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Not Quite Spring Onions

March 29, 2011

Everything relates to Jewish food. And even if it doesn’t I’m sure I can find a way to make a connection. It’s probably just because I’ve got the Jewish Food Festival on my mind. Not only will this be my first year in attendance, but I’ll also be manning my very own table with Leah the Nosher. We will have the classic Jewish pairing of challah and butter. 

I should call her, and check in.

One of the Jewish foods that was a staple of my childhood was my mother’s brisket. I always loved my mother’s brisket. It was a sweet and savory long-braised and tender affair, and I think back on it with nothing but fond, delicious memories. We would have it for all of the special Jewish occasions, but I always associate it with Passover.

I’m not so sure what she would think about my sharing the secret ingredient. But the truth is that it was never so secret. Because everyone’s mom had the same secret ingredient at the time: Lipton onion soup mix.

No doubt it is easier and quicker than caramelizing onions from scratch, but caramelizing onions is one of the easiest, tastiest and most rewarding things you can do in your kitchen. Especially now.

Sure, it’s spring. It’s been spring for over a week. But the local spring vegetables are still weeks away. So even though we may see a crocus sprouting in the dirt, we’ve got to find some way to make the last of those winter storage vegetables sing.

Using the first maple syrup of the season might be one way.

Another way is the slow caramelization of the natural sugars inside something that is as decidedly unsweet as an onion. Mrs. Fussy doesn’t eat these, which is fine. More onions for me.

First, let’s make something clear. There are great crimes perpetrated in the name of caramelized onions across the country. Just because an onion is sautéed over high heat and picks up a bit of browning around the edges doesn’t make it caramelized. Nor is an onion that has been slowly stewed and has picked up a nice tan.

No. A caramelized onion has been deeply browned, is impossibly sweet, and is as soft as soft can be while still maintaining a modicum of structural integrity. While it takes two pounds of raw onions and a whole lot of slicing to make just one small bowlful of the good stuff, and it is totally worth it. The good folks at Cooks Illustrated even found an easy and foolproof way to make them.

I encourage you to buy a digital subscription so you can get their full take on the task. But I’ll tell you what I did to make them myself at home.

First I preheated my largest cast iron skillet on high heat, and melted a tablespoon of organic butter in a tablespoon of expeller-pressed organic canola oil. After swirling the melted butter around the pan, and waiting for the foam to stop, I added ½ teaspoon of table salt and a teaspoon of brown sugar.

Yes, I know this sounds like cheating. But in truth it’s a very small amount of sugar for so many onions.

Two pounds of onions get cut into ¼ inch slices. This guy has a lot of great tips about knife skills and cutting onions. They don’t have to be perfect, but it helps if they are roughly uniform.

These get added to the pan (still on high heat), tossed in the fat, sugar & salt, and stirred occasionally until they release some of their moisture and start to soften. You will know, because they won’t look raw and stiff anymore.

At that point you can turn the heat down to medium and stir frequently until the onions are deeply brown. It takes about forty minutes, or a bit longer depending upon the heat of your range. And that’s it. Done.

These beauties added another layer of flavor to my three-day polenta bake. And just last week I turned another batch into French onion soup, with the addition of some beef broth, a large crouton and some aged Swiss cheese. I bet if you smothered a brisket with these babies it would be divine.

Damn, I’m looking forward to some Jewish food on Sunday.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 29, 2011 12:16 pm

    The collision of the Jewish Food Festival and our having a Junie B. Jones audio-book in the car CD player recently are doing funny things to my mind. Every time you mention Jewish food I am thinking about the conversation about what to wear for an Easter Egg hunt amongst a group of first graders including two Jewish kids and the host. “I will wear a fancy Easter dress,” says the host. “In that case I will wear a fancy Jewish dress,” replies her friend. “Really? You mean we have our own clothing line? In that case I’m going to wear some fancy Jewish pants.”

    I trust we can rely on you to dress appropriately for the festival?

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