caramelization

In A Soup and In A Pickle – Pearl Onions

When the weather report called for blizzard conditions and snow began to amass on patio tables like coconut icing, I decided that it was a good time to make soup. I’ve learned from past snow shoveling seasons to always keep good stock ready at hand and/ ready to thaw. In previous years as A. and N. would layer up in preparation to begin shoveling, I would start cooking a soup before joining them outside.

A soup recipe for a snowstorm should be as easy as combining and simmering roughly chopped vegetables and herbs with stock. The reward upon returning from shoveling is twofold, a cleared path and the warmth of rejuvenating aromatic soup. Before I head out to shovel, I combine chicken stock and red pearl onions to make onion soup.

Pearl (cocktail) onions are walnut-sized purple or white onions that are innately sweet. Pearl onions cook quickly and retain their shape, making them a good substitute for regular onions in soup. One of my pet peeves with onion soup is that if the onion slices aren’t cooked down and caramelized, they retain a slimy texture – one that you can taste in every bite. Caramelizing onions take time and constant attention. The miniature pearl onions sweat (lose moisture) and brown rapidly. A resultant soup has both a pleasing textural crunch as well as the desired caramelized flavor.

Due to the petite size of pearl onions, you need a large quantity for making the onion soup. Peeling 25 onions comes with the perennial problem – tears. I was happy to come across a clever trick to cope with this arduous task. Place the pearl onions in a bowl and heat them in the microwave for 20-25 seconds. Remove them immediately (or sooner if they start to pop), as you don’t want the onions to cook. Cut off the ends of the onions and pull away the outer skin, which should come off very easily. The pearl onions are now ready to be substituted in the classic French Onion soup, which combines onions and garlic in wine and stock. A deliciously simple soup with lots of flavor!

 

Pearl Onion Soup

Pearl onions – 25, peeled

Butter – 2 tbsp

Olive oil – 3 tbsp

Garlic cloves – 4, peeled and sliced

Stock – 4 cups

White wine – 5 tbsp

Salt and pepper – to taste

Bread/cheese

 

  • Heat the butter and olive oil in a pot.
  • Add the whole peeled onions. Lower the heat, and sauté the onions for about 10 minutes. The onions will sweat and brown.
  • Add the garlic. Sauté for a minute
  • Add the stock and wine. Lower heat and simmer for 30 minutes, until the onions are soft but yet hold their shape.
  • Just before serving, pour the soup into four ramekins. Place a slice of bread with grated cheese (I used goat cheese) on top of the soup. Broil for less than a minute, just until the cheese has melted.

 

 

Pearl onions are sharply vinegary in taste, and served in North Indian restaurants as cocktail onions and (when spiced) in South Indian homes as ulli thiyal, a relish. Alternatively called button onions and Silverskin onions, they are usually pickled and used throughout Europe with spring peas, as part of a smorgasbord of pickled herrings and beets, or as a garnish in the gin and vermouth cocktail, Gibson.

Pickled Pearl Onions

Pearl onions –10-12, peeled

Distilled (or any pale-colored) vinegar – ¼ cup

Sugar – 8 tbsp

Water – 2/3 cup

  • Peel the onions as above.
  • Fill a mason jar with the distilled vinegar, sugar and water. Mix until sugar has dissolved.
  • Add the pearl onions.
  • Cover and keep for 12 hours or overnight. The pickled onions keep fresh for 3-4 days.

 

Gibson Cocktail

Pickled onions are used as garnish in a Gibson cocktail. One or three pickled onions (always in odd numbers) replace olives in a Gibson cocktail, which is a Gin Martini served shaken or stirred. The onions add a vinegary twist instead of briny hint to the traditional mix of gin (6 parts) and vermouth (1 part).

 

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Caramelization: A Process That Starts as Science and Ends as Culinary Art

I planned to use the market’s abundance of berries, apricots, plums, and nectarines in both a salad (fruit combines well with sharpness of endives and firm slices of kohlrabi) and a fruit pie, for my friends this weekend.

I am not a good baker; I tinker with proportions to cut out extra fats and sugars and use shortcuts whenever possible. This time, I was determined to follow the rules to make short crust pastry, the base for my fruit pie. It took me a few tries using 1 cup of flour, 4 oz of butter (my first trial with ½ butter + ½ lard was abandoned, as I left it longer than the recommended 30 minutes in the fridge and it turned hard), and ice-cold water to make a soft pastry. I rolled out the pastry into a circle and brushed it with beaten egg yolk, so that the juice from the fruit wouldn’t seep through the pastry. I piled apricots, raspberries, black currants, and blueberries, mixed with ½ cup of sugar, onto the pastry. Finally, I brushed the fruits and pastry with whisked egg-white coating, and dusted everything with a little more sugar. I folded the edges of the pastry up toward the center, so that the fruits were secure in a pie basket, and set it to bake at 400°F. That was when things fell apart.

The nutty, smoky aroma of caramel wafted through my kitchen much before the recommended 35 minutes was up. When I checked, the pie was brown and the fruits soft and gleaming, but there were blobs of glowering, brown, syrup that bubbled and hissed in the corners of my oven! I didn’t count on caramelization, the complex process when the sugars in the fruits melt at high temperature. The water (juice) from the fruit first foamed before condensing and spilling over the pastry, which had me scraping the hot oven (melted sugar hardens and becomes much tougher to clean when cooled) with gloves and a long wooden spoon. The fruit pie wasn’t as sweet as I expected, as I had scrimped on the sugar having assumed that the sweetness of the fruit would be enough. However, the kitchen smelled rich with flavors of childhood – spun sugar and caramel pudding!

I had much more success when I caramelized onions for the onion dip.  Managing the unhurried process to draw out the sugars from the onion is easier in a pan. The resulting amber, gooey onions can be enjoyed in a variety of ways. I have had caramelized onions with melted Brie in a sandwich at a friend’s restaurant. I have also added them as a burger topping with crumbled blue cheese, and as a garnish in rice pilaf.

Caramelized Onions

Spanish onions – 2

Olive oil – 6 tbsp

Unsalted Butter – 4 tbsp

Salt – 1 tsp

Pepper – ½ tsp

Chili powder –1/4 tsp (optional)

  • Slice the onions into halves, and cut each half into thin slices on the diagonal.
  • Heat the oil and butter in a large pan.
  • When the butter starts to bubble in the pan, add the sliced onions.
  • Let the onions cook for a minute on high heat before adding the salt, pepper, and chili powder. I do like chili powder; it adds a nice warm red hue to the onions.
  • Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring the onion slices frequently.
  • Reduce the heat to medium and let the onions cook slowly for about 20 minutes. Stir occasionally.
  • The onions reduce in volume considerably. If they haven’t yet reached a reddish-golden color, turn up the heat and continue to cook, stirring constantly for another minute.
  • Cool and store in a refrigerator if not using immediately.

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Onion Dip: Combine and whip until smooth ¾ cup each of mayonnaise and sour cream. Add in the caramelized onions. Season to taste. Serve with celery, endives, and carrots.

Onion Soup: Once the onions are a reddish brown color, add stock (wine, if desired), thyme, and bay leaf. Cook for another 20 minutes. Just before serving, float a broiled/toasted cheese slice on the soup.