September 26, 2013 at 1:00 am

Tear into these onion dishes

Usually a bit player, the aromatic veggie also can play a starring role

The onions cook for only 45 minutes before you add the broth in this version of Onion Soup. (Dave Zapotosky / Toledo Blade)

Is any ingredient more hardworking, yet humble, than the onion?

The part you eat grows in the ground, surrounded by dirt and worms. Once cleaned and peeled, it dresses up nicely and is used in an endless assortment of dishes.

Usually, it acts as a small part of a whole, just one flavor singing in the chorus. Because it can have such a sharp taste, it frequently is used in fairly small amounts and appears on the palate as an undertone, a bit of an earthy note to help underscore the more prominently featured ingredients.

But what happens when onions are made the main focus of a dish? When this root, long buried underground, is turned around and given a chance to shine in the sun?

One of the best ways to bring the true onionness of onions is to slice them thin and cook them in butter for a long time, at least 45 minutes. That allows the sugar in the onions to caramelize, giving them a sweet, nutty, mellow flavor.

But there is a problem, as anyone knows who has tried to slice onions: Yes, they taste wonderful, but making them can literally bring tears to your eyes. Shawn Thomas, a cook at the Glendale Garden Cafe in Toledo, Ohio, had a possible solution: When he slices onions, he freezes them first for 10-15 minutes to cut down on the eye-irritating juice spraying into the air.

“This may be an old wives’ tale or the placebo effect, but it seems to work for me, at least a little,” he said.

Thomas said it is important to use a sharp knife when slicing onions. Onions aren’t hard to cut, but they aren’t easy, either, and knives can slip if they aren’t sharp, he said. And a sharp knife makes it easy to create slices that are consistent in size — if the slices are the same width, they will all caramelize at the same rate.

When pondering the best ways to use sliced, caramelized onions, I immediately thought of onion soup. Then again, much of my time is spent thinking of onion soup, so that really wasn’t much of a surprise.

I have seen recipes for French onion soup that call for the onions to caramelize at very low heat for up to 10 hours at a time. But I decided that wasn’t worth the effort, so I turned instead to a recipe that is more likely to be cooked by real people. In this version, the onions cook for only 45 minutes before you add the broth. Yet the soup has a marvelously rich taste, the result of both the caramelization and all the butter that they caramelize in. It’s an unbeatable combination.

Of course, I placed a toasted round of bread on top of the soup, covered it with cheese, and stuck it under the broiler until the cheese was bubbling and just starting to turn brown. For many people, onion soup is just an excuse to eat melted cheese on bread, but in this version, the soup can stand on its own. But why would it want to when you can cover it with cheese?

Spurred on by my success, I decided to make a variation on French onion soup, this one from the province of Alsace. The fundamentals of this soup are the same, including the relatively brief time for caramelization, but it has a couple of fascinating additions. Apples go into this soup — apples are always a good combination with onions — and also a hearty dash of sherry. The melted cheese on top is different, too, Muenster instead of Gruyere, because Muenster goes with apples even better than onions do.

And then I thought, “What the heck? Why not make a third onion soup?” So I found a recipe for a beer-and-onion soup that calls for using a stout or a porter. It also requires a varying amount of sugar to counteract the bitterness of the beer. The stout I used was a little more bitter than I bargained for, and I didn’t add enough sugar. Frankly, I was a bit disappointed.

However, by the next day the flavors had mellowed and the bitterness had disappeared. Overnight, the beer-and-onion soup became a star. There are a couple of lessons to be learned from this experience. One is the importance of patience. The other is that with this soup you should always be sure to use enough sugar to correct for the bitterness, so you don’t have to be patient.

One of my most-loved uses for onion is unlikely: on top of spaghetti. Once again, caramelization is key. The sweetness of the red onions blends with the mellow tomatoes to make a marvelously expressive sauce. The sauce is so robustly rich it should be used sparingly. A little bit of topping goes a long way.

And finally, I decided on a slightly more ambitious take on everybody’s favorite onion application: sliced atop a hamburger. If onions taste great on hamburgers, and onions taste great with beer, then onions braised in beer must be spectacular.

(To be completely honest, I first saw the recipe for hamburgers topped with beer-braised onions in a cookbook from the famous Berghoff Restaurant in Chicago. If it’s good enough for the Berghoff, it’s certainly good enough for me).

I served the braised onions just plain, on top of a burger. The Berghoff serves them with a slice of cheese, bacon and barbecue sauce, plus lettuce and tomato. That doesn’t make the onions the main focal point of the dish, but it sure doesn’t sound bad.

Beer-Braised Onions

Adapted (slightly) from “The Berghoff Cafe Cookbook” by Carlyn Berghoff and Nancy Ryan

2 tablespoons oil
3 cups thinly sliced yellow onion, packed
¾ cup amber beer
Kosher salt and pepper

Heat the oil in an 8- to 10-inch saute pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 45 minutes. Add the beer and salt and pepper and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has almost evaporated and the onions are golden brown, about 15 minutes. Season to taste. Remove from heat and keep warm. Serve over hamburgers, with cheddar cheese, barbecue sauce and bacon, if you like.

Yield: 2 cups or 8 servings

Per serving (per ¼ cup): 58 calories; 3 g fat (0.2 g saturated fat; 47 percent calories from fat); 6 g carbohydrates; 0 mg cholesterol; 63 mg sodium; 1 g protein; 1 g fiber.

Alsatian Onion Soup

From “The Berghoff Cafe Cookbook” by Carlyn Berghoff and Nancy Ryan

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
5 cups (about 1 ½ pounds) yellow onion, halved from root to stem and sliced 18-inch thick
2 quarts beef, chicken or vegetable stock
2 bay leaves
18 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 cups peeled, julienned Granny Smith apples
3 tablespoons dry sherry
Salt and pepper
8 (½-inch) slices of baguette, toasted
8 slices Muenster cheese

Heat the oil in an 8- to 10-quart stockpot over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until golden brown (but not burned), 15-25 minutes. Add the broth, bay leaves and red pepper flakes and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Discard the bay leaves.

Stir in the apples and sherry and let simmer until the apples are just tender, 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Garnish each bowl with a crouton topped with a slice of Muenster cheese. Place under the broiler until the cheese melts.

The soup may be made (without croutons) up to four days ahead and refrigerated, covered. Reheat in a microwave or on the range top, then add the cheese-topped croutons.

Yield: 8 servings

Per serving: 250 calories; 12 g fat (5 g saturated fat; 43 percent calories from fat); 22 g carbohydrates; 20 mg cholesterol; 393 mg sodium; 12 g protein; 3 g fiber.

Beer-and-Onion Soup

From “The Vegetarian Epicure, Book Two” by Anna Thomas

3 pounds onions
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
¾ cup butter (1 ½ sticks)
2 cups vegetable broth
2 ½ cups dark beer or stout
1 ¼ cups cream
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons paprika
Dash Tabasco sauce
Pepper, to taste
2-4 teaspoons sugar, depending on the bitterness of the beer
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
4 egg yolks
Hot paprika, optional
Toasted croutons, optional

Peel the onions, halve them crosswise and slice them. Cook them slowly with the garlic in the butter until all the onions are transparent and soft, about 1 hour. Add the vegetable broth and, in batches of 2 or 3 cups, puree the mixture in a blender or food processor.

Pour the puree into a large pot together with the beer and cream. Add the salt, paprika, Tabasco sauce, pepper, sugar and vinegar, and simmer the mixture, stirring often, for about 20 minutes.

Beat the egg yolks with a whisk. Continue to beat them as you add a small amount of the hot soup, then pour the egg-yolk mixture into the pot with the rest of the soup and whisk it all together quickly (if the eggs begin to scramble, simply run the soup through a blender). Cook the soup a few minutes more over very low heat, stirring constantly. It should be slightly thickened.

Serve the soup very hot and sprinkle a little hot paprika on top if you like, or garnish with croutons and Parmesan cheese.

Yield: 8 servings

Per serving: 350 calories; 28 g fat (17 g saturated fat; 72 percent calories from fat); 19 g carbohydrates; 180 mg cholesterol; 904 mg sodium; 5 g protein; 3 g fiber.

Spaghetti and Onions (Spaghetti e Cipolle)

From “The Vegetarian Epicure, Book Two” by Anna Thomas

2 ½ pounds red onions
½ cup (1 stick) butter
2 large bay leaves
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon salt, and more to taste
1 cup good dry red wine
¼ teaspoon thyme
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon dried basil, crushed
1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage, or ½ teaspoon dried
2 cups peeled, chopped tomatoes, with liquid
¼ cup brandy
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
Pepper, to taste
1 ¼ to 1 ½ pounds thin spaghetti

Peel the onions, halve them and slice them rather thickly. Melt the butter in a large pot and add the bay leaves and the garlic and cook them, stirring constantly, for about 1 minute. Add the sliced onions and saute them over a fairly high heat, stirring almost constantly, for at least ½ hour. The onions should be evenly light brown in color.

Add the paprika and the salt and stir for another few minutes. Add the wine, herbs, tomatoes, brandy, lemon juice, vinegar and pepper. Lower the heat and simmer the sauce, stirring occasionally, for about 45 minutes to 1 hour. It should be thick, but not pasty.

Taste the sauce and correct the seasonings if necessary.

Boil the spaghetti in 6 or 7 quarts of salted water until it is just al dente, and drain it immediately. Pour the hot sauce over the spaghetti, toss quickly and serve.

Yield: 6 servings

Per serving: 606 calories; 18 g fat (10 g saturated fat; 27 percent calories from fat); 90 g carbohydrates; 44 mg cholesterol; 514 mg sodium; 15 g protein; 6 g fiber.

Onion Soup

From “Hows and Whys of French Cooking” by Alma Lach

¼ pound (1 stick) butter
6 large yellow onions, sliced thin
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons flour
7 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon salt
18 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon butter
2 onions, sliced
6 (½-inch-thick) slices French bread
Grated Gruyere or Parmesan cheese

Melt butter in a large saucepan and then add 6 sliced onions. Cover with a lid and simmer for about 45 minutes. Add sugar and flour. Stir-cook a few minutes, then stir in stock, salt (remember, Parmesan is salty, so adjust accordingly if you’re using it) and pepper. Simmer for 30 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

Stir-cook 2 sliced onions in 1 tablespoon of butter until caramelized. Once they are browned and slightly crisp, add to the soup for color and taste.

Toast French bread, then place in a warm oven to dry out. Fill individual earthenware bowls with soup. Put toasted bread atop the soup. Let it soak and sink into the soup, then sprinkle with cheese. Broil a few minutes to brown the cheese. Serve with plenty of crusty French bread.

Yield: 6 servings

Per serving: 405 calories; 23 g fat (14 g saturated fat; 51 percent calories from fat); 40 g carbohydrates; 59 mg cholesterol; 989 mg sodium; 12 g protein; 5 g fiber.

Only four ingredients — unless you add cheddar cheese, barbecue sauce and ... (Dave Zapotosky / Toledo Blade)
Caramelization of the onions is the key to Spaghetti and Onions. (Dave Zapotosky / Toledo Blade)