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Consider the Onion

James Beard

July 09, 2018

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James Beard's onion sandwiches (Photo and Food Styling: Judy Kim)

In his iconic tome, Beard on Food, which was first published in 1974, our namesake wrote prolific prose on a vast landscape of culinary topics, from a lesson in chicken anatomy to a sandwich manifesto to the pleasures of onions, which we share with you today. Humorous, erudite, and timeless, this collection of essays remains an indispensable resource for the home cook. Stay tuned for more! 

Beard on Food: Consider the Onion

I happen to be crazy about onions, so I can never understand why they are so unpopular with certain people who banish them from their lives on the grounds that they are disagreeable—to the taste and on the breath. I don’t see how the kitchen could have survived without onions, for they have been cultivated since prehistoric times. Throughout the world, no vegetable is as indispensable, raw or cooked, as a flavor ingredient in innumerable dishes, or as a pickle.

No other vegetable is as legendary, either. Onions, we are told, were part of the cargo on Noah’s ark. The Egyptians regarded them as a symbol of the sun they worshiped as a god, with the concentric rings of the sliced onion representing heaven, hell, earth, and the universe. If you’ve never studied the inside of an onion, cut one in half sometime and really look. It is one of nature’s most amazing works of art.

Onions were the backbone of many diets in the past. The Egyptians fed vast quantities of them to the builders of the pyramids to give them strength, and Alexander the Great stuffed his armies with onions to give them courage. I also read somewhere that the wives of Irish fishermen used to prepare for their husbands a breakfast of sliced onions, rum, and stout, which taken at dawn would certainly enable one to face the coldest seas.

The onion is a many-faceted vegetable. There are the tiny pearl onions which we pickle and the Dutch, Belgians, and French eat as a vegetable, although peeling these babies is a pretty monotonous task. Then we have the rather larger white onions that we cook whole for creamed onions, onions à la Grecque, or any number of hot and cold specialties and relishes; medium-sized yellow onions for boiling or to chop and slice and use in different dishes; the mild red Italian onions; the big delicate Bermudas; and the enormous Spanish variety that are in season from fall to late spring. Just the other day I was enchanted to receive a box of these giant golden globes, perfectly matched in size and contour, that flourish in the volcanic soil of Oregon and Idaho. They make absolutely superb eating. I love them raw, thinly sliced, with a hamburger or cold meats or in a hearty, flavorful onion sandwich.

The day my gift box arrived I happened to have some slightly stale homemade bread, about two or three days old. I sliced this very thin, buttered it well, covered it with paper-thin slices of Spanish onion, sprinkled them with some coarse salt, and pressed another slice of bread firmed on the top—and there was my supper. I can easily make a whole meal of onion sandwiches, for to me they are one of the greatest treats I know, and they are awfully good with cold chicken or cold roast beef, too.

Think about onions when you are cooking outdoors on the charcoal grill, in the spring or summer, for there is nothing quite as good with spit-roasted meat, especially beef or lamb, or with steak. Put the onions, either unpeeled or peeled and foil-wrapped, just at the edge of the fire to roast. Remove the charred outside, or the foil, and eat this most pungent and delicious of vegetables while it is hot, crisp, and tender, adding some salt, freshly ground pepper, and butter. Onions cooked this way are so much better than those uninteresting French-fried things that are more batter than onion.

You can also take the thickish slices of raw onion, butter them, and grill them over the coals until they are crisply done and slightly glazed. Or you can simmer them in water or bouillon until tender but still firm, then put them on a baking sheet, dot them with butter, sprinkle them with bread crumbs and grated Parmesan cheese, and brown them under the broiler.

I like an onion salad with grilled meats. When beefsteak tomatoes are in season, dip them briefly in boiling water to loosen their skins, then peel them, slice rather quickly, and alternate with hearty slices of Spanish onion. Dribble over this a little olive oil and wine vinegar, sprinkle with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and you have an extraordinarily good accompaniment to your steak. I also take Spanish onion slices, break them into rings, and put them in a bowl, covered with water and ice cubes and about 1/2 cup vinegar to each 2 cups water, with some salt and pepper. Leave these, covered, in the refrigerator for several hours, then drain them, toss with your favorite French dressing, and serve icy cold for an unforgettable salad.

Onions and potatoes combine marvelously. Sauté onion rings in butter, and add an equal quantity of boiled, peeled, and sliced potatoes. Continue sautéing until the potatoes are delicately browned and the onions slightly caramelized, then sprinkle them with some chopped parsley. This tasty, satisfying onion and potato sauté is great with meats grilled over charcoal. 

Get the recipe for James Beard's onion sandwiches.

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Read more essays from Beard on Food.