“An honest laborious Country-man, with good Bread, Salt and a little Parsley, will make a contented Meal with a roasted Onion.”
—John Evelyn (17th Century English diarist)
©2014 Chris Terrell
One of the best uses for onions:
French onion soup
I have a large basket in my kitchen where I keep produce and bread. This basket invariably contains one or two onions, a few garlic cloves or shallots, and perhaps occasionally some leeks. And while the fridge and panty may be a bit low on provisions, these few items are enough to make a contented meal indeed.
Onions, garlic, shallots, and leeks are all part of the allium genus and have been on our plates and in our bowls for a long time. The onion originated in northern Asia and Palestine and has been cultivated for more than five thousand years.
Onions range in flavor from sweet to pungent, but in either form they enhance the flavor of almost any dish. The same is no less true about garlic. Without it, Italian and French food would not be the same. Shallots’ sweetness and subtle flavor gives food an onion flavor without the harshness of an onion. Thus, they can be served raw and diced in a mustard vinaigrette. But . . . leeks? Where to begin! With their full and rich flavor, they stand on their own as a dish, such as the iconic French dish, poireaux vinaigrette (more on that below).
Unless you’ve been using your microwave to eat Hot Pockets your entire life and have never even owned another piece of kitchen equipment, then you have probably experienced burning tears when cutting an onion or even a shallot. What’s that all about? It’s basic chemistry.
When you cut an onion, you break millions of tiny cells, which causes an enzyme to freely mix with sulfenic acids to produce some crazy thing called propanethiol S-oxide, a volatile sulfuric gas that wafts up into your eyes. (Yes, I know this sounds like some kind of 1950s horror movie!) The gas then reacts with the water in your tears and forms sulfuric acid. The sulfuric acid burns, stimulating your eyes to release more tears to wash the irritant away. Thankfully, cooking onions inactivates the enzyme. Otherwise, we wouldn’t eat them!
Unless you want to wear safety goggles, there’s not much you can do to prevent the tears. I have actually tried swimming googles but then couldn’t see what I was doing. I decided that I would gladly trade a few tears for a few stitches on my index finger! I’ve also read that running a fan or cutting the onions under running water works. Again, sharp knife, wet slippery onions—not a good plan. And here’s the strangest one of all: take a match, light it, then blow it out, and then hold said smoldering match between your teeth as you cut the onion. This one doesn’t work either—I’ve tried it too! But all those tears are worth the price—a culinary road to Canossa if you will—whose reward is the sweet smell of onions slowly caramelizing into a rich golden brown on the stove.
Here are two of my favorite recipes involving the genus allium, one from Julia Child and her classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and one from David Lebovitz’s, My French Kitchen. Bon appetite and feel free to cry!
Julia Child’s Onion Soup
The onions for an onion soup need a long, slow cooking in butter and oil, then a long, slow simmering in stock for them to develop the deep, rich flavor which characterizes a perfect brew. You should therefore count on 2 1/2 hours at least from start to finish. Though the preliminary cooking in butter requires some watching, the actual simmering can proceed almost unattended.
For 6 to 8 servings
1 1/2 lbs. or about 5 cups of thinly sliced yellow onions
3 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon oil
A heavy-bottomed, 4 quart covered saucepan
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar (helps the onions to brown)
2 quarts of boiling brown stock, canned beef bouillon, or 1 quart of boiling water and 1 quart of stock or bouillon
1/2 cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth
3 tablespoon cognac [In my opinion, optional]
Rounds of hard-toasted French bread [You can also use stale, day-old French bread]
1 to 2 cups grated Swiss or Parmesan cheese [I always use Gruyere!]
Salt and pepper to taste
Cook the onions slowly with the butter and oil in the covered saucepan for 15 mins.
Uncover, raise heat to moderate, and stir in the salt and sugar. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes stirring frequently, until the onions have turned an even, deep, golden brown.
Sprinkle in the flour and stir for 3 minutes.
Off heat, blend in the boiling liquid. Add the wine, and season to taste. Simmer partially covered for 30 to 40 minutes or more, skimming occasionally. Correct seasoning. Set aside uncovered until ready to serve. Then reheat to the simmer.
Just before serving, stir in the cognac. Pour into a soup tureen or soup cups over the rounds of and pass the cheese separately. [Now this is where I part ways with Ms. Child, I slice the Gruyere and heap it on top of the individual soup bowls and place under the broiler until melted and browned.]
David Lebovitz’s Poireaux Vinaigrette À La Moutarde et Aux Lardons
(Leeks with mustard-bacon vinaigrette)
Traditionally the leeks were cooked in a big pot of boiling water. However, it’s better to steam them, which prevents them from getting waterlogged. Smaller leeks, which appear in the springtime…are preferable for this dish because they’re quite tender, although larger leeks are just fine, too. Just make sure that you clean the leeks very well…, and cook them until they’re completely soft all the way through.
[According to Mr. Leibovitz, it is imperative that, if you are serving these to any Parisian friends you may have, the leeks be arranged tête a queue (head to tail).]
2 cups (200g) thick-cut smoked bacon cut into lardons
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
1 tablspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
3 tablespoons neutral-tasting vegetable oil [I prefer Canola.]
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
5 large or 10 small leeks, well cleaned
2 hard-cooked eggs
To make the vinaigrette, cook the bacon over medium heat in a skillet until nearly crisp. Transfer the bacon to a paper towel to drain. When cool, chop the bacon into pieces about the size of tine peas.
Whisk together the vinegar, mustard, and salt. Whisk in the oils, 1 tablespoon at a time (the sauce may emulsify, which is fine), then stir in 1 tablespoon of the parsley and two-thirds of the bacon. Set aside.
To prepare the leeks, fill a large pot fitted with a steamer with a couple of inches of water. Bring it to a boil over high heat and add the leeks. Cook the leeks until tender; when you poke them with a sharp paring knife, it should meet no resistance at the root ends. (Smaller leeks willtake about 15 minutes, and larger ones will take about 30 minutes.)
Remove the leeks and let drain and cool on a plate lined with paper towels. Cut the leeks in half crosswise, and arrange on a serving platter, alternating them head to tail.
Peel and dice the hard-cooked eggs and scatter them over the leeks. Pour the vinaigrette over the leeks and toss them and the pieces of egg in the dressing so they’re thoroughly coated, then scatter over the remaining bacon pieces and parsley.