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Peeling back the mystery of onions

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                                It may be hard to imagine, but onion is the featured ingredient in these custards with balsamic strawberries.

    ST. LOUIS POST DISPATCH

    It may be hard to imagine, but onion is the featured ingredient in these custards with balsamic strawberries.

Onions are the supporting players in a dish — important as a flavoring, but used only to make the star attraction taste better. When served a plate of carbonnades a la flamande, no one ever says, “the beef was good, but those onions were really spectacular.”

But the time has come to give the humble onion its due. To bring it to the fore. To peel back the layers, so to speak, of what makes them so good. This handful of dishes brings the onion out front and center and put it in the spotlight.

JAMES BEARD’S ONION SANDWICHES

I started with the simplest and most straightforward of all onion entrees, an onion sandwich. I found the recipe in a cookbook by Jacques Pepin — his re-creation of a favorite dish he was served by James Beard.

Those are two of the greatest food minds of the last 80 years. If they like onion sandwiches — nothing more than thin slices of sweet onion on white bread spread with a mixture of mayonnaise and mustard — then I, for one, am going to try them.

The sweet onions are mild enough to be eaten raw, in small doses. And the combination of mayonnaise and mustard is the smooth and lightly spicy counterpoint the onion needs.

From “Essential Pepin” by Jacques Pepin

8 thin slices firm white bread

6 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

4 (1/8-inch-thick) slices sweet onion, such as Vidalia or Walla Walla, about 3-1/2 inches in diameter

1/4 cup minced fresh chives

Using a glass, cocktail shaker or a round cutter, cut 8 circles as large as possible out of the slices of bread.

Mix mayonnaise and mustard together. Spread each bread circle with 2 teaspoons of the mustard-mayo mix. Place a slice of onion on 4 of the bread rounds (it should cover them to the edges). Top with remaining bread circles. Press lightly to make them adhere.

Spread some of the remaining mayonnaise-mustard on the outside edges of each sandwich (this is easiest if you are holding them in your hand). Roll edges in chives until coated. Press lightly to make chives adhere, and serve. Serves 4.

Approximate nutritional information, per serving: 301 calories, 18 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 9 mg cholesterol, 6 g protein, 29 g carbohydrate, 4 g sugar, 2 g fiber, 513 mg sodium, 89 mg calcium

CARAMELIZED ONION TART

This tart takes full advantage of caramelization, an easy but fairly slow process that brings out all of an onion’s rich, golden sweetness, achieved here by cooking them over low heat for about a half-hour. The classic French way to make this tart is with anchovies. If you don’t enjoy them, the tart is still perfectly good without them.

Adapted from “Knives Cooks Love” by Sarah Jay

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound yellow onions, cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch slices

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1-1/4 teaspoons fresh rosemary, divided

1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed

8 pitted Kalamata olives, halved

4 to 6 anchovy fillets, optional

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment.

Heat oil in large skillet over medium. Add onions and salt; cook, stirring often and adjusting heat as needed, until onions are caramelized, about 35 minutes; they should be a golden shade of tan. If onions are sticking, add a little water.

Add 1 teaspoon rosemary and season with salt. Transfer to a plate and let cool to lukewarm, at least 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare dough: Gently unfold puff pastry on a lightly floured surface. Pinch dough to mend any cracks. Roll out to an 11-inch square. Lift gently and set on prepared pan. Prick with fork in several places (but not rim). Refrigerate until ready to assemble.

Distribute onions evenly over dough (tuck in any strands that extend beyond the square, or they will burn). Arrange olives evenly on top. If using, lay anchovies between olives. Bake until crust is golden on top and underneath all the way to the center (lift it up to check), 20 to 25 minutes.

Transfer to a cutting board and sprinkle with remaining rosemary. Serve warm. Serves 8 (as an appetizer).

Approximate nutritional information, per serving: 264 calories, 18 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 12 mg cholesterol, 7 g protein, 20 g carbohydrate, 3 g sugar, 2 g fiber, 701 mg sodium, 59 mg calcium

MARINATED SLOW-ROASTED ONIONS

The simple marinade in this dish is red wine vinegar diluted with an equal amount of water and flavored with fresh rosemary. The onions are cut in half and allowed to soak in the marinade overnight before being roasted to bring out their natural sweetness. A bit of brown sugar in the marinade gives it a lightly sweet-and-sour tang, and the browned onion halves are also gorgeous.

It is the type of dish that could be served on a weeknight or for a big holiday dinner. It is so hearty and good that your family and friends won’t even stop to think that eating onions by themselves is unusual.

From keviniscooking.com

1 cup water

1 cup red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary, divided

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Pinch crushed red pepper, optional

4 large white or yellow onions

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter

In a small bowl, blend water, vinegar, brown sugar, 1 teaspoon rosemary, salt, pepper and red pepper, if using.

Cut onions in half horizontally and trim both ends, but leave skin on (it will help hold onions together as they roast).

Pour marinade into a baking dish large enough to hold all 8 onion halves, and place onions into dish, cut-side down. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Flip onions over in marinade so wide sides are facing up. Top each onion half with 1/2 tablespoon butter and sprinkle with remaining chopped rosemary.

Roast until golden brown, about 1 hour, basting with marinade once or twice.

Remove from heat and sprinkle with marinade. Remember to remove outer skins before serving. Serves 8.

Approximate nutritional information, per serving: 90 calories, 6 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 8 g carbohydrate, 8 g protein, 5 g sugar, 1 g fiber, 203 mg sodium, 19 mg calcium

ONION CUSTARD WITH BALSAMIC STRAWBERRIES

This recipe is based on an onion custard from Joel Robuchon, who was even more of a culinary light than Pepin and Beard. It sounded heavenly, and it was.

Though sweetened strawberries with balsamic vinegar are often served as a dessert, my unsweetened version is a savory option that could be a side dish at an elegant dinner. Watch your guests’ looks of curious surprise turn to total delight.

Adapted from onion custard recipe by Joel Robuchon in Food & Wine

1/2 cup chopped strawberries

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons butter

1 (1/2-pound) white onion, thinly sliced

1/4 cup chicken stock

1 large egg

1/2 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Pinch nutmeg, preferably freshly grated

Combine strawberries and vinegar in small bowl and let sit for an hour.

In a large skillet, combine butter with onion. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring often, until softened, about 15 minutes.

Transfer onion to blender. Add chicken stock and puree.

In a medium bowl, whisk egg, then whisk in milk and onion puree. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

Butter 4 custard cups or small ramekins. Pour in onion mixture and cover with plastic wrap.

Set a round rack in a large, wide pot. Add enough water to reach just under the rack without touching it; bring to a boil. Set cups or ramekins on rack. Cover and steam over low heat until custards are lightly set, 22 to 25 minutes.

Strain strawberries and divide among custard portions. Serves 4.

Approximate nutritional information, per serving: 113 calories, 8 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 63 mg cholesterol, 4 g protein, 8 g carbohydrate, 5 g sugar, 1 g fiber, 346 mg sodium, 61 mg calcium

CURRIED ONION SOUP

Curry powder, as it turns out, goes extremely well with onion soup. Fresh lime juice brings a nice, tart edge, and if the curry flavor is too strong or spicy, you can always temper it with a little cream.

No, that’s not just an excuse to add cream to soup, but yes, it also is. A little cream makes almost any soup taste better; it’s an old restaurant trick.

Adapted from “Soup: A Way of Life” by Barbara Kafka

2 tablespoons butter

2 teaspoons curry powder

4 large onions, cut into chunks

4 cups chicken stock

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 teaspoons salt

1/2 cup half-and-half, optional

In large pot, melt butter over medium- low heat. Stir in curry powder and cook, stirring, 2 minutes.

Stir in onions and cook, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes.

Pour in stock and bring to boil. Lower heat and simmer 10 minutes, until onions are very soft.

In a blender, working in batches of no more than 2 cups, puree soup until very smooth. Soup can be made up to this point and refrigerated.

Before serving, heat soup through. Remove from heat and whisk in lime juice, salt and, if using, half-and-half. Taste; add salt if needed. Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer.

Approximate nutritional information, per serving (based on 6 servings): 107 calories, 5 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 12 mg cholesterol, 4 g protein, 12 g carbohydrate, 6 g sugar, 2 g fiber, 1,112 mg sodium, 67 mg calcium

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