Slow but Sweet Onions
With the sporadic cold spells we’ve been experiencing, the new onions of the season got me in the mood for some onion soup.
Onions are an unsung hero ingredient. They never get star billing, unlike asparagus, mushrooms, or even new potatoes, which are heralded at the beginning of their respective seasons in different cuisines.
However, a Japanese friend once took me a restaurant in Kyoto for an onion-centric meal. Every dish featured onions. Grilled, steamed, sautéed, deep-fried; big red onions, smaller yellow onions, slender green onions, leeks, etc. I wondered how many tears the chef shed in preparing those onions.
Onions play a critical role in adding umami in many dishes. Many vegetarian dishes in Indian cuisine start with an immense heap of chopped onions with a sprinkle of aromatic spices cooked down to a thick paste/sauce, becoming the basis of curries, since vegetarians are precluded from using animal-based stock or broth.
Using the same concept, one can make caramelized onions by finely slice some onions, and sauté them in oil at the lowest setting possible. The onions will very slowly turn from white to translucent to tan to caramel. This will take a while at least 45 minutes, as long 90 minutes or more, for however long your patience will allow. It’s almost like watching paint dry. But the wait will be rewarded; the low and slow cooking time will enable the onion to develop an intensely sweet flavor and aroma. This is a good dish to make while you’re catching up on a backlog of Facebook/LINE posts or emails.
Since this takes a lot of time, I usually cook an extra big batch of caramelized onions. The result is a flavorful relish-paste that I can store for a week in the fridge. With this base, you can go own to make French onion soup, or use it as a spread for burgers or sandwiches.
4 cups of onions, finely chopped or sliced (2-3 onions, about 500 g)
2 tablespoons oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Sugar, pinch (optional, to taste)
Heat a heavy-bottomed saucepan or pot (enough to hold 3-4 cups), and add oil. Add the chopped onions and a pinch of salt (and the optional sugar), and reduce the heat to very low. Keep the pot uncovered.
Stir occasionally, so the onions will cook evenly and avoid burning. This process is also known as 'sweating.' You don’t want any dark spots, which would make it taste bitter/burnt. Scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen the caramelized bits. Don’t worry about being too thorough. This is just to make sure the onions don’t burn, which would make the flavor bitter.
After 30-45 minutes, mix in another pinch of salt into the onion mixture for another few minutes, until they’re cooked and mixed in.
It usually takes 60 minutes, but how long you cook down the onions depends on how low your stove setting goes, and the freshness of your onions. The fresher the onion, the higher the water content, and therefore the longer it will take for the moisture to evaporate away. You will have to keep checking by color, texture and smell. The goal is to reach a pretty caramel/light golden color. The onions will be done when they have reduced to about ¼ to 1/3 of their original volume, having become a stringy paste.
Transfer half of the paste to a glass jar or container. When it has cooled down, put on the lid, and store in the fridge for up to a week.
Ideally you would immediately go onto to make French onion soup, in order to use up the carmelized bits on the bottom of the pan, because that is the most tasty part!
Simplified French Onion Soup with Cheese Toast
½ cup of caramelized onion paste
1 ½ to 2 cups of liquid in any combination of water, broth, stock, wine. (Beef stock is used for traditional French onion soup.)
1 bay leaf and/or some thyme
2- 4 slices of baguette or sliced bread
Enough shredded gruyere (or any semi/hard cheese) to cover the bread
Olive oil or butter
In the same pan used to cook the caramelized onions, add ½ cup of the caramelized onion, the liquid and the bay leaf/thyme. Scrape the bottom of the pot to dissolve the caramelized onion bits. Bring to boil and immediately reduce to simmer for a few minutes, uncovered.
(If you are starting from a pre-made batch of caramelized onions, simply combine ½ cup of caramelized onions with the liquid. Stir, bring to boil and immediately reduce to simmer for a few minutes, uncovered.)
While the soup is simmering, spread the bread slices with olive oil/butter, and sprinkle the cheese on top. Toast or broil for a few minutes, so that the cheese is melted.
When the soup is done, add salt and pepper to soup to taste. Fish out the bay leaf before serving in bowls, with the cheese toasts (and even a salad) on the side, for a light, but well-rounded meal.