Savoring the Sweetness of Caramelized Onions

Certain smells take you back so strongly, you have to look twice to make sure you are still in the present. Apples ripening on the trees in autumn, fryolator oil and salt air, subway grates and roasted chestnuts each make certain moments live again for me. And then there is the smell of caramelizing onions.

My mother and grandmother both loved to cook chopped onions in oil until the onions were deep brown and fragrant. My mother would cook calf’s liver until it was pink and still juicy and chop it with the onions and a hard-boiled egg in a wooden bowl, using a spring-loaded three-blade chopper. She would sprinkle roast beef with finely chopped onions which would brown in the beef fat, adding crunch and taste to the meat. She made gravy, incorporating the brown bits. The smell of frying onions is the smell of my childhood, coming in from cold November streets to a warm house that smelled of comfort.

Which is not to say that caramelized onions are a thing of the past. I may not eat chopped beef liver anymore, but I still fry onions. They add big flavor while requiring little more than time, some stirring and some attention.

The chemistry of browning is complex. Food chemists talk about the Maillard reaction: using heat to combine sugars and carbohydrates with the nitrogen in amino acids, resulting in 200-odd compounds, each contributing to the final taste. You might as well talk about love as the reaction of various parts of our brains to pheromes. The explanation may be accurate, but it misses the point.

Whether you are using a frying pan and oil or butter, a broiler, an oven or an outdoor grill, browning improves the taste of pretty much everything. Onions, in particular, benefit from browning. Raw, they are sharp and piquant. Sautᅦed until they are translucent, the flavor softens, adding a familiar base to dozens of dishes. But browned, they take center stage.

I make a minestrone using caramelized onions as a base when I am not using meat. The rich roasted onions add a depth of flavor to the finished soup. An Indian cookbook taught me the trick of sautᅦing rings of onions until they are deep brown and tossing them onto cooked dal (lentils) just before you bring them to the table. Try it. You’ll be amazed at the difference. And these days, with traditional terms being tossed around freely, onion marmalade, which is nothing more than cooked onions with some seasonings, is a condiment and a stuffing for everything from pork tenderloin to chicken.

The process is simple. Slice or chop your onions, put them in a frying pan with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, vegetable oil, margarine, or oil and butter, and cook over medium heat. Pure butter burns easily, but you can use it if you are careful. Stir the onions enough to keep the pieces from sticking to the pan.

Plan on spending 10 to 20 minutes; don’t try to hurry the process. As the onions color, make sure to keep moving them so that all the pieces have a chance to brown. Add a little oil if the pan looks dry.

Pay more attention as the color darkens. Properly browned onions are deep brown with few white spots and no black spots. Black spots mean you’ve burned them and you need to toss the batch and start again.

Speaking of which, if you are worried about burning onions, a good experiment is to set out to burn them intentionally. Just keep cooking them until they burn, and keep watching the pan. You’ll notice the moment when deep brown becomes char. At this point, toss the results on your compost pile, clean the pan and do it again for real. Like anything we’re scared of, going through with it once removes its hold on our imagination.

How does one cut onions for browning? The result depends on the final use. If you are looking for small pieces, chop the onion. If the onions will be a distinct component of the dish, slice them lengthwise or in rings. To peel an onion, slice off the growing tip, stand it up and slice the onion in half through the root end. You can easily peel the skin off. The root end will hold the pieces together while you cut them. If you imagine each half as a clock face, cut wedges at each hour mark. Slice off the root end and you have lengthwise strips. Cut crosswise and you can chop the onion in pieces. The thinner the wedges, the finer the mince or the strips. Rings you can probably figure out on your own.

Browning reduces the amount of onion dramatically. For one dish, start with a large Spanish onion or two large yellow onions in a 12-frying pan. Pile them up – they’ll shrink down. If you make a lot, they’ll keep in the refrigerator and you can warm them up and add them to sandwiches. How long they’ll keep is still a mystery. They never hang around more than a couple of days in my house.

Vegetarian Pate

Masoor Dal with Caramelized Onions

Onion Marmalade

Originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, October 20, 2006

Masoor (Pink) Dal with Caramelized Onions

Serves 4 to 6

These days, with the profusion of Asian markets, you can find various dals (Indian lentils) pretty easily. They taste nothing like the brown lentils you find in supermarkets. I like masoor dal, also called pink lentils, chana dal and moong dal (yellow lentils). They are a good side dish with spicy food, especially paired with rice. If you happen to have ghee (clarified butter), it is the most authentic flavor. If not, use a mixture of canola oil and butter. If you can’t find dal, green split peas are a good substitute. If you like pea soup, try topping it with caramelized onions. Sriracha or a similar hot sauce will perk up the flavor nicely.

1 cup pink lentils
1 knob ginger, the size of a walnut, peeled and left whole
1 1/2 cups water
Salt and pepper to taste
1 large Spanish onion or 2 large yellow onions
3 to 5 tablespoons ghee or 3 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil and 1 tablespoon butter

Wash the dal and put in a 2-quart pot with the water and the peeled knob of ginger. Bring to a boil and simmer 20 minutes until the dal is cooked and nearly falling apart. Stir often to keep it from sticking.

Slice the onion lengthwise into strips and cook over medium heat until caramelized.

To serve, fish out the ginger, and add salt and pepper to taste. Pour into a serving bowl. Top with the onions and the oil in which they were cooked. If your guests are likely to hog the onions, give the onions a quick stir into the dal before serving.

Onion Marmalade

These onions do not color as much as the other recipes, but have a long-cooked taste. You can stuff thick pork chops or a split pork tenderloin with them. They also make a great topping for grilled chicken or pork sandwiches.

I like navel oranges for zesting. I get organic oranges for zest, since they are not dyed. Wash the orange thoroughly with soap and water before you zest it. I sometimes use dried cranberries instead of raisins in this dish.

By the way, marmalade is one of those words being redefined by today’s chefs. ‘Joy of Cooking’ defines marmalades as ‘bits of fruit cooked to a translucent state in a heavy syrup.’ You wouldn’t want to put this marmalade on your morning toast. Neither fruit nor a heavy syrup is involved, and I suppose you could just as easily call it an onion chutney or an onion compote. Whatever you call it, it’s pretty tasty

1 large Spanish onion or 2 large yellow onions
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon cayenne (or to taste)
2 cloves
Dash ground cinnamon
1 navel orange, preferably organic
2 tablespoons cider or sherry vinegar
1/4 cup raisins, preferably golden
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and pepper to taste

Slice the onions lengthwise into wide strips and sautᅦ in the olive oil until they color lightly. When they turn translucent, add the spices and continue cooking.

While the onions are cooking, zest half the orange into a small saucepan. Add the juice of the orange, the vinegar and the raisins, and simmer slowly uncovered for 10 minutes. Add the mixture to the onions and cook, covered, for 10 minutes. Add the sugar and salt and pepper and cook, uncovered, until the onions are almost falling apart and the mixture is almost dry.

No Reservations: Enlightened Zen

I registered that the real estate office on Main Street was gone. I remembered an old toy fire engine in the dusty windows and posters for bands and indie movies, but the place had the feeling of being abandoned long before it disappeared. I registered the appearance of another Asian restaurant, Zen, but didn’t think too much about it until a number of people told me I ought to check it out. “Very good food,” they said, “very polished.”

Brian and Yei-Yu Sun, a brother and sister team with a background in the restaurant business, had been looking to open a place in Northampton. There were several possibilities, but when they saw 41 Main St., they stopped looking. Yei-Yu said they saw the image of something the space could be.

They hired local designer Tom Douglas and several teams of builders to give that image a shape, and the Suns opened their new place in February 2006. From the Chinese character for fine dining that is featured on its logo to the restaurant’s look — lots of blond wood — to the food itself, Zen Restaurant is clean and modern.

On a weekend night, the restaurant is crowded and energetic. Midweek, it is the kind of place where you want to meet friends and linger over a meal. The space is open and airy without being noisy. Soft jazz permeates the room, muting the conversations at the other tables. The lights over each table echo the traditional look of Chinese restaurants, while the rest of the design is modern — a perfect statement about Zen’s fusion of old and new. The windows above the sushi bar are antiques that Yei-Yu bought in China. Ironically, they were taken from buildings that were having more modern windows installed.

But what about the food? The menu ranges from familiar Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai dishes to a more eclectic mix of cultures. Traditional starters like Shrimp Shumai and Vegetable Dumplings mingle with fusion specialties like Dynamite, a seafood, vegetable and cheese bake. In fact, the menu categorizes the dishes as Traditional and Specialties. It’s this fusion of old and new that makes Zen exciting.

Brian and Yei-Yu come from a culinary family — their grandfather and father were both restaurant chefs. Of Chinese background, they were born in Korea, then immigrated to the United States. They ended up in Northampton about 20 years ago, their parents drawn here by the safety of the area and the educational opportunities.

Brian and Yei-Yu like this area as well. They buy a lot of their food locally, and opt for organic as much as possible. Yei-Yu told me about going to Chang’s Farm in Sunderland in the afternoon and picking bok choy to be served in the restaurant that night.

One evening not too long ago, we settled into what have to be the best seats in the house: upstairs in the mezzanine, overlooking the sushi bar. We started with the Northern Spare Ribs, Meat and Seafood Spring Rolls, and a medley of dumplings. We ordered mostly off the Traditional menu because I was curious about Zen’s readings of standards like Orange Beef and Sesame Chicken. The interpretations were sweet and traditional, but without the heaviness or greasiness that less attentive cooking can impart. We also got Hae Dup Bap, a Korean dish that takes a bowl of sushi rice with salmon and vegetables and ties it together with a spicy sauce. We weren’t having sushi that night, but I saw a mix of hand rolls, nicely served in a sort of test-tube holder, appear at the table beside me and experienced a pang of longing.

On another occasion, we ordered off the Specialties portion of the menu. We had Mango Curry, a Thai-style curry that mixes chicken, shrimp, mangos and vegetables in a coconut curry sauce, and the Basil Seafood, shrimps, scallops, calamari and mussels in a chili-laced dark brown sauce in which the basil stands out clearly. Both dishes have some heat, but not so much that the other flavors are lost.

You could eat here for a while without exhausting the possibilities. Zen’s menu is divided into Noodles (Thai noodles, Japanese udon and Chinese Mei Fun noodles); Rice (various types of fried rice and sushi rice); the aforementioned Traditional and Specialties; and a full sushi bar. For me, it’s the Specialties that have proven most intriguing: entrees such as Passion Fruit Shrimp, Zen Burgers (ground beef and vegetables in oyster sauce), steamed tilapia on mustard greens, and the Jiang Pao Duck, Peking-style duck sauteed with hoisen sauce.

Prices range from $11 to $18, with the rice dishes at the lower end and the mixed seafood entrees at the higher end. Sushi will run you $3 for cut rolls and up to $10 for the specialties. Dinner for four, including the tip, came to $130. You could easily up that $20 or more by ordering additional wine or sake.

Zen has a good wine list, with four whites and four reds served by the glass. It also offers a number of sakes. I had always had sake served warm, but Brian informed me that the better ones at Zen are served chilled to bring out their flavors. He recommended Rabbit Moon Sparkling, a carbonated and slightly sweet sake with apricot and blueberry overtones.

Desserts are often perfunctory in Asian restaurants. Zen has the traditional green tea ice cream, as well as a cappuccino flavor. But it also offers a banana spring roll, fried banana topped with caramel and chocolate and served over ice cream, and a Lotus Bun a la Zen. This last was inspired by a red bean paste bun dipped in sweetened condensed milk, a combination which Yei-Yu remembers having in China. Zen’s version is filled with lotus bean paste and covered in caramel and ice cream.

Life in the 21st century is about fusion, the mixing of cultures and combinations. In restaurants, that sometimes means that novelty is valued over flavor. Not at Zen, which achieves harmony between taste and innovation.

Originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on: Friday, May 04, 2007

Little Dishes-Spanish Style Tapas

I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two ways to approach any style of cooking. First, you strive for authenticity. Texas chili doesn’t have beans? Then mine won’t either. My grandmother’s chicken soup was the best? Then make it taste like Grandma’s. Once you achieve authenticity, you repeat it endlessly. Why change? You’ve got the best. This is the approach behind classical cuisine. Everyone needs a killer dish or two in their repertoire, something they can rely on over and over.

The other approach is to learn the style and its elements, then incorporate them into your general cooking. Once you learn an etouffee sauce, you can cook all manner of meat, fish, fowl and sausages in the New Orleans style. So what if you can’t get fresh crawfish or shrimps with their heads on and your local andouille just doesn’t taste like the sausage you get in Louisiana? You simply find what is good around you and reinterpret. Clearly you must exercise common sense and good taste, but this is the process by which all regional cooking was developed.

What does this have to do with tapas? Tapas are little dishes usually served in tapas bars all over Spain. One orders a bit of this and that with a glass of sherry or wine, stacking up plates which are totaled at the end of the meal. It is fine way to eat and it lends itself to casual cooking. If you like to cook, and your friends like to eat, nothing beats a tapas party.

However, authentic tapas can be difficult. Angulas in Garlic Sauce, a tapas favorite, requires fresh baby eels, something the local supermarkets tend not to carry. Other, more familiar tapas depend on varieties of seafood of a freshness and variety that is not available in the States, let alone in the Pioneer Valley. Serrano ham, the Spanish cured ham similar to prosciutto, is more costly than the imported Italian variety, when you can even find it. The Manchego and other Spanish cheeses I’ve found mostly come precut and prepackaged.

Clearly, reinterpretation is called for. In the recipes below, I list some dishes that started out as authentic tapas and took a twist. Others are just things I like to cook, which happen to fit into the general Mediterranean theme of tapas. If you’re looking for some good cookbooks on the subject, try Penelope CasasTapas, the Little Dishes of Spain, Joanne Weir’s From Tapas to Meze, and for a more general approach to small dishes, Martha Stewart’s The Hors D’Oeuvres Handbook. (Say what you like about Martha, the lady can cook and this book is filled with gems.)

You may want to go all out and serve only tapas. You may find that making several tapas followed by a main course suits your style better. Tapas add an air of informality no matter how formally your guests are dressed. I’ve made tapas for four, for 10, and once for a group of 20 women at a Girls Night Out gathering.

When you build a tapas menu, start with something simple to give your guests time to gather. Olives are traditional. Try the small bright green Picholine or Luques, the small black Nicoise, and the oil-cured black olives for a change from Kalamata. The dates and sausage below are perfect for the next course, a tasty little treat that whets the appetite for more.

Next, I like to set out a crostini bar. Put out a basket of baguette slices and three or four dips and spreads. Your guests build the appetizers to their tastes and everyone has something to talk about.

Most people seem to like shellfish. Your choice depends on whether everyone is standing around or seated. If people are sitting, steam mussels or clams with garlic, white wine and parsley or serve boiled unpeeled shrimp with a variety of sauces. If they’re standing, serve peeled shrimp and stuffed clams or mussels. Stuffed calamari, sliced into bite-sized pieces, are also a great tapa. You can make them in advance, then simply heat in the sauce, slice and serve.

Fried food, like fritters or batter-dipped vegetables or seafood, is not something most people make at home, so serving it offers a real treat. You can pretty much deep-fry anything and people will like it. Serving this after the crostini gives you a chance to get the oil hot and prepare the fried foods while your guests are working on the crostini.

Finish with something more substantial, like a grilled pork tenderloin, so people feel like they’ve eaten a meal. Accompany the pork with some quartered red onions marinated in olive oil, skewered, and grilled or broiled. One tenderloin serves three as an entree; you can double or even triple that as part of a tapas menu.

Originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Friday, September 03, 2004


Roast Red Peppers and Parmesan

Vegetarian Pate

Chicken Liver Pate

Dates and Chorizo

Stuffed Calamari

Chicken Liver Pate

I only use livers from organic, free-range chickens for this dish. Given the way modern chickens are raised, you want an organic liver.

When you cook livers, your goal is to cook them fully but leave the centers pink. By the time the centers are gray, the liver is grainy and dry and the reason people hate liver.

1 pound organic chicken livers
1 medium onion
2 tablespoons butter
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon cognac

Cut the livers into lobes and remove any fat and gristle. Chop the onion into pieces about 1/2-inch square. Melt the butter in a frying pan over a medium-hot flame. Saute the onions until they are soft and translucent. Add the chicken livers and saute until cooked through but still pink at the center, about 5 minutes.

Pour the contents of the frying pan into a food processor. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Add the cloves and cognac. Process until smooth. Spoon into the serving bowl, let cool slightly and cover, laying the plastic wrap directly on the pate.

Vegetarian Pate

When I was a boy, this was called Mock Liver and fed to those who didn’t like chopped liver. I don’t eat mock anything. This is good enough to stand on its own and is a great vegetarian appetizer.

1 pound string beans
2 large Spanish or Bermuda onions
1/2 cup shelled walnuts or pecans
2 eggs
4 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper

Peel and chop the onions into 1-inch dice. Melt the butter in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the onions and lower the heat slightly. Cook the onions, stirring from time to time, until they are dark brown and caramelized. It will take up to a half hour, but don’t try to hurry it or skimp on the browning; this is what gives the dish its flavor. Add additional butter if the pan seems dry.

Cut off the stem ends of the string beans and steam them until they are completely done. For this dish, you do not want al dente string beans. Let the beans cool and drain in a colander.

Place the eggs in a small pan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes, drain and let cool. Peel and slice.

Pour the nuts into a food processor and grind for a minute until they resemble coarse sand. Add the onions and the string beans and pulse for 30 seconds. Add the eggs plus salt and pepper to taste and process until the mixture is smooth, but still has a texture. Add a touch of oil if it seems dry.