Story & Photos: Claire Lassam
My relationship with onions is not unlike that of an old married couple. We have dinner together almost every day. It’s not uncommon for us to have breakfast or lunch, too. We nearly always run into each other at the grocery store, and when I’m out for dinner, it’s hard to imagine my meal without onions. Maybe it’s my fault that I’ve started to see them as commonplace; I’ve grown accustomed to seeing onions so often that I haven’t noticed how special they are.
But they are a pillar in stocks, soups, and braises, they add a raw pungency to the tops of burgers and sandwiches, and they can completely transform themselves when slowly caramelized, becoming the perfect accompaniment for cheese. So why are onions never in the spotlight?
A quick trip to the library assured me that this was not always the case. Egyptians painted onions gold, because their spherical shape symbolized eternity, and gladiators were encouraged to rub their bodies with onions, believing that the juice would firm muscles. So what happened to the food once prescribed to combat hair loss and headaches—and now recommended by the US National Cancer Institute for its cancer-battling antioxidants?
In the produce section of your local market, the more glamorous vegetables are kept at the front. The emerald green of arugula, the sheen of freshly misted lettuces, the royal reds of peppers and tomatoes—those are the vegetables that draw you in. At the back of the market (or perhaps on a sad little island by itself) are the root vegetables, and even there, amidst the gem tones of nugget potatoes and carrots, the papery browns of the common onion are lost. If they make it into your bag and onto your counter, you’re likely to dread cutting them open, using as few as possible to avoid the tears that old onions and dull knives inevitably bring.
But give the lowly onion some credit. It has not only survived millenia on earth, it also stores through long Canadian winters in your pantry, bringing you depth of flavour when you need it most. And when your stocks are starting to diminish by March, the first shoots are coming through the ground, bringing spring onions and pops of green to your table.
The recipes that follow are some of my favourites. While you might not think of onions as a focal point for breakfast, I make this soubise, a classic French sauce often used on meats, as a substitute for hollandaise. (It takes some time to prepare, but you can make it the day before and heat it up before you have friends over for brunch.) When lunch comes around, nothing beats a classic grilled cheese. But the addition of slow-cooked caramelized onions takes it from its humble origins, giving it a sweeter and softer finish that can only be matched with sharp cheddar and Dijon.
And the braised spring onions with bread crumbs are wonderful with fish, chicken, or game (you can substitute leeks, shallots, or cipollini onions). It’s the sort of dish that comes together quickly, scales up for a crowd, and is impressive enough to make for company. These dishes are onions at their best, when their flavour isn’t drowned out behind something we think of as more precious. Instead they’re given their time in the limelight, and they really shine.
Although extremely fond of onions, Claire Lassam has not actually yet said “I do” to one. She is a professional baker, cake-maker, jam artisan—and wicked photographer—who writes about food at liviasweets.com and for Edible Vancouver’s blog.