Cookbook elevates the humble onion

Gretchen McKay
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Is there any more unsung hero in the kitchen than the humble onion, or its equally unheralded BFF, the garlic clove?

These cheap and versatile veggies are the culinary world’s workhorses, playing a supporting role in so many dishes in so many cultures. Even the dual threats of bad breath and a teary-cutting experience can’t diminish their universal appeal. Alliums, as they are known collectively, are one of the world’s oldest cultivated plants and have been used to flavor food since at least 5000 B.C.

So how’d they become the Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables?

“We take them for granted,” says Kate Winslow, who grew up in Pittsburgh and worked as an editor at Gourmet. “So you kind of forget, and think they’re just for seasoning.”

Yet it’s only with the aromatic addition of alliums that a clever cook can build something perfectly delicious to eat, she says. And to prove her point, she and her photographer husband Guy Ambrosino spent six straight months devising the ultimate guide to cooking with leeks, scallions, garlic, shallots and every other sort of onion.

“Onions Etcetera: The Essential Allium Cookbook” (Burgess Lea Press; February 2017; $35) is bound to blow you away with its gorgeous photos and mouthwatering collection of recipes. Winslow’s prose also is delectable, with breezy tales of the couple’s cooking life interspersed with practical tips on how to, say, clean leeks or peel pearl onions. You also find bits of onion history (revered in French cooking, shallots originated near Palestine), and memories of where certain dishes were first tasted and how/why they were replicated.

When it comes to Ambrosino’s great-aunt Aggie’s “fried water” soup, it’s hard not to spring out of bed and sprint to the kitchen to make it. Ditto with the beer-battered onion rings. You’ll feel the same way, too, about many of the book’s 100-plus recipes, which are arranged according to color and/or season.

First come the “keepers,” or the yellow, white and red storage onions one always has on hand. There also are chapters devoted to sweet onions; scallions and chives; shallots and leeks; pearl onions and button-shaped cipollini; and the fleeting “early bird” ramps, spring onions and green garlic/garlic scapes.

Some of the recipes use alliums in supporting roles, such as the leeks that team up with fresh dill and feta in a creamy spring tart. Others allow onions to boldly headline — for instance, grilled as a taco filling or fried with a bit of chili, curry and cassava flour into a golden, crispy fritter.

“These are recipes that we love and that mean something to us, that resonate deeply on an emotional and historical level,” Winslow writes. “Turns out we, like everyone else, come from a long line of onion eaters.”

Winslow says she hopes the recipes she and her husband have gathered will serve as an inspiration for meals instead of an aspiration. “I want it to be super useful, so people can dive in and make dinner from it.”

For such a common vegetable, “there’s so many things you can do with it,” she says.

Red, Red Jam

It’s great on grilled cheese sandwiches, or on buttered toast with thick-cut bacon. Or by the forkful, straight from the skillet, writes author Kate Winslow, adding, “Not ashamed.”

3 tablespoons olive oil

4 medium red onions, thinly sliced

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 sprig fresh rosemary. leaves stripped and chopped

2 cups dry red wine

1/2 cup maple syrup, preferably grade B

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

Combine olive oil and onions in large skillet over moderately high heat. Season well with salt and pepper, and cook until onions begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add chopped rosemary and wine.

Bring mixture to a simmer, then reduce heat to low and simmer very gently, uncovered, until wine is almost completely reduced, about 40 minutes.

When wine is almost reduced, add maple syrup and vinegar to onions and continue to simmer until liquid is reduced and onions are jam-like but still juicy, about 1 hour. Remove from heat and serve at once. Or, cool completely before refrigerating up to 2 weeks. Makes about 2 cups.

Grilled Onion Tacos

Quick, simple and utterly delicious. If you don’t have the time or inclination to make salsa from scratch, substitute bottled tomatillo sauce.

4 sweet onions

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon oregano

1/2 teaspoon salt and several grinds black pepper

12 good-quality corn tortillas

1/2 cup crumbled queso fresco

Roasted tomatillo salsa, for serving (recipe follows)

Preheat grill over moderately high heat; alternatively, use a stovetop grill pan.

Cut onions crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Keeping the sliced rings intact, threw them onto skewers. (If using bamboo skewers, soak in water for at least 30 minutes before grilling.) Stir together olive oil, oregano, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Brush mixture over skewered onions.

Grill onions until softened and charred in spots, flipping occasionally, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer to plate and cover to keep warm.

Lay tortillas over the grill and toast, turning once, until softened and blackened in spots, about 3 minutes total. Wrap tortillas in clean kitchen towel to keep warm.

To assemble tacos, slide onions off skewers. Fill each warm tortilla with a few onion rings, top with a spoonful or salsa and a generous scattering of crumbled queso fresco. Makes 12 tacos.

Roasted Tomatillo Salsa

Heat a broiler to high and line a baking sheet with foil. Place 1/2 pound husked and rinsed tomatillos, 2 plump unpeeled garlic cloves and 1 halved (lengthwise) jalapeno on sheet. Broil until vegetables are softened and blackened in spots, 5 to 8 minutes. Set aside to cool. Remove garlic cloves from skins and drop into a blender with tomatillos, jalapenos and any juices that have collected on the baking sheet. Add 1/4 teaspoon cumin and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Blend until very smooth. Refrigerate until ready to use.