Alimentary, My Dear
How Do You Like Them Onions?
By Tamia Nelson
March 18, 2014
I often revisit my earlier Alimentary columns, if only to ensure that links in new columns point to the right place. And on more than one occasion, I've been struck by the number of times that my recipes for savory (i.e., not sweet) dishes begin with an onion. Of course, there are many exceptions, including the heat‑and‑eat meals I resort to when time presses, whether these originate in a retort pouch or a tin. On less harried days, however, I sometimes like to make a meal out of making a meal, and on those days I don't begrudge the extra five minutes it takes to peel, cut up, and sauté a fresh onion. Why? Because onions add both flavor and nutrition to a wide range of everyday fare, and they're the sine qua non of many dishes. (What would French onion soup be without an onion? Rien, that's what.) They're good travelers, too. Few vegetables stand up better to the rough and tumble of life in a canvas pack.
Given the central role that onions play in my backcountry cuisine, therefore, it's a bit odd that I've never written about them specifically. Until today, that is. And this attention is long overdue, because — while onions are indeed versatile additions to paddlers' menus — their selection, stowage, and preparation warrant some care. Which brings us to our point of departure: a brief discourse on …
Onions' Enduring Appeal
The onion tribe — taxonomists prefer to speak of the Allium genus — is a diverse one. It embraces leeks and scallions (more commonly known as "green onions"), red onions and shallots, and sweet onions like Vidalias, Walla Wallas, and the tiny pearl onion. But what most of us think of when the word "onion" is mentioned is the yellow onion, sometimes called the brown or globe onion. Yellow onions have papery skins that range in color from pale tan to a rich bronze, while the underlying flesh — the meat of the onion, if you will — is white or cream‑colored. Yellow onions are the workhorses of the onion tribe, and you'll find them displayed on HyperMart shelves in net bags of two, five, and 10 pounds. That's handy if you're happy with Hobson's choice or in a hurry. If you'd rather know exactly what you're buying, however, and if you have a few minutes to spare, you're still in luck. Co‑ops and other whole food venues often allow you to pick and choose from bins of loose onions.
Either way, no serious cook would be without a store of yellow onions in her (or his) pantry, and I'm no exception. That's a good thing, too, because the ubiquitous yellow onion is …
One of the Backcountry Cook's Best Friends
That said, when it comes to making up food lists, many (most?) paddlers think only of dried onions or onion powder — if they think of onions at all. But while dried onions may be the only choice for long expeditions (you can dry your own, if you wish), they're definitely second‑best, and onion powder invites comparison with such dubious expedients as instant coffee and freeze‑dried ice cream. Luckily, the common yellow onion is as robust as it is versatile. If well chosen and carefully stowed, fresh yellow onions will last for a week or more, even in the cramped confines of a food pack.
OK. That's the introductions out of the way. Now let's get better acquainted:
Onion A is a small yellow "boiling onion" from a five‑pound bag. Onions B through D came from bags labeled "cooking onions." (Onion E is a ringer, by the way. It's a Vidalia.) What's in a name, you ask? Does it matter if a bag of onions is labeled "boiling" or "cooking"? Not at all. It's a distinction without a difference. You aren't compelled to boil a boiling onion, nor are cooking onions only for cooked dishes. The names simply indicate size, nothing more. Boiling onions are smaller than cooking onions.
Let's return to the ringer in the lineup for a minute: the Vidalia onion, E in the photo. Vidalias contain more water and sugar than yellow onions, and because of that, they're not such good travelers. The Vidalia in the photo hasn't gone bad, by the way, despite its rather unprepossessing appearance. It's simply started to sprout. In fact, many commercial "green onions" — scallions, if you prefer — are nothing more than bulb onions that haven't been given time to grow up. In any event, when a stored onion starts throwing off green shoots, it begins to consume itself, causing the layers in the bulb's flesh to loosen. Such an onion is past its prime, to be sure, but it's still edible. Don't wait too long, however. Tomorrow might be too late.
It's time to go shopping. Buy the onions for a trip as close to D‑Day as possible. If you can pick from among a bin of loose onions, so much the better, but if bagged onions are all you have to choose from, simply inspect them through the mesh. Reject any bag containing a rotten onion. One bad onion really does spoil the whole bunch.
What are the hallmarks of a good onion? These are the three main characteristics to consider:
- Health. Onions should be firm and free from bruising. The neck — that's the stem end — should be tight, with no emerging sprouts and no woody center. The outer skin may be papery and peeling away, but the exposed flesh underneath should be shiny. Spurn any onions dappled with a powdery black residue or exhibiting greenish efflorescences. These are still edible, but the flavor leaves much to be desired.
- Heft. A good onion is substantial. It's heavy for its size. Lightweights are likely softies, destined for early spoilage. This is one reason to pick your onions from an open bin. You'll have a hard time judging heft when an onion is in a net bag.
- Smell. An onion should have a pleasant, mild aroma. If the reek makes your eyes water, the onion is long past its sell‑by date.
And there are two more things you may want to take into account, as well:
- Size. If you cook, you'll know what works best in which dishes. I use medium to large onions at home, but I buy smaller onions for camp meals, unless I'm planning a dish that demands a large onion, like French onion soup. Smaller onions minimize waste, since leftover cut onions don't keep well in the absence of refrigeration.
- Shape. It's my impression that the plumper the onion, the better it will keep. Elongated onions with narrow "waists" (B and D in the photo above) are quicker to sprout. At least that's been my experience. I'd be interested in knowing if other paddling cooks have noticed this.
You're probably wondering how many onions is enough for a meal. Or, to put the question another way, just how far does one onion stretch? Well, I got almost half a cup of ¼‑inch dices from the small boiling onion (A in the photo); the baseball‑sized onion in C gave me twice that amount. The fineness of the dice or thickness of the slice will affect the yield, of course.
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You've finished shopping for your trip? Good. It's time to pack up. Leave your onions whole and intact, with the protective papery skins in place. Onions keep best in cool, dark, dry, well‑ventilated places, but that combination is hard to achieve in a canoe or kayak. Dark, dry storage is probably all you can manage, though if you stow your onions in a hard plastic box at the bottom of your food bag, they'll stay cooler than if you place them under the flap. Then, once you're in camp, take the lid off the box and air your onions in the shade while you tend to your camp chores. Be sure you batten down the hatches before you turn in and the humidity climbs, however. (NB: Onions aren't good mixers. Unless you want everything you eat to taste of onions, give them a box or bag all their own.)
What's that? It's dinnertime already? Then here are some …
Tips on Cooking With Fresh Onions in Camp
If you have more than one onion in your pack, take the roughest‑looking one first. Now peel it and cut it up. But …
What should you do with the peels? Well, peels will burn, so if you're cooking over an open fire, the problem's solved. Failing that, double‑bag the peels — any clinging residue from the bulb will eventually stink — and pack them out. Or (if you're in a truly remote area), bury them, being sure to do this somewhere far from your camp and any surface waters. I regard 30 double‑step paces, or 150 feet, as the minimum distance, and more is definitely better.
The business of cutting up an onion deserves a few words, too. And the two most important words are …
Safety First! A freshly peeled onion is a slippery character, hard to hold and hard to cut. The thin membranes that separate the internal layers are especially slick. And though a sharp knife is much safer than a dull blade, your best defense lies in keeping your fingers out of harm's way. Now …
How Do You Cut an Onion? Very carefully, that's how. Every cook has her favorite technique. Here's mine: I begin by slicing an onion in half, cutting from pole to pole, or stem end to root end. Then I work on each hemisphere in turn, always placing the cut surface down. If I'm quartering the halves, the first cut also goes from stem end to root; the next follows the equator. If I'm slicing, I work systematically, making a series of longitudinal wedge cuts, again from stem to root. The thickness of the wedges is determined by the demands of the dish. Dicing is the trickiest operation. To begin with, I make a number of cuts parallel to the onion's equator, following up with a similar number of cuts at right angles to the first. (The higher the number of cuts, the smaller the dice.) And no, this isn't how the TV chefs do it, but then there's no ambulance on call at the river's edge, either. I once had to reattach a severed earlobe in the backcountry, and I succeeded, but reattaching fingertips is much more difficult. It's best to avoid having to make the attempt.
We're almost done. Once you've quartered, sliced, or diced your onion, you'll almost certainly want to …
Sauté It. Sautéing is just frying something quickly in hot fat, and it's usually the first step when a recipe calls for onion. But the hot fat mustn't be too hot. High heat brings out the worst in onions. So use a low‑to‑moderate flame, instead. And make sure there's enough fat (vegetable oil, olive oil, or butter, real or ersatz) to prevent burning. If, despite your precautions, an onion seems about to burn while it's in the pan, just add a little water or broth. You may also want to add a pinch of salt to bring out the flavor, and a sprinkle of granulated sugar will give your onion a nice brown hue. Once the onion is soft, you're ready to move on to the next step in the recipe, whatever that may be.
Enough of these preliminaries. I'm hungry. What do you say to a bowl of …
Easy French Onion Soup
Yield: Two servings
- 1 medium yellow onion (You only have small onions in your pack? Use two.)
- 1–2 tablespoons olive oil (Other fats will do, too.)
- A pinch of salt
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar (optional)
- 1 tablespoon flour
- ¼ cup red wine or dry sherry (optional)
- 3–4 cups of beef broth (You can also use chicken or vegetable broth. It's your choice.)
- A generous pinch of dried thyme
- Grated cheese (optional)
Slice the onion — or dice it, if you prefer — and then place it in a skillet with the oil, salt, and sugar. Sauté. When the onion is soft and golden‑brown, reduce the flame to low. Sprinkle the onion with flour. Stir, making a pasty blend. Next, add the wine or sherry and simmer gently until the liquid boils off. Now add the broth, stirring yet again. Then add the dried thyme, cover the pot (but leave the lid ajar), turn up the heat, and simmer. A couple of minutes is all it takes before the soup is ready to eat. Ladle into bowls and top each serving with a sprinkle of grated cheese — if you have some in your kitchen stores, that is.
That's 15 minutes from bag to bowl. Or less. And you can easily increase the number or size of the servings by scaling up the quantities of the ingredients. If time permits, you might also want to toast thick slices of bread in an oiled skillet, flipping them over when the first side is browned. Then top the already toasted side with cheese, cover the skillet, and brown the second side. In five minutes you'll have cheese‑laden toast to dip in the soup or place in the bowls. Onion soup with toasted cheese… You won't find a better lunch for a rainy rest day in camp. Bon appétit!
Few fresh vegetables are good travelers. Fewer still lend themselves to a wide range of dishes, from soups to sauces to salads. But the humble onion ticks all these boxes. Are you sometimes tempted to make a meal out of making a meal in the backcountry? If so, look no further. The onion is your friend. Then, when somebody asks, "How do you like them onions?" you'll always have a ready answer: "Lots of ways!"
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- Alimentary, My Dear (This topical collection has well over 100 articles of interest to any hungry rambler.)
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