of lessons to be learned from this experience. One is the importance of patience. The other is that with this soup you should always be sure to use enough sugar to correct for the bitterness so you don't have to be patient.
One of my most-loved uses for onion is unlikely: on top of spaghetti. Once again, caramelization is the key. The sweetness of the red onions blends with the mellow tomatoes to make a marvelously expressive sauce. The sauce is so robustly rich that it should be used sparingly. A little bit of this topping goes a long way.
And finally, I decided on a slightly more ambitious take on everybody's favorite onion application: sliced atop a hamburger. If onions taste great on hamburgers, and onions taste great with beer, then onions braised in beer must be spectacular.
(To be completely honest, I first saw the recipe for hamburgers topped with beer-braised onions in a cookbook from the famous Berghoff Restaurant in Chicago. If it's good enough for the Berghoff, it's certainly good enough for me).
I served the braised onions just plain, on top of a burger. The Berghoff serves them with a slice of cheese, bacon and barbecue sauce, plus lettuce and tomato. That doesn't exactly make the onions the main focal point of the dish, but it sure doesn't sound bad.