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Thursday, Oct. 28, 2010 10:31 pm

To sweet or not to sweet?


Q. It seems like you always say to not use super-sweet onions in your recipes. Do you just not like them, or is there another reason? -Joyce C.

Actually, I like super-sweet onions such as Vidalias, Mauis, or Walla Wallas a lot. They’re perfect for salads, sliced or chopped for sandwiches – in any preparation that calls for raw onions.

But you’re right that I don’t think they’re the best choice for cooking. The reason is the same one that makes them so perfect to use raw. Such varieties have a much milder flavor as well as sweetness. Translated, that means they have less flavor. As anyone who’s ever bitten into a hamburger only to wince because the onion is overwhelmingly powerful will say, that’s a good thing.

Cooking, however, softens the flavor of even the strongest onions, making them flavorful without being overly assertive. Using super-sweet varieties when cooking can make the dish bland and boring. I love onion rings (although I only let myself order them occasionally). But several times lately, they’ve been a waste of calories, even though they’re hand battered in house. The onion flavor was virtually nonexistent, undoubtedly because super-sweet types were used.

Another reason not to use super-sweets in cooking is that they have a higher water content than regular yellow, white or red onions. That’s part of what makes them so mild (the other factor is lower sulphur). The higher water content can lead to a dish having more liquid than it should. Then it’s either served watery, or has to be cooked much longer to get it to the proper consistency, which can affect other components of the preparation.

Caramelizing onions in a dish – cooking them long and slow to bring out their satiny, unctuous texture and rich taste – is a favorite technique of mine, whether it’s for onion marmalade, the soups below, in stews or side dishes or hundreds of other recipes. The caramelizing relies on the onions’ natural sugars. Yes, super-sweets have more sugar. But regular onions have plenty of sugar, too, and the water issue makes the super-sweets difficult-to-impossible to caramelize.

Try making a recipe with cooked onions using super-sweet varieties one time, and regular varieties the next, and I bet you’ll understand (and agree) that each are good – but have different uses.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

RealCuisine Recipe
Creamy five lilies soup

Here’s a creamy soup that delivers a rich satisfying mouth feel without any cream. Onions are members of the lily family, which gives the soup its name. It can be made up to several days ahead.

  • 4 c. sliced yellow or white onions,
  • NOT super-sweet
  • 1/2 c. sliced shallots
  • 12 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 6 T. unsalted butter, divided
  • 4 c. chicken stock, or other stock such as beef or vegetable
  • 2 c. leeks, white part only, thinly sliced
  • Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
  • Thinly sliced scallions for garnish

In a large skillet, melt 4 T. of the butter over medium high heat and stir in the onions, shallots and garlic. Cover the pan and let the vegetables sweat until softened and translucent, about 5 minutes. Uncover the pan, reduce the heat, and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are golden brown and caramelized, 15-30 minutes.

Add the stock to the pan and stir the bottom to scrape up any browned bits. You may wish to let the mixture cool a bit before puréeing, especially if using a blender or food processor, otherwise it can explode with the releasing heat. Purée the mixture in a blender, food processor, or with a hand held blender until creamy.

Melt the remaining butter in the skillet and add the leeks. Cover the pan and let them sweat until translucent, then uncover the pan and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until they are softened but not browned, about 5 minutes.

 Return the puréed mixture to the skillet, season to taste with salt and pepper, and heat through. Garnish with the sliced scallions. Serves 6.

RealCuisine Recipe
Onion soup gratinée (French onion soup)

Most recipes for this classic use beef stock or broth. This version, however, uses only water – the intense flavor of the caramelized onions provides more than enough depth of flavor for vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. And it comes from a genuine French cook, a professor of French literature at the University of Illinois, U-C. She demonstrated its preparation at a tiny cheese shop in Champaign one fall weekend when I was a student there. I’ve been making it her way ever since.

  • 4 c. sliced yellow or white onions,
  • NOT super-sweet
  • 1/2 c. sliced shallots
  • 12 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 6 T. unsalted butter, divided
  • 4 c. chicken stock, or other stock such as beef or vegetable
  • 2 c. leeks, white part only, thinly sliced
  • Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
  • Thinly sliced scallions for garnish

In a large skillet (or two smaller skillets), melt the butter over high heat. Add the onions, thyme, vinegar and bay leaves and stir to coat the onions with the butter. Cover the skillet and reduce the heat to medium high. Let the onions “sweat” for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally if necessary, or until they are softened and translucent.

Uncover the skillet, stir the onions to scrape up any browned bits on the bottom, and reduce the heat to low. Cook the onions, stirring occasionally, until they are dark, caramelized and gooey. This will take at least 45 minutes and probably will take more than an hour.

Put the onions into a large pot and return the skillet to the stove. Increase the heat to high, add the wine and bring to a boil, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom to deglaze the pan. Add some of the water if needed.

Pour the wine deglazing mixture into the pot with the onions, add the remaining water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, cover and cook for at least 30 minutes to combine the flavors. Season to taste with salt and pepper (and a little more vinegar if you like). The soup may be prepared ahead of time up to this point – in fact, it actually improves the flavor to let it stand for awhile. Refrigerate the soup if you are holding for more than an hour or two.

Remove the bay leaves and reheat the soup if necessary.

Preheat the broiler.

To serve: Ladle the hot soup into deep ovenproof bowls, leaving about 1 ½ inches of space. Place a slice of bread on top of the soup and push it carefully and gently a little bit into the liquid. The bread shouldn’t be completely submerged, just well moistened on the bottom.

Sprinkle the grated cheese generously over the bread. It’s OK if some of the shreds of cheese hang a little bit over the sides.

Place the bowls on a baking sheet (this helps prevent tipping and spills) and place under the broiler. Broil until the cheese is melted, bubbly and just beginning to brown. Carefully remove the bowls from the broiler, using hot pads. (Remember, the bowls are HOT!) Place each bowl on a plate and serve immediately.

Serves 6-8 as a main course, 12 or more as an appetizer.

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