Posted on Fri, September 16, 2011 by Gordon Jenkins
7 Comments | Categories: Cooking, Uncategorized,
’The golden age only comes to men when they have forgotten gold.’
-Gilbert K. Chesterton
One of the hardest parts of trying to cook affordably and well is figuring out vegetables. Fundamental to good eating, vegetables present all sorts of hurdles. They’re often expensive; they’re perishable—if you don’t get to them as quickly as you’d like, you watch your money wilt and liquefy—and unless you buy them cut up, which isn’t as good a bargain as it appears, they’re labor intensive.
Probably the greatest hurdle to regular vegetable eating is that, depending where you live and the time of year, a good, reasonably priced vegetable can seem hard to come by. I recommend considering the possibility that there’s a vegetable hiding in plain sight. There’s usually one closer at hand than you think as long as you know how to look: it’s probably hidden in the dark corner of your pantry, or in a dusty bin at your corner store. As soon as you dig it out and dust it off, you’ll find yourself rich in vegetables that you’d had all along.
Onions are good for much more than we give them credit for. They’re probably the least expensive, most ubiquitous, most durable, and most versatile things to ever feed on sun. Onions are almost impossibly economical: you can use their papery skins along with scraps from other meat and vegetables to make broth, and they always seem to double in volume as soon as you cut into them.
You can find at least a few onions in good shape at even the worst-stocked corner store, which is where I often find myself getting mine. You can even generally find a few varieties. Because they keep so well, onions are also at farmers’ markets for a good price long past when more ostentatious Brussels sprouts and beets have given up for the winter.
They are delicious cut into thick wedges and roasted with a little water, olive oil, white wine, and vinegar, or very thinly sliced and soaked in lemon juice or vinegar, then scattered over boiled potatoes. Run of the mill white or yellow onions also make a perfect sauce for short noodles.
This is universally likeable. It should restore your faith not only in onions, but in the transformative powers of butter and patience. It’s best with penne pasta because they have insides for the sauce to settle into. Other tube-shaped noodles and thick spaghetti work well, too.
Here’s a good recipe:
Pasta with onions
3 very large white or yellow onions
2 tablespoons of butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ tablespoon salt, plus more to taste
¼ teaspoon sugar
a sprinkle of water
6-8 anchovy filets
15 pitted kalamata olives, well drained of brine; these are exotic sounding, but they’re found in most grocery stores now; either in the ethnic food section or with other olives and pickles
1 pound dried penne (or thick spaghetti called perciatelli or buccatini)
Roughly chop the onions into pieces about ½ inch around. They don’t have to be perfect. Choose a pan or pot that’s at least four inches deep, and wide enough to hold all the onions without them piling up deeper than 3 or four inches. Heat the pan on medium high heat. Add the olive oil, then the butter. When both have begun to move around the pan, add all the onions,and stir them to help them settle. When the pile has begun to shrink a little, add the salt, sugar, a sprinkle of water, and stir it through.
Cook the onions, on medium-low heat, for half an hour, stirring them occasionally. If as theonions are cooking, they seem to be doing nothing at all, raise the heat a little, stir them, and then lower it when they begin to cook again. They’re done when they’re deeply caramelized, and sweet, but still short of jam.
Add the 8 anchovy filets, smashing them against the side of the pan. Cook until they’re broken down and sizzling, then add the olives,pitted and roughly chopped. Turn off heat.
To cook the noodles, fill a pot with water. Bring it to a boil. Add salt and taste it until it tastes like pleasant seawater. Cook your pasta until it’s firmer than you like it, pulling out a little pasta water just before it’s done. Turn the heat back on under the onions and add ¼ cup pasta water. Drain the noodles through a colander or scoop them out with a big sieve. Add noodles to sauce, mix, on low heat, add more pasta water as needed; scrape the sauce from the pan and mixing it well into the pasta. After thirty seconds, the noodles should seem coated with sauce. Add more water if you need. Stir it until it’s all combined.
I’ve heard the cooking of a certain region of Germany described as “earthbound, like the endless flat fields that stretch under a low cloudy sky.” It always makes me think of plain, unappreciated onions, earthbound and solid, when so much of our eating feels pressure to celestial. Both the term and the onion seem a good reminder to keep a look out for treasures that live right under our feet.
Tamar Adler is the author of the forthcoming book An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace.