Tarting up the unsexy onion

Last updated 11:10 30/11/2011

If you were to make up a list if the least sexy vegetables, I wager that the onion would appear high on that list. There is something sort of dowdy and conservative about the humble onion. Cast, as they are, in their beige-y skins (red onions are a bit sexier), and possessing infinite potential for a) making you cry and b) giving you stinky onion breath, we (well, me) here at Omnivore HQ are charged with an unenviable task - that of "tarting up" the onion.

Unsexy onionsNow, there is no disputing the onion's versatility - it is indispensable as a basic ingredient in countless dishes, from sauces to flavour bases for stocks and casseroles, even if, as of late, I have tended to use either garlic or onions in a sauce base, rather than both (as per some or other cultural tradition - fish with onions, garlic with meat - or was it the reverse?). So what are we to do to make it more appealing?

The most obvious path to making their crunchy, acrid layers more delicious is, obviously, caramelisation. Yotam Ottolenghi (I know I bang on about him a lot, but his food really is pretty superb) uses crispy fried onions to add a rich, savoury, umami flavour to a dish - notably, his kosheri and (similar) mejadra, both of which are vegetarian (even, God forbid, vegan!) staples of mine. If you lightly poach onion layers, you can use them to wrap ricotta and herbs, before baking in a cheesy or tomato sauce to make a sort of pasta-less cannelloni.

I absolutely adore French onion soup - a rich, deeply flavoured clear broth, a couple of cheesy croutons floating on top. And onion rings - it's hard to think of anything more appetising heaped atop a beautifully seared, medium-rare slab of steak - Oh, the glory...

I'll tell you one thing I am wary of , though - raw onion. For the most part, I find raw onion about as appealing as an eye gouge from a French footballer. I think, maybe, that a lot of recipes come from countries where onions are sweeter and milder than they are here in NZ. If I see great chunks of raw, white onion in a salad, I will most probably give it a wide berth or, at least, approach with caution. Red onion is better, but I say - slice it very thinly, and use it sparingly.

I remember once eating a particularly onion-y kebab a few years ago, before a Finn Brothers show at the St James, and being increasingly aware of my ferocious onion breath - it seemed to be getting stronger and more pungent by the minute. In desperation, and out of consideration for those around me, I flew out of the theatre at the interval in search of gum to mask the odious stench emanating from my innards, only to find they didn't sell gum (guess they don't want it stuck to the undersides of the seats). And so I learned a valuable lesson - that a mint Trumpet does not trump onion breath...

I think that to truly lift the humble onion from its unappealing raw state, you simply have to cook it in some way - either the aforementioned roasting, poaching or caramelisation, or by another method I have recently favoured: letting them "cook" in citrus juice, which is great in an Asian-styled dish.

And so, I bring you;

The Omnivore's Chicken Laab Salad.

You will need:

- 250g free-range chicken mince

- 2 teaspoons lemongrass (I use the stuff in a jar, which is totally fine, and super-convenient, which is important)

- a couple of spring onions

- one medium-sized red onion

- a large red chili (seeds in or out, depending on the heat of the chili and how hot you want it)

- a handful of chopped fresh mint

- a bunch of chopped fresh coriander

- 2 tablespoons of fish sauce

- the juice (and some zest, if you like) of 2 limes (or one large lemon)

- 1 1/2 tablespoons of oyster sauce (I like the "Panda" brand)

Finely dice the onion, chop the spring onion into small rounds, chop the chili, and place all three in a bowl.

Juice the lime/lemon and add, with the fish sauce, to the finely sliced onions and chili in the bowl - the acidity of the citrus will effectively "cook" the onion.

Fry the chicken mince over a medium heat in a pan in a little neutral-flavoured oil. When it is lightly browned, remove it from the heat and stir through the oyster sauce. Add this to the onion/citrus/chili/fish sauce, and add the mint and coriander, mix it all through to combine the flavours - add a little more citrus juice if you wish. Enough for two servings over rice, with iceberg lettuce, and maybe some thin slices of red pepper and fresh, steamed green beans.

Voila! An astonishingly easy and delicious quick meal involving not one but two types of onion, uncooked - but not raw!

And pretty sexy, too, I'll wager - all those fresh, zingy, vibrant flavours combining to rescue the onion from its fate as the ugly one at the Blue Light Disco...

So there you go - The Omnivore's suggestion for making the onion a little more glamorous. What do you think? How do you make onions more interesting? Do you share my aversion to raw onion in salads? And please feel free to share your recipe for making onions a bit sexier?

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JCC   #1   11:24 am Nov 30 2011

I love onions! Most of my go to recpies have the first line "Take one onion...." However, i agree about raw onion, and even too much spring onion. Gah onion breath that hangs around for ages!

Roasted pickling onions (with baby beets, carrots, potato, kumara and pumpkin). Great with a roast (and gravy!) or can be made into a salad by tossing in some baby spinach, feta and nuts (pinenuts/almonds/cashews/whatever you have)

Mahina   #2   11:52 am Nov 30 2011

I love onion jam and always have a homemade jar or two of it in my pantry. I have also recently made chili onion jam, as my other half is mental about chili these days. Its great in burgers, or my wonderful half eats it on bread with salami and homemade hummus. Its very good to keep on hand for when he gets snacky. Which is ALL THE TIME lol

I do love onion. Lightly panfried with steak or on a burger, slow roasted with root vege and tossed with feta balsamic vinegar and pinenuts... But you're right, I cant think of a single recipe where I dont cook the humble brown onion in some way shape or form.

The red onion is a completely differen kettle of fish. Sad thing is that so many people who prepare food forget to slice the red onion thin enough so that it can be properly appreciated. Too thick and its flavour is too much. But sliced thinly and it give just the right kick to round off nicely a mouthfull of salad, or pasta.

Mmmmmmmmm think I am going to go home and make a batch of onion soup tonight. YUM!

Thalia   #3   11:56 am Nov 30 2011

I only like red onion raw in salad.. not regular onion.

I have a great recipe at home for pickling onions with a redwine reduction and toasted almonds.. will see if I can hunt it up for you. Its really fantastic.

We do onions with our roasts too.. make them look like flowers by cutting them in half using a zig zag pattern.

gbsmama   #4   12:15 pm Nov 30 2011

Love onions, use them in pretty much everything I cook. Agree with you about too much raw onion though, its a bit much. Spring onions too will give stinky breath, which is a pity because they are better raw. No idea to make them sexier, they are a bit like that favourite pair of jeans that you can wear pretty much anywhere!

gertie   #5   12:39 pm Nov 30 2011

Domestic Goddess Nigella has a good tip if you are adding raw red onions to a salad. Soak thin slices in red or white wine vinegar for about 15 minutes or more. It kind of pickles them and takes away their rawness and sharpness.

Thrash Cardiom   #6   12:47 pm Nov 30 2011

If you rinse slices of onion under water for a few seconds and then dry them on a paper towel, you will find they are far more palatable to those who don't like their strong flavour.

noodle   #7   01:07 pm Nov 30 2011

MMM onions! Love em to bits and pieces in every way shape and form - flatmates daughter will just go ask her to peel one and eat it like an apple (which is a bit extreme in my opinion but whatever, it's a vegetable I guess).

Turnips on the other hand. Blegh.

LindaC   #8   01:10 pm Nov 30 2011

Has anyone else noticed some places only sell red onions that have been peeled? I adore red onions, and at first I thought ready-peeled was a good idea, until I bought some and found they were starting to turn mouldy after about a week. Someone's bright idea for selling more onions to replace the ones that had to be thrown out?

Mandy   #9   02:10 pm Nov 30 2011

You can cook with all the bits of onion weed. The flowers can be fried tempura style and the stalks (chopped really fine) have a beautiful gamy taste in fritters. Pickled onions are great too, a Christmas tradition in our family.

I've probably said it here before, but I got the fright of my life when served raw onion and shallot salad (with walnut dressing) in France.

CP   #10   02:11 pm Nov 30 2011

I was just trying to think of a dish where I do not use onion.....fail! Can't think of any at all. How about a lovely onion quiche with caraway. Lightly fry the onions without letting them take colour, add caraway seeds, a couple of eggs and some cream, line a quiche tin with shortcrust pastry, fill with onion mixture and bake. Add some finely chopped and crispy fried bacon too if you like. Or even use half and half onion and leeks. Eat warm (not hot!) with a nice glass of your favorite white wine.

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