An homage to onions

Red, white, yellow or green -- onions are magnificent

Start with an onion. Peel it, slice it or chop or dice it, sauté it in some oil or butter until it’s tender and golden.

The number of savory recipes that begin this way is uncountable.  Onions are a kitchen staple: cheap, flavorful and easy to store. Really, what would cooks do without them?

Brown (or yellow) ones store the longest and are most economical; white and red ones are milder in flavor, especially for using raw. All onions develop sweetness when cooked. Though there aren’t so many recipes that feature onions (onion soup being a major exception) they do so much to flavor other foods, from the essential earthy base in soups and stews to the sublime caramelized topping for pizza and flatbreads.

A recipe that Cathy gave me the other day for lemon chicken with rice is a perfect example, using two of my kitchen favorites, lemons and onions. It begins with sautéeing a chopped onion; then you brown some pieces of chicken, add rice (1 cup), lemon juice (1/2 cup), broth (1 1/2 cups), zest from one lemon, salt and pepper, and bake at 350 degrees in a covered casserole or Dutch oven –20 or 30 minutes, till the rice is cooked.  Simple and delicious. You can take it from there and add spices or golden raisins as it’s cooking, or topping with toasted pine nuts  (as Cathy recommended).

Onions are also the perfect accompaniment to roast potatoes, squash, root vegetables, cauliflower….etc.  Just cut an onion into large chunks and chop potatoes and/or other vegetables into smaller chunks. Mix these together with a light coating of olive oil and a good sprinkling of salt, (and herbs or spices if you like) spread the chunks out on a baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees till browned and crispy on the outside. Right now as I write I am roasting some rutabaga this way–with onion, of course. Often I have roasted vegetables with bread and a salad and call it supper. (Or eat up the veggies as they come out of the oven and call it a snack.)

Raw onions marinated in vinegar soften and lose much of their sharpness

Claudia Roden gives a Middle Eastern version for a simple onion relish. Cut 2 mild onions (I like the red ones) in half, slice them into half-moons, and put in a bowl. Sprinkle with salt and add 3 tablespoons of wine vinegar and a tablespoon of dried mint. Let stand for an hour or more before serving, with meat, sandwiches or salads….

So, at the beginning of this futuristic sounding decade of 2010, I want to give thanks to the humble onion, which has been eaten and cultivated since prehistoric times. Onions are mentioned in documents from ancient Egypt more than 5,000 years old.

For New Year’s Eve, I made my family’s traditional celebratory treat: an onion pie.

In the 60s, as I recall, there was some shock value in putting the words “onion” and “pie” together, but now, as everyone is used to quiches and savory tarts, it’s not too hard to grasp the concept.

My father, who grew up in Germany, said it was called “poor man’s pie,” because those who could not afford to make tortes and cakes with fruits, nuts, or chocolate could usually manage the ingredients for onion pie. My mother reconstructed the recipe from my father’s memory and we had it only once a year– on New Year’s Eve.

Over the years, as we started cutting back on fat and cholesterol, the onion pie was very accomodating.  My mother started making the pie crust with oil rather than butter and we sautéed the onions in oil  instead of butter as well. Sometimes  we used only egg whites instead of whole eggs or replaced the sour cream with thick Greek-style yogurt.

Despite depriving the “poor man’s pie” of what riches it once had, the onion pie has adapted gracefully and still tastes great–thanks to those caramelized onions. And it goes perfectly with a glass of champagne.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Onion Pie

  • Pastry for one pie shell
  • 2 large or 3 medium brown or white onions, peeled
  • 2 Tablespoons butter or olive oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup sour cream or Greek (strained) yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Line a 9-inch pie pan with pastry, crimping the edges.

Pre-bake the shell:  Using a fork, prick the bottom of the pastry shell. Chill for ½ hour.  Line the shell with a piece of aluminum foil and fill with dried beans; then bake shell in a preheated 400 degree oven for 10 minutes.  Remove from oven, remove the beans and foil, prick again with a fork, and let cool slightly before filling.

As the shell is being prepared, thinly slice the onions.  Melt the butter or heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet, and sauté the onions until golden brown and soft.  Let cool.

Beat the 2 eggs with the sour cream and pour over the onions.  Stir the mixture together, season with salt and pepper, and pour into the pre-baked crust.  Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes; then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake for 30 minutes more, or until the top is golden and set.

Serve while warm.



Filed under baked goods, Praise for other cooks, supper time, Uncategorized, vegetables, winter

4 responses to “An homage to onions

  1. Rick

    That poor man’s pie sounds fit for a king.

  2. Cathy mihalik

    I’m going to try the onion pie in all it’s butter and cream glory and think of your dad and mom!

  3. Hi Toby. I can’t wait to try this poor man’s pie. I loved your homage to the humble onion — sometimes when I don’t know what I’m cooking for dinner, I start by chopping an onion and then I get inspired! Love and happy new year, Grace

  4. Pingback: Happy New Year! | toby's kitchen notes

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