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  • Caramelized onions inject flavor, depth

  • Sometimes a fresh idea for a story takes off where a previous story ends. For me, it was my Ode to Croutons that brought me back in touch with one of my favorite ingredients: caramelized onions.
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  • Sometimes a fresh idea for a story takes off where a previous story ends. For me, it was my Ode to Croutons that brought me back in touch with one of my favorite ingredients: caramelized onions.
    It was during the making of French Onion Soup — with its crunchy-cheesy crouton floating atop a wine-laced beef broth teeming with caramelized onions — that I recalled why I loved this extraordinary treatment for onions. It's a culinary miracle that such a potent, raucous vegetable in its raw state is tamed into delectable submission when exposed to gentle heat and time on the burner.
    Any globe onion will work, even sweet onions. You'll notice that sweet onions produce a bit more liquid because of their high water content, but after the liquid cooks away, the high sugar content in the sweet onions makes the caramelizing process move along nicely.
    Once your pile of zesty onion slices has transformed into a savory sweet offering, you can keep it on hand for a multitude of purposes. Indeed, with a batch of caramelized onions in the refrigerator or freezer, injecting extra depth and sophisticated flavor into your everyday meal construction becomes easy:
    • Stir them into a batch of mashed potatoes or steamed rice
    • Layer them onto your deli sandwiches and burgers
    • Tuck them into a grilled cheese sandwich or panini prior to cooking
    • Drape them onto a freshly baked pizza (flavor combos that are particularly complementary to caramelized onions include Gorgonzola and Proscuitto; sausage, arugula and sundried tomatoes; goat cheese and fresh basil; crispy bacon bits and fresh diced tomatoes; ham, grilled potato and Jarlsburg cheese)
    • Add them to a batch of scrambled eggs
    • Toss them with pasta and just about any sauce, from a creamy Alfredo to a zesty tomato
    • Dress up your freshly grilled steaks, chicken, pork tenderloins and fish
    • Use them to make a quick sauce for roast chicken by combining with half a cup of homemade chicken broth and a generous splash of cream
    • After sauteeing a batch of green beans or broccoli, add the onions and heat through before serving
    • Smash a bit of blue cheese into them and serve as a tasty spread alongside a sliced baguette for a quick appetizer
    • Serve them alongside a plate of charcuterie and cheese
    • Layer them over the bottom of a pie crust then follow any basic quiche recipe
    Making 3 to 4 cups of caramelized onions requires patience on your part. It can't be rushed. Keep the temperature medium-low to low so the sugars in the onions have a chance to caramelize rather than burn. Don't feel this means you need to hover by the stove. Indeed, once the onions have softened and begun to brown, just check on them every 10 minutes and give them a gentle stir with the flat side of a spatula to scrape up all the cooked-on bits of onion that are building on the bottom of the pot. This is where a ton of flavor is lurking, and it's important to incorporate it back into the onions during the process.
    To make them, combine 4 tablespoons of butter with about 6 medium yellow onions, peeled, quartered root to tip, then sliced very thin. Add salt and ground white pepper, to taste.
    Place the butter and onions in a large, wide, deep, heavy-bottomed pot, over medium heat. As the butter melts, toss the onions to coat them with the butter. Keep tossing them every few minutes until they are wilted and well coated with the butter. Reduce the heat to medium-low and keep cooking, tossing every now and then to keep them evenly heated, until soft and very, very brown.
    As the onions take on more and more color, turn the temperature down to low. The process will take a very long time if you're doing it right, and varies, depending on the onions you are using (onions have varying degrees of moisture and sugar content, which affects the caramelization).
    Some will caramelize in only 90 minutes, others will take up to 2 hours. What you are looking for is a very deep mahogany color.
    The onions can be refrigerated for up to 10 days, or frozen for up to six months.
    To prepare them for the freezer, arrange patty-sized mounds on a parchment-lined baking sheet and freeze until firm; pack into recloseable freezer bags.
    Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a cookbook author and columnist in Corvallis. Reach her at janrd@proaxis.com.
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