Without even a bit of sarcasm, I have decreed the past year the Year of the Onion in my cooking life.
My relationship with this beautiful bulb was a complicated one as a child as I, in turn, was complicated. I loved the green onions my parents grew in the garden, in large part because I got to watch their tooth-white heads emerge from and thicken in the black soil. At dinner, they would appear intact on my plate, but with the roots sliced off, and a pile of salt beside them. That meant I was invited to dab the head into it and take a big bite. The only other time salt appeared in our kitchen was if we were having corn on the cob, so this seemed like a rather decadent treat.
So I’ve always like green onions.
But when it came to chunks of cooked onion in my food, boy, I was not a happy camper. If only I could harvest all of the time I spent picking onions out of my food (I particularly hated onions in spaghetti sauce and salsa), I could probably tack a good year of youth back onto my life. Eventually, pierogi, which are topped with bacons and onions, broke me down.
Fast forward 20 years and my cooking life began in earnest. I was living in Somerset, surrounded by about 10 restaurants (eight of them fast food) and had little choice but to get busy in the kitchen if I wanted to eat what I wanted to eat.
Quickly, I realized that cooking? Yeah, it involves chopping a truckload of these tear jerkers every week if you want your meal to taste like anything. (Also, turns out salt is essential in that regard.)
Out of necessity and repetition, I learned how to chop the bulb properly by watching a few YouTube videos. But my trips to the grocery usually involved just picking up the usual netted pack of yellow onions and calling it a day.
Sometimes I’d pick up a red onion if I were making Greek salad, but over the years I’ve decided that the only thing interesting about a red onion is its color. Its flavor is sharp with little depth.
Buying shallots always made me feel fancy (in my mind, I call them “sha-LOTTES” because I like to pretend I’m from France), although frustrated at the check-out line because the cashiers almost never knew their UPC code.
And then there were the recipes that asked for pearl onions, which I could occasionally find and, thanks to a Julia Child recipe for coq au vin, came to intensely love. I will say that, despite really hoping they were, frozen pearl onions just aren’t as good as the ones you blanch and skin yourself.
Fast forward 12 more years and recipes and onion availability changed a bit. I was now seeing regular requests for Vidalias and something called cipollini onions, which I immediately assumed I would never, ever find.
And then one fine day at Kroger last summer, there was a pack of cipollinis sitting there by the garlic. It was one of my semi-monthly pandemic shopping trips and I’ll admit that I was luxuriating in the aisles feeling incredibly happy to be out of the house. Probably, it was this luxuriating that made me notice them and probably, I was bored enough by being confined that I became ridiculously excited when I did.
Then, a few weeks after that, I went to the incredible market gardener Burnett’s and found Vidalia onions, which I had never explored properly because I was too entrenched in my yellow onion routine. So I picked up a few.
That Sunday night, I decided we would have fried onions with our burgers and that the Vidalia would be the way to go. I looked up how to caramelize them, a technique I’d tried and failed at about a dozen times before. These directions said to:
Slice the onion thickly and keep the rings nesting inside each other. Melt butter with olive oil in a pan, add onions and keep them frying on very low heat for about 40 minutes, turning with a spatula as needed.
Soon, one of the very best scents in the world — onion frying in butter — filled the kitchen. And eventually, they had turned the beautiful color of, yep, caramel. They were the best onions I’ve ever tasted (at home).
So, in some ways, I feel I’ve come full circle. While I’ll never love actually chopping it (because I’ll never stop crying), I have definitely come to love and respect the onion and all of its layers.