‘BELIEVE it or not, the elegant and beautiful Easter lily and the dry, old smelly onion are close cousins, both coming from the lily family,' medical anthropologist John Heinerman writes in his fascinating Encyclopedia of Fruits & Vegetables (Parker, 1995).
Okay, so onions are a little on the aromatic side, but they taste wonderful and are indispensable as a base flavouring in cooking. And there's something delicious about preparing a winter's meal by gently sautéing, frying or sweating a finely chopped onion in a little oil (perhaps with garlic, celery and carrot).
Onions are among the vegetables that were cultivated by the Egyptians and were used for both food and in mummification (placed in the thorax, pelvis and near the eyes). Slaves building the Great Pyramid are said to have favoured the edible bulb, munching their way through 1,600 “talents” worth of onions, garlic and radishes as they worked.
Available varieties of dry onions (that is, those with papery skins which have been left in the ground until their tops died down) include brown, pickling, red, white and yellow. When buying onions, ensure they are dry and firm, and sweet smelling. Reject those which are beginning to sprout or any that have a damp, acrid smell. Store onions in a dry, airy place. Discard any raw onion left over from cooking.
Celebrate the flavour and aroma of onions with the recipes below. Incidentally, another tidbit of trivia from Heinerman is that asparagus is also a close cousin to the onion, but without the noxious odour.
Serve with grilled meats or on top of baked potatoes, or combine with mushrooms and red capsicums to serve with pasta or use as a pizza topping.
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 large onions, sliced finely
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (optional)
Heat the oil in a saucepan and add the onions. Cover the pan and allow the onions to sweat over a low heat for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the lid, add the balsamic vinegar and raise heat to allow onions to brown. Stir constantly at this time until onions are a rich brown. Serves 4. Recipe adapted from Vegetables by Rosemary Stanton.
MARGARET FULTON'S TUSCAN-STYLE STUFFED BAKED ONIONS
6 large brown onions, peeled, left whole
30g unsalted butter
2 lean rashers bacon, rind removed, diced
250g lean minced beef
1 spring onion, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh chives, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
1/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs
4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup chicken stock
Preheat your oven to 200 degrees C. Place the onions in a saucepan of salted water. Cover the pan and bring the water to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer the onions for 10 minutes. Drain the onions, then carefully peel them, cutting off the tops and bottoms. Now, scoop out the centre from the inside of the onions, leaving their thick shells.
Dice the onion flesh from the hearts finely. Melt the butter in a heavy frying pan and sauté the diced onion flesh until it has softened. Add the bacon to the pan and cook for 2 minutes. Then add the beef mince, together with the chopped spring onion, chives, parsley, breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese and salt and pepper.
Stir the mixture to combine. Spoon the stuffing into the onion shells. Place the stuffed onions in a greased shallow baking dish and drizzle with the olive oil. Pour the stock over and around the onions. Bake the onions for 30-40 minutes, or until they are tender and golden brown. Serves 6.
Tell me dear readers, are onions a favourite ingredient in your kitchen? And did you know that the Egyptians used them for mummification?
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.