Know your onions and enhance your dish
Onions have been celebrated by Bermudians since the 17th century. So much so that we have been given the nickname “onion”.
In St George’s we even celebrate New Year’s Eve by gathering to watch the lowering of the onion on the strike of midnight. Mark Twain, who was a frequent visitor to Bermuda wrote: “The onion is the pride and joy of Bermuda. It is her jewel, her gem of gems. In her conversation, her pulpit, her literature. It is her most frequent and elegant figure.”
Up to 4,000 tonnes of Bermuda onions were shipped each year to the United States during the height of their popularity. Unfortunately, it was not to last. After the First World War, the exportation of this versatile vegetable crumbled drastically. Soon, tourism became the new source of economy.
I can remember as a boy helping my grandmother put the onions in long bundles to be hung in a cool place until needed. That is one of the advantages of the onion, that it has quite a long shelf life without the need to be refrigerated. Historically, those travelling long distances by ship were able to take advantage of having an abundance of this great source of vitamin C, potassium and vitamin B. A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to visit Scott’s Hut in Antarctica. The building was erected by Robert Falcon Scott who led the British expedition of the region from 1910-1913. A sack of onions are still sitting in the storeroom, frozen in time, still untouched after Scott’s fateful race to be the first to arrive at the South Pole.
I am not sure if there is not a country that doesn’t use the onion in regional recipes. It is incredibly versatile. It is the base of most curries in India, used as both a thickening agent and pungent sweet flavouring. In Romania, onions are eaten in a salad consisting of, well, just onions and vinegar! In Switzerland the flammkuchen is a stable in most households. This glorious flatbread is topped with a layer of cheese, onions and bacon. A French onion tart is a wonderful French speciality, similar to a quiche it’s both sweet and delicate (see the recipe below). There is no better accompaniment to beef or chicken than red onion chutney cooked very slowly with red wine, creating a sweet, tangy spread. In Catalonia, there is a festival held each year known as Calçotada dedicated to a giant variety of spring onion, which is barbecued and washed down with plenty of red wine. In the northern Italy region of Piedmont, onions are hollowed out and filled with herbs, raisins, bread and of course Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and baked.
When cooking onions, care must be taken. If you, almost as a token, quickly fry an onion in a recipe the flavour will still be quite acidic, and well, will taste like a raw onion. However if you slowly sauté the onion so that it becomes translucent without browning then you are left with a wonderful sweet base to whatever sauce or dish you are trying to cook.
Lastly, I am not sure that holding a spoon or bit of stale bread in your mouth will ever stop the tears! The only sure-fire way I have seen is to always use a sharpened knife. A dull knife doesn’t slice the onion and causes the acidic juices to spray into the air as the knife crushes and bruises its way though the layers. You have been warned!
French Onion Tart
For the crust:
2 cups of all-purpose or soft flour
½ cup chilled butter, cut into small cubes
3 tbs cold water
pinch of salt
For the filling:
1 tbs of butter
2 tbs olive oil
2lbs of onions, halved and thinly sliced
3 medium eggs
1¼ cups double cream
2 oz grated Parmesan cheese
1 tsp smoked paprika
2 sprigs fresh thyme, chopped finely
salt/pepper to taste
To make the crust:
Mix flour and salt together in a large bowl or the work bowl of a food processor. Add butter. Either rub the butter bits into the flour with your fingertips or, in the food processor, pulse the machine in short bursts until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Sprinkle in cold water and mix it with a spoon or by pulsing the machine a couple more times. The mixture should form large clumps. Knead it gently into a ball. It will be on the firm side but should be easy to roll.
Lightly butter a 9-inch round tart or pie dish.
Roll your dough out until it is about 11 inches in diameter. Gently line the dough into the prepared tart pan, lifting the sides to drape (rather than pressing/stretching the dough) the dough into the corners. Press the dough the rest of the way in and up the sides. Trim edges, which you can leave ever so slightly extended above the edge of the tart pan, to give you some security against shrinkage. Chill for 30 minutes in your fridge. This step is important as it will stop the pastry from shrinking. Once the pastry has rested blind, bake in a preheated oven at 350F for 15 minutes or until the crust just starts to colour. Allow to cool.
For the filling:
Heat the butter and oil in a thick bottomed frying pan then gently sauté the onions, covered, occasionally stirring, for 30 minutes until translucent and completely softened but still pale in colour.
Beat the eggs and cream together in a bowl then add the cheese, thyme, paprika and seasoning. Stir in the onions and spoon the mixture into the flan case. Bake for 25-30 minutes until lightly set and browned.
• Bermudian James Perry works as the private chef for David Taylor, the New Zealand ambassador, in Brussels, Belgium