Food & Drink

In winter, the onion has its moment

Onions Stuffed With Herbs and Cheese
Onions Stuffed With Herbs and Cheese For The Washington Post

Winter is not my time of year. As seasons go, I rank it last, in the kitchen and everywhere else. I’m cold, there’s nothing fresh to cook, and it makes a curmudgeon out of me. But increasingly, I’m realizing that winter cooking has an upside.

With less to work with, you focus on what you do have. You think past your typical impulses, reframing the usual suspects. For the often overstimulated and overwhelmed, this can be freeing.

At mealtime, it means paying due attention to one of the most common yet underestimated ingredients of everyday cooking: onions. Not spring’s precious bunching onions with their grass-green tops, or even the sweet specialty onions of summer. I mean plain, round storage onions, the ones we rarely think about - until there’s a crisis because they’re not in the house.

Elizabeth Robins Pennell, an American who wrote about food in 19th- and early-20th-century London, spared no drama when praising the onion’s essential nature. “Banish it from the kitchen, and all pleasure of eating flies with it,” she wrote in an essay called “The Incomparable Onion.” “Its presence lends color and enchantment to the most modest dish; its absence reduces the rarest dainty to hopeless insipidity, and the diner to despair.”

Onions are both foundation and finishing touch, so common to our cooking habits that to leave them out must be deliberate. Yet despite this reliance, how often do we summon the onion for its own sake?

Not often enough, and perhaps that’s because we tend to undervalue anything we have perennial access to, anything dependable and ubiquitous. Winter, with so few fleeting distractions outselling this humble vegetable’s charms, is my annual cue to yield more space to them on the plate.

Sometimes that means rummaging through my pantry and old notes to scavenge for ideas I never seem to have time for in spring, summer or fall. Other times it means letting the onion speak for itself. When I need a nudge in that direction, I turn to cooks such as the late food writer Richard Olney who remind me that simplicity and restraint can be as compelling as the glitz of novelty and complex orchestration. Olney’s selection of onion dishes in his book “Simple French Food” reads like a study: onions baked into a delicate pudding; onions layered in a brothy, cheesy panade; onions bathed in cream in a gratin; onions glazed with vinegar and rolled into an omelet (which he classifies as an “attractively vulgar presentation”); onions braised in beer.

Each of those treatments is a meditation on the onion’s possibilities: gently stewed until mild and sweet; caramelized to jammy, bittersweet depths; simmered long and slow until silken and creamy; sauteed and lashed with acid, still racy and willfully bright.

The recipes aim to capture this vegetable’s many moods with as much attention. In one, yellow onions are cooked in an earthy white wine and porcini mushroom broth, lending the soup a creamy, buttery body. Thinly sliced raw onions take on funky, briny notes with beets in a magenta-hued, ume-vinegar-dressed salad. And hollowed-out whole onions generate both vessel and savory filling in a dish that puts another should-eat-more-often element, stuffing, in the center of the plate.

All of them call on basic storage onions from the supermarket. As far as red, white and yellow onions: They’re generally interchangeable, but their differences, although subtle, are just enough that I’ve called for specific types for each recipe.

Yellow onions are the driest, so they hold up the longest in the pot (and in your pantry), making them ideal for long cooking. Red onions are faintly sweeter, so I prefer them for slightly quicker caramelization and when I want their lovely boost of color. White onions are highest in water content and the mildest, so they can be a good choice for a raw garnish. I like to use a mix of all three for stuffed onions.

One maxim worth repeating is that you should always, when cutting onions (or any other vegetable, for that matter), use a sharp knife. A dull one will bruise the flesh, which leads to ragged slices that are prone to stick to a pan’s surface.

Likewise, avoid nonstick cookware when cooking onions; it discourages proper (and delicious!) coloring.

These recipes also employ two cutting techniques. One applies the knife across the grain, to produce the familiar onion ring shape. Slices like these will break down more quickly, so I’ve called for this approach in the soup, where the onions will help thicken and sweeten at the same time.

Cutting onions with the grain, from end to end, produces crescent-shaped slices. Incidentally, onions are also less pungent when sliced this way, so I call for this slice in the beet salad, where they stand up a bit better to the higher cooking temperature.

When you begin to cook, take a moment to linger on the onion’s fragrance, the way it fills up the room with warmth. As Elizabeth Robins Pennell wrote, with reference to a Stevenson poem: “ ‘Rose among roots,’ its very name revives memories of pleasant feasting; its fragrance is rich forecast of delights to come.”

When those delights are in winter, all the better.

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