Know your onions: tear-free dishes that will make your mouth water
Onions are unsung heroes of the kitchen – always available, always needed, always delicious
Onion and parsley salad. Photograph: Emma Jervis
Onions are the unsung heroes of our kitchens and cooking. They are taken for granted and very seldom given centre stage. They are always available and needed in most of our savoury dishes.
Onions are also known as alliums (Greek word for garlic) along with leeks, spring onions (scallions, Welsh onions or bunch onions). They can be yellow, white, red or purple. We can get them fresh – also known as sweet, with a milder taste – but we mainly get them dried.
As they dry the flavour gets stronger and the outer layers turn brown and paper-like and act as a protector. The flavour of an onion depends on the sulphate content of the soil it’s grown in.
As we cut into an onion we release the sulphate into the air which causes the production of tears, but thankfully it is quickly subdued by cooking. After years of chopping I find that cold onions and a sharp knife is the only answer, besides having staff to do it.
During the cooking process the acid is converted into the sweetest liquid which will be very obvious to you as you cook the onions for the soup and/or tart which follows.
Onions are a great source of vitamins, minerals and folic acid, and have been used to reduce blood pressure, especially when eaten raw, as in the the salad below. They are boiled and the water drank to kill throat infections and even put in socks overnight with the belief that they draw out impurities during a fever.
Onions, like garlic, need to be prepared just before cooking as they tend to dry out and lose their flavour very quickly. I would suggest that if you are slicing onions for the onion soup or tart, to double your onion quantity and make both dishes together or an onion marmalade to have in the fridge.
Or skip all the chopping and bake the onions whole with their skins on in a medium oven, just like you would a baked potato. This way you are keeping all the sweet goodness inside and no tears to deal with. Serve them with some buttery mash potato and a green salad and they will shine.
Alsace onion tart
Another great tart, and I love it for it’s simplicity and richness. I haven’t been to Alsace yet but I know I will have to up the miles when I do.
275g plain flour
1 tsp salt
1 large pinch of sugar
175g butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
120ml cold water
1.5kg onions, finely sliced
6 egg yolks
A few gratings of nutmeg
Salt and pepper
First make the pastry by mixing the flour, salt and sugar together, then rub in the 175g butter and finally bring together with the water, making sure you add just what is needed. Allow the pastry to rest for 20 minutes and then roll out into a loose-bottomed tart tin and bake blind and allow to cool.
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan and add the onions and season well with salt and pepper.
Cook the onions over a medium heat until they start to cook down and release their liquid, mixing as you go.
When the onions are soft, place a lid on the saucepan and turn the heat down and continue to cook for at least 20 minutes until the mixture starts to resemble a jam.
Remove the lid and increase the heat to remove any liquid.
In the meantime, make the custard by beating the eggs and adding the cream. Season with salt, pepper and the nutmeg.
When the onions are cool add to the custard and mix well. Pour into the baked tart case and bake in the preheated oven for roughly 15 to 20 minutes or until set.
Onion and Cider Soup
This is my Irish version of French onion soup. I decided to adapt the recipe when I moved back to Ireland and use what was available to me: cheese from Gubbeen and cider from Con Trass’s apple farm. A roaring fire and a glass of red wine on a winter’s night doesn’t ask for anything more.
1.5 kg onions, sliced very thinly
Salt and pepper
250 ml cider
1.2 litres chicken or pork stock
Leaves from 3 sprigs fresh thyme
8 slices bread toasted
8 slices smoked Gubbeen cheese
Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, add the onions and season very well. Sauté them gently, turning them around in the butter, until they start to soften, about 5 minutes. Cover with a lid and sweat the onions until they are very soft and starting to caramelise. This can take up to 50 minutes. You might need to add a splash of water every so often and turn the onions over in the buttery juices.
Take the lid off and turn the heat up to medium so that the juices can evaporate and the onions caramelise.
When the onions are dark, add the cider, stock and thyme and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10 minutes.
Note: The soup can be made to this stage, cooled and stored until needed. Then bring back to the boil and finish off as below.
Ladle the soup into bowls, put a toast on top of each bowl of soup. Lay the slices of cheese on top and heat under the grill until golden and bubbling.
Allow to cool a little before serving.
Braised Stuffed White Onion
This dish is a real surprise, so simple and full of flavour from simple ingredients. Use the remaining onion water in a soup or just to have as a hot drink.
4 large white onions, peeled
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and halved
1 tin of tomatoes
50ml olive oil
2 cloves of garlic
300g cooked rice
Salt and pepper
50ml (2 tbsp) olive oil
100g Parmesan, finely grated (you could use a mild cheddar if you have some in the fridge)
1 bunch of parsley, chopped
In a pan, put the onions with the bay leaf, thyme and garlic. Cover completely with water and bring to the boil. Simmer over a medium heat for about 1 hour, topping up with water as and when necessary until the onions are very soft.
In the meantime, make the tomato sauce. Empty the tin of tomatoes into a medium saucepan and bring to the boil. Add salt and pepper to taste and then add in 50ml of olive oil and allow to simmer for at least 10 minutes on a medium heat, as the oil will cook the tomatoes. Finally, crush in the garlic and mix well.
In a bowl mix the rice, 50ml olive oil, half the grated Parmesan and half the chopped parsley, and season to taste.
Once the onions are cooked, remove them from the water (keep this) and let them cool. When able to handle them, cut each onion in half and remove the centres and stuff the outer rings with the rice mixture.
Chop up the onion centres and add to the tomato sauce.
Take an ovenproof dish and pour the tomato sauce and 2 ladles of the onion water into the bottom of the dish and gently place the stuffed onion halves on top.
Heat your grill to its highest setting. Sprinkle the remaining parsley over the top of the onions first, followed by the remaining Parmesan, and place under the grill until the dish is nicely glazed.
Serve as is with lightly dressed salad leaves and some boiled potatoes.
Onion and Parsley Salad
This is my fall-back salad when the kitchen is bare, and it’s always a winner. Ideal with any meats, especially grilled lamb or spicy dishes. I have been known to have a big bowlful with a chunk of cheese or a tin of sardines.
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
1 bunch coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Soak the onions in hot water for a couple of minutes if you find them too strong in flavour.
Drain and dry well by wrapping them in a towel. Transfer the onions to a mixing bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and mix together. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed.