Thank God for onions
"The French actually only consume around 5.6kg annually"
Thank God for onions. Praise to all that is holy, righteous and blessed for allium cepa, the foundation stone of rich aroma, genesis of flavour, our divine savoury saviour
Without this bashful, unpretentious root vegetable, a dangerous majority of dishes would become unbearably bland; no amount of salt and spice can recompense for the onion’s confident perfume. Where are you now, shepherd’s pie? How art thou dishonoured, meat gravy? O, humble stew, what has become of thee?
I haven’t finished. The onion is arguably the most overlooked and underrated ingredient in the history of modern cooking. Whether one chooses to opt for spring, red, white, pearl, brown or, of course, the mischievous, playful shallot, onions are the powerhouse of cooking ingredients and the backbone of our culinary identity. How many traditional, savoury dishes don’t start with the instruction: “Heat the onions in a little oil”? If there’s no onions, I’m not interested.
Perhaps I’m getting carried away, but I stand by the point. Onions are a gift from the heavens, and it’s time someone showed them some proper appreciation. Our pungent friend is a staple of every major cuisine, and is produced by about twice as many countries as wheat, making it arguably the world’s only truly global ingredient. Onions are believed (through genetic testing) to have originated in central Asia, but were almost certainly traded along the Silk Road as far back as 2000BC, and I find it astounding that such a ubiquitous, important and historical ingredient is taken for granted as much as it is. The oldest cookery books known to humankind, which were written in cuneiform writing on clay tablets about 4,000 years ago, feature a recipe for an onion-rich wild fowl pie which wouldn’t look out of place on a hearty restaurant menu today.
It may be that our flippant disregard for onions is due to the tendency to reduce them to nothingness in the majority of everyday recipes – in pasta sauces, shepherd’s or cottage pie and Bolognese the onions are barely visible and are often used as a flavour enhancer rather than as a stand-alone taste. This doesn’t have to be the case, and I’ve recently experimented with a few ideas that bring the onion to the centre of attention. The most successful has been roasted red onions, stuffed with sausage meat, apple and fennel seeds and topped with breadcrumbs and Gruyère: an absolutely delicious meal.
Despite how universal the allium family are in our cooking, we’re far from the biggest consumers. In the UK we eat around 9.3kg of onions per head each year, and the French, who we like to stereotype as big onion eaters, actually only consume around 5.6kg annually. If you’re looking for a country that really knows its onions (I’m truly sorry) then Libya are the clear winners, eating an enormous 33.6kg per year. One of the most common Libyan recipes is Shorba Arabiya (Arabian Soup), which uses a whole load of onions alongside lamb, chickpeas, tomato purée, spices, mint and lemon juice, which sounds excellent.
As a final salute to the onion, I’ve included a recipe for the sausage-stuffed dish described above – try it for yourself and don’t be afraid to let the onion flavour take centre stage.
Stuffed Onion Recipe
• 5 large red onions
• Sausage meat – I simply used whole a pack of high-quality sausages and removed the meat from the casing
• ½ an apple, finely chopped – sharp varieties like Granny Smith work the best
• Handful of fennel seeds
• 1/2 cup plain dried breadcrumbs
• 3/4 cup grated Gruyere
• Salt and pepper
1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Slice off tops and bottoms of onions, leaving at least a 2-inch diameter exposed at the top. Scoop out the inside of each onion (about halfway down) with a spoon. Season the insides with salt. Transfer the onions to a baking dish, cover with foil, and bake until just starting to soften, about 1 hour.
2. Meanwhile, heat a little oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Crumble the sausage meat into the pan and fry until almost cooked through. Add the apple and fennel seeds, and cook until sausage is fully cooked through.
3. Take the onions out of the oven. Stuff the onions with the sausage mixture until almost full, then top with the Gruyere, breadcrumbs and pepper and return to the oven until the tops are crisp and brown, about 20 minutes more. Serve with fresh greens, baby corn or tenderstem broccoli.
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