Winter is not my time of year. As seasons go, I rank it last, in the kitchen and everywhere else. I’m cold, there’s nothing fresh to cook, and it makes a curmudgeon out of me. But increasingly, I’m realizing that winter cooking has an upside. With less to work with, you focus on what you do have. You think past your typical impulses, reframing the usual suspects.
At mealtime, it means paying due attention to one of the most common yet underestimated ingredients of everyday cooking: onions. Not spring’s precious bunching onions with their grass-green tops, or even the sweet specialty onions of summer. I mean plain, round storage onions, the ones we rarely think about — until there’s a crisis because they’re not in the house.
Onions are both foundation and finishing touch, so common to our cooking habits that to leave them out must be deliberate. Yet, despite this reliance, how often do we summon the onion for its own sake? Not often enough.
Winter, is my annual cue to yield more space to them on the plate. Sometimes that means rummaging through my pantry and old notes to scavenge for ideas I never seem to have time for in spring, summer or fall. Other times it means letting the onion speak for itself. When I need a nudge in that direction, I turn to cooks such as the late food writer Richard Olney, who remind me that simplicity and restraint can be as compelling as the glitz of novelty and complex orchestration.
Olney’s selection of onion dishes in his book “Simple French Food” reads like a study: onions baked into a delicate pudding; onions layered in a brothy, cheesy panade; onions bathed in cream in a gratin; onions glazed with vinegar and rolled into an omelet, onions braised in beer.
Thinly sliced raw onions take on funky, briny notes with beets in a magenta-hued, ume-vinegar-dressed salad. And hollowed-out whole onions generate both vessel and savory filling in a dish that puts another should-eat-more-often element, stuffing, in the center of the plate.
All of them call on basic storage onions from the supermarket. As far as red, white and yellow onions: They’re generally interchangeable, but their differences, although subtle, are just enough that I’ve called for specific types for each recipe. Yellow onions are the driest, so they hold up the longest in the pot (and in your pantry), making them ideal for long cooking.
Red onions are faintly sweeter, so I prefer them for slightly quicker caramelization and when I want their lovely boost of color.
White onions are highest in water content and the mildest, so they can be a good choice for a raw garnish. I like to use a mix of all three for stuffed onions.
BEETS AND ONION IN UME VINEGAR DRESSING
12 ounces small to medium red beets (about the size of a golf ball, preferably all the same size)
1 small red onion
2 tablespoons ume (umeboshi, or plum) vinegar
1 teaspoon sesame seeds, preferably raw, unhulled
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Trim the beets’ root ends. Wrap each beet in just enough aluminum foil to cover with one layer. Place directly on the middle oven rack and roast for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or just until tender. The beets are ready when they are easy to pierce with the tip of a sharp knife. Let cool, which may take up to an hour. Unwrap the beets; loosen and discard their skins under cool running water. If the beets are small, cut them into small wedges. If they are medium-size, cut them into 1-inch cubes. Transfer the beets to a mixing bowl.
2. Cut the onion in half from top to bottom. Cut each half lengthwise into thin slices. Transfer the onion to the bowl with the beets. Add the ume vinegar to the bowl, toss well and let sit for 10 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, toast the sesame seeds in a small skillet over medium heat for a few minutes, tossing occasionally, until they darken a shade and smell fragrant. Let cool.
4. Whisk together the lemon juice and the oil in a large liquid measuring cup until emulsified, then pour over the beets and onions, tossing to coat. To serve, spoon onto plates and sprinkle the sesame seeds over each portion.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
ONION SOUP WITH PORCINI AND THYME
4 1⁄2 cups water, 2 cups’ worth brought to a boil
1⁄2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1 1⁄2 pounds yellow onions
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt, divided
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
1 cup dry white wine
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper, or more to taste
8 baguette slices or 4 slices sourdough bread, cut 3⁄4 inch thick
1. Pour the 2 cups of boiling water over the dried mushrooms in a bowl; let soak for about 20 minutes while you cook the onions.
2. Cut the onions in half, top to bottom. Cut each half crosswise into thin, half-moon slices.
3. Heat a wide, heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add the oil and swirl to coat, then stir in the onions and 1⁄2 teaspoon of the salt. Cook for about 30 minutes, stirring a few times, until the onions begin to break down somewhat but are not falling apart. Reduce the heat as needed to keep the onions from sticking or browning excessively; they should remain a pale golden color.
4. Stir in the garlic and thyme; cook for 5 minutes, then add the wine. Increase the heat to medium-high and cook for 5 minutes or until the wine has reduced by about half. Place a fine-mesh strainer over the pot; pour in the mushrooms and their soaking liquid, reserving the rehydrated mushrooms. Add the remaining 2 1⁄2 cups of water; once the liquids in the pot start to bubble at the edges, partially cover and cook for 10 minutes.
5. Chop the rehydrated mushrooms into small pieces. Add them to the pot along with the pepper and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Partially cover and cook 20 minutes longer.
6. Meanwhile, preheat the oven (or toaster oven) to 400 degrees. Toast the bread until crisp and barely golden.
7. Place the slices in the bottom of individual soup bowls. Ladle the soup over the toast; serve hot. Makes 4 servings.
ONIONS STUFFED WITH HERBS AND CHEESE
6 large onions (about 12 ounces each)
5 ounces day-old bread, cut into 1-inch slices
4 cups no-salt-added vegetable broth, half of it heated to a boil
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 cloves garlic, smashed and then finely chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs (a combination of parsley, marjoram, thyme, celery leaves and oregano)
2 ounces fontina cheese, grated on the medium-size holes of a grater
1 ounce Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated on the small holes of a grater
1/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cut about 1/2 inch off the top of each onion and reserve for another use, if desired. Cut a very small slice from the bottom so the onion will stand upright.
2. Use a melon baller or grapefruit spoon to scoop out the inside of each onion, leaving a shell that’s about 2 layers thick.
3. Chop enough of the onion pulp to equal 11/2 cups. Reserve any excess for another use.
4. Arrange the bread in a double layer in a shallow dish. Pour the 2 cups of boiling broth over; allow the bread to soak for 10 minutes.
5. Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Add all but 2 teaspoons of the oil and swirl to coat, then add the chopped onion and salt; cook for 7 or 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent, with a bit of color. Stir in the garlic; cook for 3 minutes, then add the herbs and cook for 1 minute. Turn off the heat. Squeeze the bread gently with your hands. It should be moist but not dripping. Working over a medium bowl, tear the bread into small pieces.
6. Scrape the onion mixture into the bowl with the bread, then add the cheeses and pepper. Mix gently, then spoon the stuffing into each onion cavity, mounding it slightly. Arrange the onions in a deep baking dish just large enough to hold them, and drizzle the tops with the remaining 2 teaspoons of oil.
7. Pour the remaining 2 cups of broth in the bottom of the baking dish, and tent the dish with foil. Bake on the middle rack 45 minutes, then remove the foil.
8. Baste the tops of the onions with the liquid in the baking dish, and continue baking 30 minutes longer, until the tops are browned. Serve warm. Makes 6 servings.