Onions – The Most Important Ingredient

Two things occurred in the same week a few years back when I was the Executive Chef at a four-diamond resort. A server approached me when I was expediting and stated that a guest was allergic to onions and wanted to know what items on the menu he could eat. I thought for a few moments and had to respond “nothing”. I, of course, prepared something special for the guest, but up to that point I had not realized how important onions, and those ingredients in the onion family were to my cooking. That same week I was interviewed on a regional radio show as the host asked me what ingredient I liked to cook with more than any other. Without hesitation I said “onions”. He was a bit taken back until I explained how essential these ingredients were.

Onions are part of the Allium species of vegetables and include: brown skin onions, white onions, Spanish onions, purple onions, scallions (immature onions that have yet to form a bulb), Vidalia (sweet onions), cipollini, leeks, shallots, pearl onions, ramps, garlic and chives (there are numerous varieties of most items listed) .

I use brown skin onions in mirepoix for my stocks, soups and sauces; purple or Spanish onions for pickling and an accent in salads; Vidalia for those Bistro Burgers that everyone craves; scallions in stir fry and marinades; garlic in dressings, pesto, various saute dishes and bruschetta; cipollini in stews and with various braised items; ramps as an accompaniment to organic chicken in the Spring; shallots in just about everything that I can think of; and chives in numerous salads and maitre’d butter for steaks. The thought of cooking without Allium vegetables would be very difficult.

What is ironic is that members of the onion family are rarely thought of as a primary ingredient. We too often place all of the emphasis on the protein and rarely give credit to those ingredients that give the protein a unique flavor profile.

Onions and garlic define the most vivid aroma memories of life in the kitchen. The smell of caramelized onions can make you salivate. I recall working in a food operation once that was part of an office complex. The manager always made us throw onions on the grill just before lunch to fill the cafe with that sweet, intoxicating aroma. He was convinced that this smell increased sales.

The rich flavor of a perfectly made onion soup granitee’ can best be described as rich and full of umami (the taste of savory). Onions rings on a steak, lightly sauteed garlic in Pasta Vongole, Cipollini caramelized and served with a perfectly grilled veal chop, creamy shallots blended with the rich flavor of Osso Buco, and sweet ramps with roasted organic chicken change a dish from good to spectacular.

I suppose the reason that onions make us cry is a reflection of the onions disappointment in how they are treated in comparison to the more expensive proteins that take center stage. Treat those onions with care for they are the ingredients that define all of us as cooks.

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