Layers of Flavor
The ubiquitous onion is a star in recipes both savory and sweet.
Once regarded as a vegetable for commoners, the onion has become ubiquitous as a recipe ingredient everywhere. Whether fried, sautéed, caramelized, boiled, baked or used raw, onions can turn a bland dish into a savory treat.
“At Chartwells we use both fresh and dehydrated onions to add flavor to our recipes without increasing sodium content,” says Karen Dittrich, director of marketing and communications for the Business Strategy Group of Chartwells School Dining Services in Rye Brook, N.Y. “Besides making foods taste good, onions also provide some other health benefits. For example, eating onions regularly has been shown to lower high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure, both of which help prevent heart disease and stroke, probably due to the sulfur compounds, chromium and vitamin B6 that onions contain.”
Old as the hills: Onions are as old as civilization itself. Ancient Egyptians worshipped them, and Greek athletes ate them and rubbed onions on their bodies to prepare for the Olympic Games, according to the National Onion Association (NOA). In the Middle Ages, onions were treated as medicine as well as food, prescribed for such things as headaches, nervousness and snake bites. Today, researchers have found that quercetin, part of an antioxidant compound found in onions, has beneficial effects on several diseases including cataracts and colon cancer, according to NOA.
Chartwells features onions in a marinated vegetable salad served in individual cups called gardeneria.
“Our recipe for fresh vegetable gardeneria is made with marinated broccoli florets, baby carrots and sliced fresh onion,” Dittrich says. “We offer it on our deli stations as a flavorful, low-sodium alternative to pickles.”
Chartwells mixes the vegetables in oil, vinegar, granulated garlic, crushed red pepper and Italian seasonings, allowing the ingredients to marinate for at least 24 hours.
Hawaiian Poke, another marinated vegetable dish to which raw fish is added, is a favorite of Spencer Tan, executive chef at Brigham Young University in Hawaii.
“You chop up any good sushi-grade seafood and marinate it with sesame oil, soy sauce, some spices and onion,” Tan says. “We prefer the Maui onion, which is in the same category as Vidalia, which are sweeter than Spanish onions, very elegant tasting.”
For garnish, Tan makes onion rings dipped in flour and then fried. He also cuts an onion to look like a flower.
“I soak it in a turmeric marinade overnight,” he says. “It works like a yellow dye, and I garnish it with onions that look like chrysanthemums.”
Tan has also experimented with making onion blossoms.
“You cut it 12 times across both ways but not all the way through,” he says. “Spread it out and dip it into a batter, letting it get all the way in there, then fry it. We’ve tried several batters with different flavor profiles.”
But simplest is best, Tan notes.
“Fried egg with sautéed onions is fast, easy and simple. That’s my favorite and it’s good for you,” he explains. “[You don’t need anything] fancy. [You can use] any kind of bread, mayo, mustard or lettuce. I eat it all the time. It’s got protein and isn’t expensive; it’s the best.”
Savory and sweet: As with any vegetable, the cooking process extracts nutrients, which is why stronger varieties are cooked and sweeter varieties are added raw to salads.
“I can eat an onion raw like an apple,” says Norbert Bomm, corporate executive chef for research and development at Morrison Management Specialists in Atlanta. “But there’s nothing wrong with caramelized onions on a burger or in a quiche.”
Love them or hate them, onions show up everywhere.
“We use a tremendous amount in soups, sauces and for braising,” Bomm says. “We use red onions, Spanish onions, shallots. Right now, Vidalias are in season. We buy them sliced and diced in every shape and form.”
Bomm speaks passionately about onions, especially caramelized ones.
“We do a lot of caramelized onions for that awesome flavor profile,” he says. “We use them for sandwiches, spreads, salsas, salads and even for dressing.”
For caramelized onions, Bomm suggests using a sauté pan on medium heat and adding a tablespoon of butter to a pound of onion. He uses some sea salt and cooks for 15 minutes, stirring frequently. Then he turns down the heat and lets the pan simmer another 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
“Maybe a little twist of pepper and you’re ready to go,” he says. “You can’t rush it because you want that sugar to come. There’s nothing wrong with caramelized onions on anything.”
Leeks and more: Travis Perez, head chef at Feather River Hospital in Paradise, Calif., has a similar passion for the ancient bulb.
“I love onions,” he says. “I do standard stuff, obviously in my soups and rice pilaf, but when I do my vegetarian dishes, I always have caramelized onions by either oven roasting or sautéing to bring out the sweetness. It’s more of a full-bodied flavor than just putting a raw onion on a dish.”
Perez has featured a vegetarian dish, using leeks, that can be sliced like meatloaf and served with mushroom gravy.
“Leeks are in the onion family,” he says. “I make an almond sesame leek roast that goes over very well, especially with the vegetarians. It’s not vegan because there is a little cheese and egg. I tenderize the leeks and onions, especially the leeks, and mix them with other veggies, cheese, eggs and rice. Arborio rice is sticky and helps everything stick together.”
Another idea from Perez is onion brulée. “We cut an onion in half, releasing the juices. Then we caramelize the open face in a pan making onion brulée. You put the half onion into a soup while cooking and take it out when you’re done. This process noticeably enriches the flavor of the soup.”
Nancy Miller, executive chef at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, says she’s not a big fan of raw onions but can’t live without cooked.
“We use all kinds of onion and garlic and shallots,” Miller says. “What’s better than leek and potato soup?”
Southern flair: Vidalia onions are grown only in a certain defined production area in Georgia, where the specific soil and climate produce a sweet onion that has grown in popularity since the early days of the Depression when local farmers were eager to try out a new cash crop.
“Vidalias go well with brioche and butter, dry sherry chutney or maybe a pomegranate molasses,” Miller says. “We make a three onion soup and onion spaetzel with sauerbraten. Everything has to do with onions and that savory flavor; I can’t think of anything you can’t do with onions.”
A certain Italian sweet onion seed was brought to America more than a century ago to the Walla Walla Valley in Washington. After several generations of hand selecting to ensure a large, round onion, the Walla Walla onion was born, blending bold flavor with exceptional sweetness.
“We use seasonal onions whenever possible, and for this time of year that means the Walla Walla sweet,” says Jan Jasperson, purchasing manager for the University of Montana in Missoula. “It’s versatile, all purpose, low acidity and has an excellent onion flavor without being overbearing. Besides that, it’s local and just superior to anything else.”
The Walla Walla is available from mid-June through August.
“We also use processed onions as well, sliced and diced,” he says. “In catering, we use everything: whites, yellows, jumbo, scallions and shallots. We don’t do anything very exotic, like the Blooming Onion, but we do have a nice roasted vegetable blend using the onion for color, texture and flavor.”
Jasperson says they use a technique to neutralize the acid of a raw onion.
“We have a Mexican concept area where raw onions are used as condiments,” he says. “We deflame the onions by dicing them and soaking them in vinegar water for five minutes, then rinsing. You’d be surprised at how much pungency and burn you can eliminate. People like to sprinkle these raw on their Mexican dishes without making everything else spicier. It’s adding flavor without heat.”
Though onions may be everywhere, they’re not necessarily for everyone.
Leo Lesh, executive director of Food Services for the Denver Public School District, offers onions at the salad bar and as a choice for a condiment.
“We give the students the option to put sliced raw onions on sandwiches,” he says. “We have a spicy chicken sandwich and burgers; that’s where you’ll see some onions. We don’t have a lot of recipes that call for onions and as of yet we don’t make our own soups.”
In Denver onions are a hard sell.
“It’s not a popular vegetable here; the kids don’t say yum-yum,” Lesh says. “With younger kids and even high school aged, they’re worried about the tainted breath.
“I think onions are a good choice, but with kids…it’s different,” Lesh says. “I guess onions are more of a grown-up food.”