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‘Onions Etcetera’ elevates the humble vegetable

By Gretchen McKay • Updated May 8, 2017 at 10:31 PM

Is there any more unsung hero in the kitchen than the humble onion, or its equally unheralded BFF, the garlic clove?

These cheap and versatile veggies are the culinary world’s workhorses, playing a supporting role in so many dishes in so many cultures. Even the dual threats of bad breath and a teary-cutting experience can’t diminish their universal appeal. Alliums, as they are known collectively, are one of the world’s oldest cultivated plants and have been used to flavor food since at least 5000 B.C.

So how’d they become the Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables?

“We take them for granted,” says Kate Winslow, who grew up in Pittsburgh and worked as an editor at Gourmet. “So you kind of forget, and think they’re just for seasoning.”

Yet it’s only with the aromatic addition of alliums that a clever cook can build something perfectly delicious to eat, she says. And to prove her point, she and her photographer husband Guy Ambrosino spent six straight months devising the ultimate guide to cooking with leeks, scallions, garlic, shallots and every other sort of onion.

“Onions Etcetera: The Essential Allium Cookbook” is bound to blow you away with its gorgeous photos and mouthwatering collection of recipes. Winslow’s prose also is delectable, with breezy tales of the couple’s cooking life interspersed with practical tips on how to, say, clean leeks or peel pearl onions. You also find bits of onion history (revered in French cooking, shallots originated near Palestine), and memories of where certain dishes were first tasted and how/why they were replicated.

When it comes to Ambrosino’s great-aunt Aggie’s “fried water” soup, it’s hard not to spring out of bed and sprint to the kitchen to make it. Ditto with the beer-battered onion rings. You’ll feel the same way, too, about many of the book’s 100-plus recipes, which are arranged according to color and/or season.

First come the “keepers,” or the yellow, white and red storage onions one always has on hand. There also are chapters devoted to sweet onions; scallions and chives; shallots and leeks; pearl onions and button-shaped cipollini; and the fleeting “early bird” ramps, spring onions and green garlic/garlic scapes.

Some of the recipes use alliums in supporting roles, such as the leeks that team up with fresh dill and feta in a creamy spring tart. Others allow onions to boldly headline — for instance, grilled as a taco filling or fried with a bit of chili, curry and cassava flour into a golden, crispy fritter.

“These are recipes that we love and that mean something to us, that resonate deeply on an emotional and historical level,” Winslow writes. “Turns out we, like everyone else, come from a long line of onion eaters.”

How did she go from amateur eater to cookbook author? Her parents both were teachers, so it wasn’t a reach to consider a career in journalism when she graduated from the University of Virginia in the mid-1990s; her degree in women’s history included a thesis on women’s newspaper pages during the Great Depression. But specializing in food? Not exactly a life goal.

Not that she didn’t have a deep connection to all things culinary: She grew up in a family that loved to cook and entertain. Their annual open house on New Year’s Day in Edgewood (and the traditional German meal that followed) was “epic,” complete with bloody marys, spinach dip in a bread bowl and platters of smoked sausages.

She took a summer job after college as a cook at a ranch in the wilds of Wyoming, but that was more for fun than professional development. It wasn’t until she followed some fellow UVAers to Santa Fe, N.M., that she turned to writing.

Her friends eventually all moved away, but Winslow stayed on, taking a job as an arts editor with a weekly newspaper. Ambrosino, who grew up in a big Italian family in New Jersey, just happened to be the staff photographer, and well, you know where that goes. As Winslow’s job duties expanded to include a food column, so grew their love affair, fanned by the many meandering conversations that took place around the kitchen table. “And that is still one of our favorite places to be,” she writes. “We have always loved to bring people together, especially over food.”

In 2003, the couple headed back East, first to Philly and later to New York City, where Winslow took a job as a book editor at Gourmet magazine and her husband set up a photo studio. All the while, she says, they explored various cuisines, gathering recipes like taste souvenirs.

After helping to edit and write the head notes for Gourmet’s big yellow cookbook, Winslow switched over to the magazine as an editor writing copy for recipes. Working for Ruth Reichl “was a bizarre dream come true,” she recalls, not to mention a delicious education.

As their family expanded to include a son, the excitement of Big City living wore off. So in 2009, they packed up their tiny apartment in Brooklyn and headed for Sicily. A six-week sabatical stretched into a months-long visit during which both ended up working at a cooking school. The experience proved tasty fodder for their first cookbook in 2012, “Coming Home to Sicily.”

One food in particular bubbled in the back of the couple’s heads upon their return to New Jersey in 2010 — onions. In particular it was Italy’s sweet and famous cipolla di Tropea, a red variety that grows along the coast in the Calabria region. In Sicily, Winslow recalls, everything begins with red onions, “and we got into that habit.” To this day, she has a soft spot for red onions.

It was during a visit to the Strip District in the fall of 2014 that the seeds for “Onions Etcetera” first were sown. Walking on Smallman Street, Winslow happened to peek into one of the 19th century produce warehouses and saw that it was filled with bags and bags of onions. The image stuck with her. A few months later, when a publisher they’d done a few projects with, asked for some new ideas, a second cookbook on alliums proved to be the answer.

Winslow says she hopes the recipes she and her husband have gathered will serve as an inspiration for meals instead of an aspiration. “I want it to be super useful, so people can dive in and make dinner from it.”

That said, the book does include some project-oriented dishes, including one for onion bialys and another for pierogies that replicates the pillowy, butter-slicked dumplings her Polish great-great aunt from Morningside fed her as a child.

You’ll also find pastes and sauces, such as homemade harissa and chermoula, that can live in your fridge for a long time, just waiting for the opportunity to serve as building blocks for a quick and flavorful dinner.

For such a common vegetable, “there’s so many things you can do with it,” she says.

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CURRIED ONION FRITTERS WITH MINT RAITA

The crunchy and spicy appetizers are one of the author’s favorite recipes. She suggests eating them “with a cold beer in hand.”

For raita

1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt

2 small cucumbers, such as Persian, finely chopped

1 tablespoon finely chopped mint

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For fritters

3 medium onions, thinly sliced

2 serrano chiles, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1 tablespoon curry powder

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup chickpea flour (I used cassava flour)

1 large egg, lightly beaten

Peanut or vegetable oil, for frying

Make raita: Combine yogurt, cucumbers and mint in small bowl. Season with 1/4 teaspoon salt and several grinds of black pepper. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Make fritters: Combine onions, chilies and cilantro in large bowl. Add curry powder, cayenne, 1 teaspoon salt and several grinds of black pepper and toss everything together until well combined. Sprinkle chickpea flour over onion mixture, add egg and mix together gently so everything is lightly coated.

Heat about 1/2 inch oil in heavy skillet over moderately high heat. While oil heats up, line a cooling sheet or platter with paper towels. When oil is hot and shimmering, use two forks to scoop up about 2 tablespoons of onion mixture. Drop mixture into hot oil, pressing down lightly so it spreads out a bit. Some of the onions will straggle out, which is totally fine — these bits become extra crunch.

Fry the fritters until deep golden brown on the underside, 2 to 3 minutes, then flip and continue to fry 2 minutes more. Transfer fritters to paper towels to drain, and scoop out any floating bits from oil before frying another batch.

Eat fritters while hot, dabbed with a spoonful of raita.

Makes about 16 fritters.

— Adapted from “Onions Etcetera: The Essential Allium Cookbook” by Kate Winslow and Guy Ambrosino (Burgess Lea Press; February 2017; $35)

* * *

RED, RED JAM

It’s great on grilled cheese sandwiches, or on buttered toast with thick-cut bacon. Or by the forkful, straight from the skillet, writes author Kate Winslow, adding, “Not ashamed.”

3 tablespoons olive oil

4 medium red onions, thinly sliced

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 sprig fresh rosemary. leaves stripped and chopped

2 cups dry red wine

1/2 cup maple syrup, preferably grade B

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

Combine olive oil and onions in large skillet over moderately high heat. Season well with salt and pepper, and cook until onions begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add chopped rosemary and wine.

Bring mixture to a simmer, then reduce heat to low and simmer very gently, uncovered, until wine is almost completely reduced, about 40 minutes.

When wine is almost reduced, add maple syrup and vinegar to onions and continue to simmer until liquid is reduced and onions are jam-like but still juicy, about 1 hour. Remove from heat and serve at once. Or, cool completely before refrigerating up to 2 weeks.

Makes about 2 cups.

— “Onions Etcetera: The Essential Allium Cookbook” by Kate Winslow and Guy Ambrosino (Burgess Lea Press; February 2017; $35)

* * *

GRILLED ONION TACOS

Quick, simple and utterly delicious. If you don’t have the time or inclination to make salsa from scratch, substitute bottled tomatillo sauce.

4 sweet onions

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon oregano

1/2 teaspoon salt and several grinds black pepper

12 good-quality corn tortillas

1/2 cup crumbled queso fresco

Roasted tomatillo salsa, for serving (recipe follows)

Preheat grill over moderately high heat; alternatively, use a stovetop grill pan.

Cut onions crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Keeping the sliced rings intact, threw them onto skewers. (If using bamboo skewers, soak in water for at least 30 minutes before grilling.) Stir together olive oil, oregano, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Brush mixture over skewered onions.

Grill onions until softened and charred in spots, flipping occasionally, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer to plate and cover to keep warm.

Lay tortillas over the grill and toast, turning once, until softened and blackened in spots, about 3 minutes total. Wrap tortillas in clean kitchen towel to keep warm.

To assemble tacos, slide onions off skewers. Fill each warm tortilla with a few onion rings, top with a spoonful or salsa and a generous scattering of crumbled queso fresco.

Makes 12 tacos.

— “Onions Etcetera: The Essential Allium Cookbook” by Kate Winslow and Guy Ambrosino (Burgess Lea Press; February 2017; $35)

SALSA

Heat a broiler to high and line a baking sheet with foil. Place 1/2 pound husked and rinsed tomatillos 2 plump unpeeled garlic cloves and 1 halved (lengthwise) jalapeno on sheet. Broil until vegetables are softened and blackened in spots, 5 to 8 minutes. Set aside to cool. Remove garlic cloves from skins and drop into a blender with tomatillos, jalapenos and any juices that have collected on the baking sheet. Add 1/4 teaspoon cumin and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Blend until very smooth. Refrigerate until ready to use.

* * *

LEEK TART WITH FETA AND DILL

Looking for an unfussy but satisfying brunch dish? This tart is light and springy, and full of spring flavor.

For dough

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Kosher salt

8 tablespoons cold butter, cut into pieces

3 to 4 tablespoons ice water

For filling

2 large leeks, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 larges eggs

3/4 cup Greek yogurt

1/2 cup crumbled feta

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill

Freshly grated nutmeg

Make dough: Combine flour and 1/4 teaspoon salt in bowl and, using your hands or a pastry cutter, quickly work in butter until floury mixture is filled with pea-sized lumps. Drizzle 3 tablespoons ice water over mixture and stir with hands or a fork to combine until dough just holds together. Add remaining water if necessary. Gather dough into a ball and flatten slightly, then wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 1 hour and up to a couple of days.

Make tart: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Roll dough out lightly on floured surface into a generous round, about 11 inches in diameter. Fit into an 8- or 9-inch round tart pan with removable bottom by loosely rolling dough around the rolling pin and then unfurling it over the pan. Trim edge, leaving a 1-inch overhang, then tuck overhanging dough into the pan, pressing it against sides to reinforce them. Prick base of tart all over with fork. Line a large sheet of parchment and fill with pie weights (or dried beans and rice). Bake for 15 minutes, then remove parchment and weights. Bake empty pastry shell for 10 minutes more; crust should be golden and set.

While pasty is baking, make filling: Combine leeks and olive oil in large skillet, season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and grinds of black pepper. Cook over moderately high heat, stirring often, until just softened, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

Crack eggs into bowl and gently whisk until well combined. Whisk in yogurt, feta, dill and a grating of nutmeg. Scrape leeks into bowl and stir together. Set tart pan on a foil-lined baking sheet to catch leaks. Pour egg mixture into tart shell and bake until set and edges are golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from oven and serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes 1 tart.

— “Onions Etcetera: The Essential Allium Cookbook” by Kate Winslow and Guy Ambrosino (Burgess Lea Press; February 2017; $35)

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©2017 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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