Thursday, January 2, 2014

Comfort Me With Onions

When I look for comfort, I think, onions.

Don't you?  Hey, don't look at me that way.  Maybe you don't know onions like I know onions.

Peeling.  Slicing.  Crying.  And it's all so cathartic.  So why pay a doctor of psychiatry for an hour of couch time when you can do it all by yourself in the comfort of your kitchen?

And although you might not know it, the nasty winter weather running rampant throughout much of the country, with its bitter winds, gloomy days and seemingly endless cycles of rain, snow, sleet and ice, is actually the perfect emotional set up for our onion drama in three acts.

Act One. Peeling. 

So, what's up with all the layers?  Just as the Egyptian mummy is encased in layer upon layer of gauze, so is the onion (encased in layers, of course, minus the gauze).  Those concentric circles we so cherish in our onion rings, symbolized eternity to the ancient Egyptians who buried onions along with their pharaohs.  And although I'm sure it's something he would've never done in life, King Ramses IV, who died in 1160 B.C.E., was entombed with onions placed in his eye sockets.

In fact, these pyramid building Egyptians saw in the onion’s concentric circle within a circle structure a metaphor for eternal life.  And so, they entombed their royalty with them and painted images of onions on the inner walls of their pyramids and tombs in the belief that their strong scent also possessed magical powers that would prompt the dead to breathe again.

And as we peel off another layer of our onion, we arrive at the Sumerians, who were growing onions as early as 2500 B.C.E.  One unhappy Sumerian text from this period happens to recount how some unfortunate farmer accidentally plowed over the city governor’s onion patch.  Now that is something really worth crying about.

But, if you think that sounded pretty bad (at least, for the Sumerian farmer), just imagine this.  The ancient Greeks used onions to strengthen their athletes in preparation for the Olympic Games.  Before competing, athletes were encouraged to eat pounds of onions, drink glasses of onion juice and rub raw onions all over their bodies.  After hearing that, onion breath doesn't begin to sound so bad, now, does it?

And as we continue to peel our onion, another layer down reveals Alexander the Great bringing onions from Egypt to feed his armies, since he felt they encouraged martial strength.  And for similar reasons, gladiators, before heading out into the arena during Rome's heyday, were rubbed down with onions, in order to fortify their muscles.  Well, at the very least, I’m sure the home team must have been pretty easy to recognize.

Act Two.  Slicing.

Rule One: It’s important to know your onion before slicing, so be aware that onions come in two main categories - Green and Dry.  Green onions (also known as scallions) are simply onions harvested before they reach full maturity.  Dry onions (which can be red, white or yellow in color) are further categorized as being either Spring/Summer or Fall/Winter varieties.

Of the two types, Spring/Summer are sweeter, have thinner skins and a higher water content, which unfortunately, also reduces their shelf life and makes them more susceptible to bruising.
They’re best used raw in salads, sandwiches or lightly cooked dishes.

While Fall/Winter varieties are less sweet than their Spring/Summer counterparts, their lower water content gives them not only a much longer shelf life, but also a more pungent flavor, making them ideal for long cooked savory dishes such as stews, soups or roasted meats.

Yellow onions are the most popular, not only because they're easy to find, but also because besides being full-flavored, they have a knack for becoming sweeter, mellower and more nutty, the longer they're cooked.  So, if you see a soup or stew in your near future, let the slicing begin!

White onions are your choice, on the other hand, if it's traditional Latin American cuisine that you're making.  They’re sharper and more pungent than their yellow onion cousins and are commonly minced before adding their raw kick to fresh salsas and chutneys.

And as for pretty red onions, they're similar to yellows in flavor and are often grilled or used raw in salads and salsas.  But because they have the sharpest flavor of all of this family, they’re best used sparingly or soaked in water before serving to reduce their astringency.

Act Three.  Crying.

Rule Two: Chop a lot, cry a lot.  If you find you really need a good cry at this point, here are a few things you should never do.

Never chill the onions in the refrigerator before chopping.  In technical speak, chopping onions damages their cell walls, causing enzymes to generate sulfenic acids.  With the help of a  second enzyme, a gas is created that, when it reaches your eye, makes it tear in order to flush it out.  And refrigerating onions only helps to reduce this enzyme reaction. So, for more tears, never chill.

Secondly, never leave the root end intact when slicing onions.  The onion base contains higher concentrations of sulfur compounds than the rest of the bulb so, if you’re really in need of a good cry, be sure to thoroughly chop this end of the onion first before doing anything else.

So, there you have it.  A traveler's guide to onion therapy.  But what I haven't yet told you about, is that your tears of chopping will turn to tears of joy when you taste what simple yellow onions, cooked long and slow in butter and olive oil, and then blended with broth and brandy, can do.


Serves 4

8 yellow onions
2 tablespoons salted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cans (14½ ounce) chicken broth
1 can (14½ ounce) beef broth
2 tablespoons brandy
½ teaspoon black pepper (fresh cracked)
4 thick slices toasted bread
8 ounces mozzarella (cut into thin strips)

Peel the onions and slice them thinly into half-moon slices.
Combine butter & olive oil in a large ovenproof pot set over medium heat.
When butter melts, add sliced onions and stir to coat.
Turn heat to low, and cook uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning.

Slide the ovenproof pot into a preheated 350°F oven & bake for an additional 30 minutes.
Remove from oven, add broths, brandy and black pepper to cooked onions, stirring to combine.
Simmer on the stove top over medium low heat for an additional 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 450°F and set rack at mid-oven.
Put 4 ovenproof bowls atop a baking sheet and ladle onion soup into bowls.
Place 1 slice of toasted bread atop each filled soup bowl and then top the bread with strips of mozzarella.

Bake briefly in the oven until cheese is melted and has begun to turn golden brown.
Let cool slightly before serving.

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