Kitchen Guy: Ode to the Onion

By Beacon Staff

Whatever would we do without onions? This multi-faceted, multi-flavored member of the lily family presents us with one of the most valuable and versatile ingredients in the kitchen.

Red, white, yellow, green, Maui, Walla Walla, Vidalia, scallions, chives – I love them all. And all bring important flavors and consistency to so many dishes.

A fact about the onion too often overlooked is that it contains more sugar than most other vegetables and, in some cases, more than many fruits. So if you think you don’t like onions because of the way you think they taste, you haven’t tried to caramelize them – a slow cooking process that extracts the sugar and turns even the most sulphurous bulbs to sweet treats that I promise will convert you from hater to lover.

Unfortunately, I can’t do much about the texture. So just close your eyes and savor the sweet flavor.

Some chefs force the dark color of caramelization by adding Worcestershire sauce, but I like using a long, slow process somewhere between a sweat and a sauté with butter to lubricate the pan and get things started. It takes about 45 minutes and you’ve got to keep the onions moving so they don’t burn.

Once you’ve produced caramelized onions, you can make a variety of dishes, including onion jam. And if you know how to can or make preserves, you can have an amazing condiment at any time.

One of my favorite dishes using caramelized onions is an onion tart. I make a savory crust, and then add caramelized onions, along with savory custard and shredded cheese that has just a slight bite. Gruyere, Swiss or Blarney cheeses work equally well. Once the filled tart bakes in the oven, the custard puffs and the cheese melts and turns golden – and my mouth is watering as I type these words!

Try my recipe this weekend. If it’s not everything I say it is, then write to the publisher and tell him to fire me.

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Savory Onion and Cheese Tart
For the crust:
1-1/2 cups unbleached flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter — chilled, cut into pieces
1/4 cup sour cream
1 large egg yolk

For the filling:
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1-3/4 pounds sweet onions — Vidalia, Walla Walla or Maui, sliced into thin rings 1 cup half and half
3 large egg yolks
1 large whole egg
ground nutmeg (fresh is best)
1 cup Fontina cheese or Swiss cheese – grated

To make the crust: Preheat oven to 425º F. Blend the flour and salt in a food processor. Add butter and blend using on and off pulses until mixture resembles coarse meal. Mix sour cream and egg yolk together and add to the flour mixture and blend, using pulses until dough begins to form clumps. Gather dough into a ball, flatten into a disk, enclose with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.

Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface to a 13-inch round. Transfer the dough to an 11-inch tart pan with removable bottom. (You can use a 9- or 10-inch pan, but make sure there is enough dough to overlap the edge.) Trim edges. Line dough with foil and fill with dried beans or pie weights. Bake 15 minutes. Remove foil and pie weights. Continue to bake until pale golden, piercing crust on bottom with fork if dough bubbles – about 15 minutes. Transfer to a rack and cool. Then place on a baking sheet before filling.

To make the filling: Turn the oven down to 325º F. Melt butter in a heavy large skillet over medium low heat. Add onions and sweat/sauté until very soft and caramel in color, stirring often, about 45 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper and cool.

Whisk half and half, egg yolks and whole egg. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper. Spread onions on par-baked crust. Sprinkle with cheese. Ladle liquid mixture over onions and cheese.
Bake until filling puffs and is golden – about 50 minutes. Cool slightly.

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