By Nancy Pollard
After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years—La Cuisine in Alexandria, Virginia—Nancy Pollard writes Kitchen Detail, a blog about food in all its aspects—recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources, and food-related issues.
I LOVE Brussels sprouts, and I love onions (not so crazy about sweet potatoes with brown sugar and marshmallows), and thus I remain curious as to why Brussels sprouts became the new darling in restaurant and carry-out menus, but onions have yet to qualify. Of course, I’m also baffled that a slab of cauliflower—another mistreated vegetable— is grilled in a haphazard manner and listed as a vegetarian steak. Food trends are puzzling.
So, onions. What happened to sink this vegetable, immortalized by Auguste Renoir ( right), from a standard creamy and comforting Thanksgiving side dish to barely an Instagram hashtag (slightly over 100 versus 904,000 for Brussels sprouts, according to the Insta-minions).
Bringing Back a Tradition
Although Native American Indian tribes used strains of wild onions for poultices, syrups, and even toys, the ones that we know and cook with today were brought over to the New World by European immigrants on ships, including, it is documented, the Mayflower. There is no mention of Brussels sprouts being in the hold of that legendary vessel. The tradition of creamed onions in the US has its origins in English cooking and not French. I have read that the advent of frozen white onions, which like most frozen foods were very seductive to postwar American families, led to the demise of creamed onions. Having tried cooking with the tiny frozen ones, I’m not shocked. They are indeed bland and watery and look somewhat forlorn in a pool of indeterminate white sauce.
Aside from the nifty technique for onions from Paula Peck, which she learned from her neighbor, Mrs. Rudski, I hope you try either of the recipes below, and not only for Thanksgiving. They are especially lovely with roast chicken or pork during the dreary JanFebs. The first is from Felix Benoit, a marvelous food writer from Lyon, France. He researched and refined many local Lyonnaise dishes in his cookbooks. I discovered the Benoit recipe in the now AOOP (Alas Out Of Print) book from Patricia Wells, Bistro Cooking, which we use so much that we have two copies. The crown creamed-onion jewel—and my husband’s absolute favorite—is this one in Sarah Leah Chase’s Nantucket Open-House Cookbook, published in 1987 and now also AOOP.
Apparently I never make enough of her version, as there are never any leftover creamed onions after Thanksgiving. Plenty of leftover turkey, mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts, though. She wrote another well-worn cookbook that lives in my kitchen, Cold-Weather Cooking, and I pull out both every year for planning holiday meals, ever since they were first published over 30 years ago. Here’s hoping to elevate onion adoration to kale-like altitudes!
Felix Benoit’s Onion Gratin
Easy and delicious with any roast.
Recipe by Patricia Wells.
Adapted from Bistro Cooking.
3 tablespoons (44ml) crème fraîche (heavy cream may be substituted)
Generous amount of freshly grated nutmeg
Freshly ground pepper and sea salt
Preheat the oven to 375F (170C). Remove the stem but not the root of each onion, as that will hold the whole onion together. Remove the skin and possibly the top layer of each onion as needed.
Place them in a pot of boiling salted water and cook them uncovered until they are completely soft but not falling apart, which can take from 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the size of the onions.
Allow the onions to cool thoroughly before slicing into large even rounds, about three or four for each onion.
To dry the slices, I lay the them out on a towel, then fold the towel over the top of the slices and press lightly.
In a large bowl, toss the onions gently with the crème fraîche and lots of salt, pepper, and grated nutmeg. I taste the mixture first to make sure it is where I want it, taste-wise.
Butter a 10-inch (23cm) gratin dish—it can be metal, ceramic, or glass—and spoon in the onion mixture.
Bake until the onions are soft and golden, at least 30 minutes.
I bake my gratin longer than Wells suggests, almost an hour.
Make sure your onions are completely cool before slicing. Sometimes I cut them in half once cooled, and make large half-moon slices.
You can put this gratin in the oven while you are roasting a chicken or beef or pork roast.
You can also make it a day ahead and refrigerate it, covered of course, and then reheat.
Classic Creamed Onions
Recipe by Sarah Leah Chase.
Adapted from Nantucket Open-House Cookbook.
3 lbs (1.36kg) small white onions (I have used pearl, small oval onions, and the flat Italian ones)
1½ cups (355ml) water, plus additional if needed
1 cup (237ml) dry white wine
4 tablespoons (57gr) unsalted butter
4 tablespoons (57gr) unsalted butter
¼ cup (32gr) unbleached white all-purpose flour
1 cup (237ml) cooking liquid from the onions
1 cup (237ml) milk
½ cup (118ml) heavy cream
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon (or 2 teaspoons dried)
Pinch grated nutmeg
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
½ cup (60gr) cornbread crumbs (I use regular breadcrumbs)
3 tablespoons (43gr) unsalted butter, meltedInstructionsDrop the onions into a large pot of boiling water to blanch for one minute. Drain, cool, and slip off the skins.Place the onions in a saucepan to fit and add the water, wine and butter. Heat to boiling, then reduce the heat and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, until just barely tender. (You may have to add more water.)Drain the the onions, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid.To prepare the Béchamel, melt the butter in a small saucepan or sauté pan over medium heat.
Whisk in the flour and stir constantly until the mixture is a light golden color.
Gradually whisk in the cooking liquid to make a thick and smooth sauce.
Gradually whisk in the milk and cream until you have slightly thinner smooth sauce.
Season with tarragon, salt, pepper, and nutmeg and simmer over low heat to allow the flavors to blend, about 10 to 15 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350F (176C) and combine the Béchamel and onions in a buttered gratin dish.
Mix the cornbread crumbs or regular breadcrumbs with the melted butter and sprinkle over the dish.
The dish can be prepared up to this point the day before and refrigerated, covered. But the next day bring the onions to room temperature before baking. Bake the onions until the sauce begins to bubble and onions are heated through, about 20 to 30 minutes.
5 thoughts on “Kitchen Detail: An Ode to Onions”
Now TWO new recs to try! thanks!!
I have never made the green bean casserole, but my editor is bringing it over (with almonds) Thanksgiving. Let me know if your Gourmet SIL makes the Creamed Onions from Sarah Leah Chase!
Passing along to my son in law who is a gourmet cook ( lucky me) and has agreed to bring the creamed onions AND the green beans ( with/without?) the crispy fried onion topping for Thanksgiving.
What a wonderful piece, Nancy! Thank you very much. Do check out the mustard version in my AOOP (love this term and definitely need to have it in my vocabulary) Cold-Weather Cooking. Also, I’m going to try to attach a cream-less onion recipe I’ve been making lately for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
SEDUCTIVE PORT-GLAZED SHALLOTS and ONIONS
When it comes to incorporating onions into the Thanksgiving menu, I used to think the Mustard Creamed Onions from my Cold-Weather Cooking Cookbook, made for the definitive recipe. However, these Port-Glazed Shallots and Onions were the absolute star of the Thanksgiving Dinner I hosted at my house last year. Keep the recipe handy, as it makes an equally terrific accompaniment to a Christmas Rib Roast.
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 ½ pounds peeled shallots
1 pound peeled white boiling onions
2 to 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, preferably a thicker, syrupy type
2/3 cup Ruby Port
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Several fresh thyme branches
1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. if roasting the shallots and onions at the same time you start them in the skillet.
2. Melt the butter in a large 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the peeled shallots and onions and toss to coat with the melted butter. Sauté, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Sprinkle the sugar evenly over the shallots and onions and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until they begin to caramelize in random spots, 5 to 7 minutes more. Add 2 tablespoons of the balsamic vinegar and the port to the skillet. Bring mixture to a low boil, taste and add a bit more vinegar if needed to balance the sweet-tart flavor of the glaze to your liking. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Transfer the glazed shallots and onions to a gratin dish large enough to hold them in more or less a snug single layer (a few overlapping ones are okay). Strew the thyme branches over the top. The dish may be prepared ahead up to this point and refrigerated for up to 2 days before roasting. If refrigerated, bring the dish back to room temperature prior to roasting.
4. Roast the shallots and onions in the oven until tender and the glaze is bubbling, 25 to 35 minutes. Serve hot or warm.
Serves 6 to 8
Well said, Nancy!
Worth all the peeling.
And re SLC: Endorse!