Let Us Now Praise… The Onion

On One of the Holy Trinity of Vegetables

When we look for evidence of life around distant formations of stars, which may in fact have twinkled their last ten thousand years ago, it is mainly water that we look for, clouds or streams or breaths of precious water; where there is water, we think, there must follow life. If this seems a little self-centerd, it is understandable, I suppose. We, the surface of this planet, and almost everything we feed ourselves with, are mostly made of water; the elemental act of cooking is chiefly the act of moving water from one place to another.

When we cure lamb or salmon fillets, legs of ham, boned-out shoulders, herring, or anything of that sort, we are using the dry salt and ambient temperatures as a way of drawing out water; conversely, when we boil pasta, rice, polenta or any kind of gruel, dried pulses and grains, we are rehydrating as much as cooking; that is to say, moving water from the outside to the inside of these items.

You could say that one of the definitions of that word, “cook,” is to bring something to the point where it cannot hold on to water, where it starts to leak life out into your pan; look at the juices that run out of a roasting chicken, see a piece of lamb shrink as it grills. This is particularly the case with vegetables. If you have ever cooked peperonata, piperade, shakshuka, or any similar dish, which rests on a ragù of sweet peppers, you will remember, I’m sure, a certain sense of frustration.

You have these firm, bright peppers, each with their particular flavor and crunch, and pleasant to eat raw—if a little reminiscent of generic salad garnishes on the side of jacket potatoes or toasted sandwiches—and will have taken care, of course, to cut them neatly, to remove the white ribs and the clusters of seeds, which are curiously hard under a knife. Then you add them to hot oil and all your effort is wasted. Nothing seems to happen to them—or if it does, it’s bad. There is a point, it seems to me, between uncooked and fully cooked, where fruit, in particular, are at the absolute nadir of their flavor.

A raw tomato (at least a good one) is herbal, fruity and brisk; even a substandard one, if cooked for a very long time in a very low oven, covered with good oil, becomes intense, jammy and savory. Think, on the other hand, of the grilled breakfast tomato: cooked just enough to reach that point where all the fresh flavor is destroyed, too hot to taste what is left, mealy and watery, without the chance to develop the full potential of its cooked flavor… It’s no wonder so many people don’t like tomatoes—they have too often consumed them only in the form of a travesty. Plums are the same, and so, definitely, are peppers. Cooking them properly takes time.

You need to cook peppers long enough for their walls to collapse and for their juices to leak out, which, the first few times you do it, takes at least ten minutes longer than you think it is going to; very often this is because the recipe you are following has lied to you. Most recipes are rather coy about the actual time it takes to cook vegetables. Anyway, you’ll know when your peppers are properly cooked, assuming you are cooking peppers, because when the juices begin to flow out they do so very suddenly; your pan will turn a solid rusty red, and the peppers themselves will deflate by about two-thirds.

This, I suppose, may be a reason why cooks are reluctant to either fully cook their peppers themselves or to instruct other people to do so; for one thing, it takes twice as long, and for another, you need twice as many ingredients. No-one wants their recipe to be the most extravagant—unless that is exactly their aim, I guess, in which case peppers probably won’t be involved—and time is all too often of the essence in modern recipe-writing. Of course we need convenience, efficiency, a meal on the table in half an hour, but all that at the expense of flavor is counterproductive. What use, after all, is a quick meal that no-one enjoys?

Three ingredients are all you need—even, or perhaps especially, if you are then going to add a dozen more. Onion, carrot and celery; that should do it.

Nowhere is this pernicious doctrine of speed more evident than in the case of the onion. This singularly useful allium is one of the many vegetables, along with various spices, animals, cooking techniques and so on, which the Romans spread around the outposts of their Empire during that entity’s checkered history. Now, of course, it is ubiquitous, from the Straits of Gibraltar all around the wide Mediterranean Sea, up through Northern and Eastern Europe, into Russia and beyond.

Everything starts with an onion, sliced, diced, grated, brunoised, burnt, crushed, roasted or raw, but most often cooked quite gently in a little oil, pig or beef  or sheep fat, whole or clarified butter, perhaps in the company of a few other select vegetables, which seem to change across Europe and beyond in a sort of stepwise puzzle, each country sharing two of three or four vegetables with its neighbor, one of which is always the onion.

The others might be leek, carrot, celery, celeriac, green or red pepper, parsley root, bulb fennel, garlic, cabbage, tomato—whatever the combination, it will be the bedrock of that country’s cuisine, rejoicing, perhaps, under the name of mirepoix, sofritosoffritto or włoszczyzna, which, it should be said, I have no idea how to pronounce.

The mirepoix, the French variation on this theme, is seemingly considered the correct or original version, and the others as minor corruptions; or we could say that mirepoix has become the British word for it too. Whatever you want to call it, people invariably try to complicate it. I once watched a chef demonstrate the construction of a game ragù at a local food festival. I always start a ragù, he said, with what I call the “Holy Trinity”: red onion, white onion, celery, carrots, leeks and garlic. I don’t recall if he added anything else to this list.

Now, I am impressed by the palate that can discern both red and white onions in the depths of a game ragù, but this aside, it seems obvious that this chef had heard a soffritto (as would be appropriate to Italian cuisine) referred to in this fashion, and in calling his own six-ingredient medley the “Holy Trinity,” never paused to consider either the actual meaning of the words he was using or, more importantly, the deeper meaning of that phrase, which is that the perfect simplicity of three ingredients is in fact all that is required when you begin the construction of a game or, more specifically, a rabbit ragù. Anything extra does not add to but rather muddies the waters you are attempting to clarify.

Three ingredients are all you need—even, or perhaps especially, if you are then going to add a dozen more. Onion, carrot and celery; that should do it. Each of these vegetables brings its own particular quality to the table and you really don’t need, for example, three different alliums in one stew. I recently read, in fact, that Italian cooks will never—never—use garlic and onion in the same dish, which is certainly untrue; more believably, I have also read that it is a Neapolitan convention not to mix the two in a soffritto.

I’m not sure whether this has anything to do with flavor at all; it seems more likely to be a legacy of medieval medical advice around the dangers of overheating the body’s humours with fiery foods. The fact that this tradition has survived to be repeated, however, is indicative of the seriousness with which the Italians take simplicity, and, indeed, their food.

On a more personal note, I don’t really see the point of garlic unless you are going to use a lot of it. In particularly long braises I will add an entire head, the cloves separated and peeled but left whole, little garlicky treats in a rich meaty tangle; I don’t really think this is the place for that, though. Let the onion do the hard work—it is, after all, very versatile.

The phrase “know your onions” is, I often think, no coincidence; there is certainly a lot to learn. Non-professional cooks, I find, tend to dislike the preparation of onions, at least in large amounts. This is partly, I’m sure, because they haven’t had enough practice (or don’t use a big or sharp enough knife), but it is also because they are using the wrong onions. Most of the onions you buy here are, perhaps unsurprisingly, English brown onions, and they are both quite small and quite pungent, as onions go. Pointlessly pungent, in fact, since in most situations involving standard onions, you will want to cook most of the strength and acid out of them before introducing much else to the mix.

If you use English onions to make even a decent  soffritto, let  alone a  pissaladière, a French onion soup, a salsa Genovese or sarde in saor, then the amount you need will make you cry twice, once when you are peeling them and again when you are slicing. There is really no need for this; cooking should not make you weep, at least with pain. Professional kitchens tend to use the large Spanish onion, a little milder, perhaps, than the English, but more importantly, about three times the size.

I’m not sure there is anything better than the smell of onions gently sweating in butter.

Remember that onions are one of the three foundations of your dish, and remember, furthermore, that when cooked properly, they will lose a lot of their bulk to the air. With this in mind, think how much onion your dish needs; it is quite a lot, generally.

I often use the large Italian onions, wrapped in their papery white skins. These are especially mild, well suited to pickling and fermenting, to light macerations and salting, as well as to fierce grilling and to long, drawn-out cooking; if onion is one of the primary ingredients of your dish, I’d advise you to use these. A tortilla, for example, of the Spanish variety, which is made almost entirely of potato and golden, well-cooked onion, held  together with only a little egg, is the perfect home for these, when prepared properly.

In this context, this means that they should first be halved, from the root to the tip, the skin peeled away and the ends squared off, then sliced along the length, as finely as you can—ideally paper-thin and translucent, but don’t worry if not, just try harder next time. Slicing this way allows the flesh of the onion to break and cook down into an almost jammy mass, if that is what you are after; slicing the other way, into half-moons across the rings, is generally best for pickles and marinades.

Now, the hard work done, you  have the pleasure of actually cooking them. A tortilla  or a French onion soup requires you to cook the onion almost to melting point, until, their physicality nearly gone, they are almost all flavor—hence the thinness of our slicing.

The cooking of a soffritto is a little more restrained and demands a slightly different technique. Halve the onions in the same way, but, having peeled them, square off only the tip, leaving the root end intact. Place each half cut-side down with the hairy root pointing away from you and slice down the onion in a rounded arch, then turn the whole around so the cuts now go from right to left and cut across them until the whole falls apart into little pieces.

I’m not sure there is anything better than the smell of onions gently sweating in butter. I was obsessed with it when I started to cook, trying to capture and prolong it as far as possible, trying to get as much of it as I could into the finished dish. The smell is nearly complete in itself, a heady oxymoron of fat and acid, carrying both deep savory tones and a hint of sweetness which nods towards the dark caramel browns of that onion soup, but more than anything it is the smell of possibility. Think of all the things those onions could grow up to be! It can be hard to pin them down to just one dish, but you must, there is cooking to be done.

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Excerpted from First, Catch by Thom Eagle © 2018 by Thomas Eagle. Originally published in the UK in 2018 by Quadrille, an imprint of Hardie Grant Publishing. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

Thom Eagle
Thom Eagle
Thom Eagle is a writer, chef and fermenter currently based in East London. He has presented at the Oxford Symposium of Food & Cookery, writes the psychogastronomy tinyletter, and contributes to At The Table, Market Life, and Locavore magazines. His first book First, Catch was shortlisted for the Andre Simon Food Book of the Year and won the Debut Food Book at the Fortnum and Mason’s Awards.





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