Saturday, March 29, 2008

Know your Onions

Two things to remember about onions. Firstly, they can be pre-prepared if you wish to make a bowlful to last the week, (or even freeze them) but as cut onion can develop a nasty smell, then avoid this by following a chef's trick, and lightly frying the chopped or sliced onion in butter, before storing (covered) in the fridge.
Secondly, when an onion begins to sprout, or has a woody core, certainly if feeling soft, it should not be used, for even though it seems possible to save and use some part of the onion, it will always have an unpleasant flavour. Have to admit, I have used some parts of a sprouting onion, because it just seems a waste to throw it away, but it is not a good idea. Far better to stand the end of an onion in water and let it sprout on, then cut the green shoots and use as we would chives.

As with most vegetables it is the layer right next to the skin that contains the most vitamins.
Onion skins alone will add colour (often used when dying wool), so when next making stock, just cut a complete onion in quarters, leaving the skin on and this will deepen the stock colour t0 brown- useful when making beef stock. If wishing to make a light chicken stock, then remove the skins before adding the onion.

Apart from adding flavour, onions are nutritionally and medicinally very good for us, and are low in calories (about 7 per oz). They are also relatively cheap compared to other veggies, so here are some inexpensive recipes to keep both your tum and your purse full.

This first is for soup, and yes - there are more traditional ways to make it - however this one is easy, and for the beef stock just use hot water, a spoon of Bovil (or some of AWT's beef gravy mix), or even a beef stock cube. Ideally the bread should be slices cut from a French stick (and always worth buying one, slicing and bagging up to freeze just for a dish such as this - and remember, if you find you have any leftover French bread which is turning a bit stale, slice and freeze it). Otherwise for this dish, use pieces of toasting bread.
Simple Onion Soup: serves 4
1 tblsp sunflower oil
2 largish onions, very finely sliced
1 desstspoon of plain flour
1 1/2 pints (900ml) beef stock
2 slices French bread, 1" (2.5cm) thick
grated cheese
Fry the onion in the oil until softened. Sprinkle with the flour and stir until pale gold. Add the stock, a little at a time, and keep stirring until it thickens. Reduce heat to simmer and cook for a further 10 minutes.
Season with pepper to taste.
Sprinkle the grated cheese on top of the sliced bread and pop under a grill to toast until melted and bubbling. Pour the hot soup into one tureen (or individual serving bowls) and float the toast on top.

This next soup is a classic chilled soup, and due to the cream admit it is a little bit more expensive, Serve cold it is Vichyssoise, served hot it should be called it by its more common name, adding a swirl of cream just before serving.
Vichyssoise (leek and potato soup): serves 6
2 oz (50g) butter
8 oz (225g) diced white part of leeks only
2 large potatoes, peeled and sliced or diced
2 pints (1 litre) chicken stock
salt, white pepper, grated nutmeg
half a pint (30ml) single cream
chopped chives for garnish
Melt the butter and stir in the leeks. Cover and cook gently over a low heat for about 15 minutes or until the leeks are softened, turned pale yellow and the butter has been absorbed. Do not let them go brown.
Add the prepared potatoes, stock and seasoning to taste and simmer for about 20 minutes or until the potatoes are softened. Blend or process the soup until very creamy. Check the seasoning. If serving hot return to pan and reheat, adding a swirl of cream once the soup is in the bowls. To serve chilled, stir the cream into the pureed soup then cool as quickly as possible then chill in the fridge. Serve in chilled soup bowls with a good scattering of chives over the top

For this dish, if no fresh or dried thyme, use sage, or dried mixed herbs. This could also be served, pasta fashion, covered with a cheese sauce, then grated cheese, before baking.
Caramelised Onion and Cheese Pancakes: serves 4
8 ready-made pancakes (pref savoury - see above)
2 oz (50g) butter
3 onions, thinly sliced
2 tsp caster sugar
few fresh thyme leaves (or 1/2 tsp dried thyme)
salt and pepper
7 oz (200g) finely grated cheese (see above)
Fry the onions in the butter for five minutes until just beginning to soften, then stir in the sugar and cook on for a further five or so minutes until the onions are a rich golden colour and beginning to caramelise. Chop the herb finely then add them to the pan. Season to taste.
Keep back 1 oz (25g) of the cheese. Lay out the pancakes and sprinkle the remaining cheese over them, then cover this with the fried onion mixture and roll each up. Arrange the rolls in a greased, shallow ovenproof dish, and sprinkle over the remaining cheese.
Bake at 190C, 375F, gas 5 for about 10 minutes until the cheese has melted. Serve warm.

This next is a topping to put on a ready-made or home-made pizza base. For good measure, after the topping, I will be giving a recipe for a gluten free pizza base. We don't need to have allergies to try out new ways of making and baking. Mozzarella is traditionally the right cheese for the job, as - once melted - it is delightfully stringy, but other cheese could be used instead, or half an half. When I grate up cheese to keep in the freezer, I do a boxful which includes some grated mozarella, just for sprinkling over home-made pizzas. Instead of rosemary, use marjoram/oregano or tear up 4 basil leaves.
Red Onion and Herb Pizza topping: enough for 1 pizza
2 tblsp olive oil
2 red onions, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, peeled and thinly sliced or crushed
1 red bell pepper, seeded and sliced
1 can plum tomatoes, drained, and chopped
2 - 3 tsp chopped fresh rosemary leaves
salt and pepper
5 oz (140g) mozzarella or other cheese (see above)
Fry the onions and peppers in the olive oil for about 5 minutes, then add the garlic, cook for a further five minutes or until all are softened. Stir in the prepared tomatoes and the herbs and heat through. Remove from heat, then spread this over the pizza base. Cover with the grated cheese and bake for approximately 20 minutes at 200C, 400F, gas 6 or until the base is cooked and crisp. Serve immediately.

Gluten free Pizza dough: makes 1 pizza base
4 oz (100g) maize (corn) meal
2 oz (50g) potato flour
2 oz (50g) soya flour
1 tsp gluten free baking powder
pinch salt
2 oz (50g) butter, diced
approx 7 tblsp milk
Put the three flours into a bowl with the baking powder and salt and mix together. Rub in the butter until like breadcrumbs, then stir in enough milk to make a soft dough. Place dough on a sheet of baking parchment, and roll or press out to make a 10" (25cm) round, keeping the edges slightly thicker than the rest of the pizza base. Brush with a little oil then spread the onion mixture (or any other chosen topping) over the base, finishing with grated cheese. Bake on the paper alone, or place the whole lot on a baking sheet at times and temperature given above.

Onions, sliced thickly, then roasted, look quite like beef steaks, so although this is a vegetarian dish, it could please those who like the appearance of meat on a plate. Quite a cheapie to make, but go posh with the presentation and it will look like Gordon Ramsey might have thought of serving it (then decided not - but who cares?).
Red Onion Steaks: serves 4 (V)
4 red onions
4 tblsp olive oil
2 tblsp wholegrain mustard
2 tlsp water
1 tsp sugar
salt and pepper
After peeling, lay the whole onion on its side and cut through into 1/2" (1cm) thick slices (rounds).
Mix together the remaining ingredients, seasoning to taste, and - placing the rings flat side down in a wide bowl, pour over a little of the marinade, placing more onion rounds on top, finishing with the marinade. Cover and leave to stand for half to one hour.
To cook: place the onions in a single layer on a baking sheet, spooning over any marinade left in the bowl. Roast at 220c, 425F, gas 7 for 40-45 minutes or until just turning brown. A good presentation would be making a bed of well-flavoured cous-cous, topping this with wilted spinach and finally the onions steaks on top, spooning over the marinade juices from the pan.

This next is another vegetarian dish, and - excluding the cream (it might even work with yogurt) - uses seasonal and inexpensive ingredients, and the spices make for an amazing flavour. Gratin means the dish is topped with bread-crumbs only, although often gratin dishes seem now to use both breadcrumbs with grated cheese. Cheese could be added to the topping for his dish if you wish to include protein.
Onions with a Gratin Toppping: serves 4 (V)
2 lb (900g) onions
1 oz (25g) butter
8 oz (225g) spinach, washed and shredded
salt, pepper and nutmeg
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp turmeric
half a pint (300ml) double cream
2 oz (50g) fresh breadcrumbs
After peeling the onions, and leaving the root intact, cut the onions in half through from top to bottom. Put the onion halves into a pan of boiling water and simmer for half an hour or until just tender. Carefully remove from the water and drain on kitchen paper.
Melt the butter in a pan , add the prepared spinach, toss and cook in the butter for 2 - 4 minutes or until wilted. Season well, adding a grating of nutmeg. Spread the spinach over the base of a shallow, ovenproof dish.
Cut the root end from the onions, and separate each half into two or three , and place layers of the onion over the spinach.
Using a dry pan, dry-fry the cumin and turmeric , plus a further grating of nutmeg, and toast these for half a minute before removing from the heat. Stir the spices into the cream, then pour this over the onions. Finish with a topping of breadcrumbs, and bake at 200C, 400F, gas 6 for 20 - 25 minutes or until the crumbs are golden and the dish is bubbling hot.