You know how sometimes, if you want to describe a boring individual with very little personality, you can refer to them as 'vanilla'? Meaning they're a bit bland, a safe bet, perfectly pleasant but nothing to go wild over. Average.
Suddenly it seems to me that this is a rather inappropriate label. Surely, if we want to describe the mundane, the everyday, the tame, the insipid, we should refer to them as 'onion'.
Let's face it, no one goes wild over onions. Onions are the safe bet. The best friend that you'll always rely on and love in a strictly platonic fashion but who will never set your loins aflame. The boy that all the girls call 'sweet', which - if you're a man I'm sure you know this already - is the kiss of death as far as romantic opportunity is concerned. The trusty shoulder to cry on, dependent and reliable but always hiding back from the limelight.
Vanilla, by comparison, seems positively exotic and exciting, suggesting secret whispers in the dark, clandestine meetings, breathless laughter, a wave of musky perfume carried on a gentle evening breeze. Vanilla speaks of secrets and seduction, of the faraway and desirable. The poor onion doesn't stand a chance.
We do, however, depend on onions. I'd wager that around eighty percent of savoury recipes call for the inclusion of at least one of these golden bulbs. They provide a depth, a richness, an earthy foundation of flavour that is hard to come by using any other ingredient. I know this, from the many times I've ransacked the fridge, always assuming there must be a stash of onions in there, only to find that we're out of them and I have to trek to the corner shop because there is nothing else I can substitute. They are a stalwart of cooking, one you always assume will be around to help you out.
However, there are a few recipes that showcase the humble onion, giving it the starring role it so desperately craves as it sits at the back in a stew, soup or risotto, watching the meat or other vegetables getting all the attention and crying silently into its papery skin.
Onion soup is one, of course. A melting, burnished fusion of earthy goodness topped with that most delectably simple of creations: cheese on toast. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that, for most people (including myself), it is the cheese on toast that makes them want to eat onion soup.
To unleash the full potential of the onion, you have to caramelise it. You have to finely slice it and then fry it slowly in sizzling butter or oil, over a low heat, until what were tough, crunchy crescents of translucent flesh soften into a melting, unctuous tangle of slippery, sweet, savoury goodness. Even better if you add a pinch of brown sugar to bring out the sweetness, and a splash of balsamic to heighten the savoury sensation. There is very little that caramelised onions will not partner happily with, but, for me, they are at their most outstanding when paired with goat's cheese and rocket on some form of bread base.
This, then, is the best way I can think of to showcase the humble tastiness of a pile of caramelised onions. It's southern France's answer to a pizza: pissaladière.
I first came across this on a holiday in Nice, where it is sold everywhere by the slice out of giant, battered-looking trays. It's a laughably simple combination of bread dough, caramelised onions, black olives and anchovies. These decidedly un-flashy ingredients fuse together to form something far greater than the sum of its parts. The soft tangle of onions coupled with the dough, moist where they've soaked into it and crispy around the edges, is intensely comforting. Add the satisfying saltiness of olives and anchovies to counteract the sweetness of the onions, and you have something outstanding.
Humble, yes, but outstanding nonetheless. This is a great recipe for reminding ourselves just how much we owe the onion.
Do you have any favourite onion recipes that make the most of this kitchen staple?
Pissaladière (serves 4-6):
- 20g fresh yeast
- 3/4 tsp sugar
- 180ml warm water
- 200g strong white bread flour
- 130g strong wholemeal flour
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1.5 tbsp olive oil
- 3 tbsp garlic-infused olive oil (or normal olive oil)
- A bunch of thyme, leaves picked
- 8 medium onions (about 1.5kg)
- 1 can anchovies in oil
- A couple of handfuls of black olives, pitted
- Salt and pepper
First, make the dough. Stir the yeast into the warm water and sugar and leave until frothy. Put the salt and flours in a large mixing bowl and make a well in the middle. Add the olive oil and the yeast mixture and mix together to form a dough (add a little more water if it seems too dry). Knead for 10 minutes until smooth and elastic (or use the dough hook function on an electric mixer for 10 minutes), then place in a bowl and cover with a teatowel. Leave to rise in a warm place until doubled in size - this should take 1-1.5 hours.
Meanwhile, make the onion topping. Peel and slice the onions very finely (a mandolin cutter is ideal for this, if you have one). Heat 1 tbsp of the garlic oil in a large pan over a medium heat and fry the onions until translucent, along with 1 tbsp of the thyme leaves. Turn the heat down low and cook them for about 30 minutes until very soft, sticky and golden. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
When the dough is ready, pre-heat the oven to 220C. Roll the dough out to a large rectangle about 1.5cm thick. Spread the onions over the top, scatter over another 1 tbsp thyme leaves, then slice each anchovy fillet lengthways into 3 or 4 slices. Arrange these over the onions in a criss-cross pattern, placing an olive in each diamond. Leave for 15 minutes in a warm place, then put in the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes until crispy and golden brown around the edges.
Serve with a green salad.