Onion love: A Lambertville couple love onions so much they wrote a cookbook devoted entirely to them.

The onion -- that dime-a-dozen pantry staple, that pesky shedder of skin, that befouler of breath, that poisoner of eyes -- doesn’t get much love. Yet the humble allium family supplies the indispensable foundation for countless dishes across cultures and cuisines. Such is the premise of the new cookbook Onions Etcetera  (Burgess Lea Press, 2017) from Lambertville, N.J., couple Kate Winslow and Guy Ambrosino.

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Kate Winslow and Guy Ambrosino authored "Onions Etcetera: The Essential Allium Cookbook."

The inspiration came from a months-long stay in Sicily, said Winslow, a former Gourmet magazine editor who was there with her husband, a food photographer.

“We were working at a cooking school, and they almost exclusively used red tropea onions that were grown on the property. Just about every dish, from caponata on, started with red onion sauteed in olive oil,” Winslow says. “I grew to have a real soft spot for them because they’re just so pretty when you cut into them, and they bring a pop of color to every dish.”

Indeed, red onion even provides the color scheme for the book, whose pages are tipped with hot pink. But the book devotes sections to all the alliums -- sweet, white, green, spring, cippollini, pearl onions; and garlic, chives, scapes, ramps, leeks, and other pungent variants.

With such a universal and universally underrated subject matter, the challenge for the authors was to find a way to make an underdog vegetable the hero of the story. “We sat down and started listing all the traditional onion dishes -- everything from French onion soup to onion rings and leeks vinaigrette. We knew we couldn’t not put those dishes in the book,” Winslow says. “But when we reached out to people and started trawling for more ideas, what we realized is that onions are part of the most meaningful dishes people eat.”

Everything from sausage-stuffed onions to Japanese pickled scallions to chicken and egg soup to preserved eggplant with garlic was suggested, each with a story that demonstrated again and again that these allium dishes were among the most emotionally rich. The authors added  their own favorites, like an Ambrosino family recipe for fried water, a frugal soup made from onions, egg, and stale bread; Winslow’s Aunt Emma’s recipe for pierogi; and the exceptionally oniony potato latkes they have every year at a friend’s house in Brooklyn.

A theme started to emerge in these discussions with friends and family: The smell of cooking onions was, in itself, a gateway for memories to home and childhood, the culinary signifier of warmth and protection. “I think when people smell onions frying in butter or olive oil," she says, "they just feel safe and taken care of.”

Even for the most avid collectors, a single-ingredient-focused cookbook can seem like an indulgent use of shelf space, but this set of recipes, with its globe-trekking span and playful, bold flavors, is both essential and varied enough to invite return exploration. Onion fritters inspired by Indian bhaji, Cuban pork roast, Alsatian tarte flambé, and hrous (Tunisian onion-chili paste) show just how dependent the world is on these sharp, juicy bulbs. For the most part, they’re accessible and simple, too, though convincingly crisp and flaky Chinese scallion pancakes will persuade anyone who has been too intimidated to try making them at home that they're worth the effort.

Amid the more creative concoctions, there are no wacky extremes -- Winslow concedes that, though she considered adding onion desserts, she just “didn’t want to go there” -- but simply good ideas that build on the alliums’ best characteristics. Sweet onion and apple jam spiked with red chili flakes is the ideal accompaniment to roast turkey or pork or a secret weapon for a grilled cheese. A nonvegetarian riff on Yotam Ottolenghi’s tofu with black pepper, their black pepper chicken skewers are lacquered with a sweet soy sauce and tangle of tender shallot rings. Here and there are recipe nods to giants in the field, like Elizabeth David, Lauren Tourondel, and James Beard.

Of course, the cookbook also offers practical tips for selecting and working with onions and their cousins. When buying onions, look closely for musty or soft spots or gray specks on the skin. “In the grocery store, onions are often thrown into a bin and left there for a while. If you’re buying them in mesh bags, be sure to look them over carefully -- one little bit of rot can spread to the rest of the bunch quickly,” Winslow says. With scallions and leeks, the greens should be crisp and green, though often the outer layer can be removed if it’s looking wilty.

As for the tears, it comes down to the sulfuric acid in the onion. “Many onions can be used interchangeably, so if you’re really sensitive, using scallions can be a better alternative for your eyes, and they will work in just about any recipe you’d use white, yellow, or red onion.”

Although water and cold will minimize the sulfuric acid in onions, it’s not realistic or safe to try cutting onions under water, so Winslow recommends using fresher onions and the sharpest knife possible. For those whose vision requires contact lenses, keeping them in can help the cook stay dry-eyed. Winslow swears by rubbing her hands on a cut lemon after working with onions and before washing them with soap, which she says will take the scent away.

 As ramps, chives, and spring onions come into season, this time of year is always good for exploring the lesser-used alliums. “Sometimes, people forget that onions are actually seasonal, since they’re available all year round,” Winslow says. “And ramps and spring onions have just a short window, so it’s worth going to the farmers' market and experimenting.” Scapes, for instance, can work well in a pesto, and spring onions and ramps are delicious pickled or grilled.

Now on the other side of an intensive exploration of all things oniony, Winslow says she still encounters the occasional hater. “There are people who come up to us and say, ‘That’s so great you wrote this book, but my husband or kids will never eat garlic or onions.’ What I want to say is that they are all probably eating these things on a daily basis, whether they realize it or not.”

 

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Black Pepper Chicken Skewers

Makes 6 servings

Black pepper chicken skewers from "Onions Etcetera: The Essential Allium Cookbook," authored Kate Winslow and Guy Ambrosino. .Credit: Guy Ambrosino

INGREDIENTS

3 tablespoons black peppercorns

3 pounds skinless, boneless chicken thighs

Kosher salt

½ cup soy sauce

1 tablespoon honey

6 tablespoons butter

15 small shallots, thinly sliced

9 plump garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 to 2 fresh chilies, such as bird’s-eye, cayenne, serrano, or jalapeño, thinly sliced

4 scallions, thinly sliced

Steamed white rice for serving

1 lime, halved, plus lime wedges for serving

DIRECTIONS

  1. Using a spice grinder or mortar and pestle, coarsely grind the peppercorns. Cut the chicken into 1-inch chunks and thread evenly onto bamboo skewers (6-inch skewers fit easily inside a skillet). Season the chicken all over with salt and some of the pepper you just ground. Combine the soy sauce and honey and stir together until the honey has dissolved.
  2. Heat the butter in a large, heavy skillet over moderately high heat. When it foams, add the chicken skewers in batches and cook, turning occasionally, until browned all over, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer the skewers to a plate.
  3. Add the shallots, garlic, ginger, and chilies to the skillet, reduce the heat to moderate, and cook, stirring from time to time and scraping up any leftover chicken bits from the bottom of the pan, until the vegetables are softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the soy sauce and honey, as well as the remaining ground black pepper, and cook for about 1 minute.
  4. Return the chicken skewers to the skillet, along with any juices that have collected on the plate. Cook the chicken until it is cooked through and well-coated with the sticky sauce, about 3 minutes more. Remove from the heat. Squeeze the lime over the dish and scatter with the sliced scallions. Serve with white rice and lime wedges.

 

 

— From Onions Etcetera by Kate Winslow and Guy Ambrosino

Per serving: 634 calories; 29 grams protein; 82 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams sugar; 20 grams fat; 105 milligrams cholesterol; 802 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.


Scallion Sesame Pancakes

Makes 6 pancakes

INGREDIENTS

For the pancakes:

3 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting

Kosher salt

1½ cups boiling water

4 bunches scallions

3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil, or as needed

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

Peanut or vegetable oil, for frying

For the dipping sauce:

2 tablespoons black vinegar

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon sugar

1 plump garlic clove, finely chopped

DIRECTIONS

  1. To make the pancakes, place the flour and ½ teaspoon salt in the bowl of a food processor; pulse a few times to combine. With the processor running, drizzle in about 1¼ cups of the boiling water, then continue to process for 10 seconds more. If the dough has not come together, drizzle in more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until it does. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead a few times to form a smooth ball. Transfer to a bowl, cover with a clean, damp kitchen towel, and let rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes, or while you prepare the remaining ingredients. The dough may be refrigerated overnight.
  2. Trim off the white part of each scallion and reserve for another use. Slice the scallion greens very thinly. Measure out 1 tablespoon of the scallion greens to use in the dipping sauce and set the remainder aside. You should have about 2 cups.
  3. To make the dipping sauce, combine the vinegar, soy sauce, and sugar, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Stir in the garlic. Sprinkle the scallion greens over the sauce and set aside.
  4. To shape the pancakes, divide the dough into 6 even pieces and roll each between the palms of your hands into a smooth ball. Working with 1 ball of dough at a time (loosely cover the remaining dough with the damp towel) roll it out with a lightly floured rolling pin on a lightly floured work surface into an 8-inch disc. Using a pastry brush, brush a thin layer of sesame oil over the top of the dough. Roll the dough up like a jelly roll, then tightly roll it again like a snail’s shell, tucking the end underneath. Set the roll down on the work surface, spiral side up, and flatten gently with your hand. Reroll the dough into an 8-inch disc.
  5. Brush the top of the dough with another thin layer of sesame oil. Sprinkle about 1/3 cup scallions and ½ teaspoon sesame seeds evenly over the dough. Roll up again like a jelly roll and twist again into a tight spiral, tucking the end underneath. Flatten the spiral gently and roll into a 7-inch disc. Repeat these steps with the remaining balls of dough, sesame oil, scallions, and sesame seeds.
  6. Line a large plate with newspaper or clean paper bags. Heat about ¼ inch oil in a medium cast-iron or nonstick skillet over moderately high heat. When the oil shimmers, carefully slip 1 pancake into it. Cook, shaking the pan gently from time to time, until the underside is golden brown, 1½ to 2 minutes. Using tongs, carefully flip the pancake and continue to cook, again shaking the pan gently as needed, until the second side is golden brown, 1½ to 2 minutes more. Transfer to the lined plate to drain. Sprinkle the pancake with a pinch of salt and cut into 6 wedges. Serve immediately with the sauce for dipping while you cook the remaining pancakes in the same manner, adding a little more oil to the skillet as needed.

 

— From Onions Etcetera by Kate Winslow and Guy Ambrosino

Per pancake: 362 calories; 8 grams protein; 54 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams sugar; 13 grams fat; no cholesterol; 362 milligrams sodium; 4 grams dietary fiber.


Sweet Onion and Apple Jam

Makes about 4 pints

INGREDIENTS

2 medium sweet onions

1 Granny Smith apple

½ cup apple cider vinegar

1½ cups sugar

Freshly grated zest of 1 lemon

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons powdered pectin

DIRECTIONS

  1.  Sterilize 4 half-pint jars; we like to do this by setting them in a roasting pan and heating them in a 225°F oven for 20 minutes; then turn off the oven and leave the jars inside until you are ready to fill them.
  2. Coarsely chop the onions; you should have about 3 cups. Leaving its skin on, core the apple and chop it. Working in batches if necessary, puree the onions and apple with the vinegar in a blender until very smooth.
  3. Transfer the vinegar and onion slurry to a heavy pot and stir in the sugar, lemon zest, and red pepper flakes. Bring the mixture to a boil over moderately high heat, skimming the foam that rises to the top (doing so will result in a nice clear jam). When the mixture has boiled for 5 minutes, increase the heat to high, stir in the pectin, and boil hard for 1 minute more. Remove from the heat and transfer the jam to the sterilized jars, leaving ½ inch space at the top. Seal the jars, immediately turn them upside down, and let cool. If one jar cannot be filled completely, refrigerate it and use it first.

 

From Onions Etcetera by Kate Winslow and Guy Ambrosino

Per 2-tablespoon serving: 21 calories; trace protein; 7 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams sugar; no fat; no cholesterol; no sodium; trace dietary fiber.

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