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.
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."