A cookbook devoted entirely to onions may seem too specialized, but Kate Winslow, author of Onions, Etcetera doesn't think so. She talks to The Splendid Table contributor Joe Yonan about the versatility of the allium family. She also shares her recipes for two appetizers that will be the hit of your party: Four Onion Dip and Red Onion Blossoms. Have that bowl of breath mints ready.
JY: I love that you write that many times you start chopping an onion before you even know what you're going to make. I think so many of us identify with that. The garlic and onion go into the olive oil as we're trying to figure out what else we're going to put in there.
KW: Exactly, as you're rummaging through the pantry and seeing if it's going to be a tomato sauce or if you're going to make some beans, or you're going to add some meat in there, or a stir fry- something like that. It helps you buy some time. You're going to need it anyway, so you might as well get started.
JY: Let's talk about those workhorses, those storage onions that we're all so familiar with, the white onion and the yellow onion. Can you describe the differences between them?
KW: The flavor of yellow onions, white onions, and even red onions- they're not terribly different, and they can be used pretty interchangeably. Earlier in the season, they're all going to be milder, a little sweeter. As they age and cure, they're going to become more pungent. Yellow onions work best when you're cooking them. They melt down into that sweet pile of golden caramel. White onions are very, very crisp. They have a thinner skin, and they're good raw. Their color stays nice and white. You find them in a lot of Latin American, used in a lot of salsas. Same thing with red onions. They have that beautiful punch of color, and I like using them raw a lot or grilling them a little bit, which makes their color pop even more. Pickling them does the same. If you're serving them raw, but you want to cut that bite a little bit, you can soak them in some cold water, and that helps to gentle their pungency.
JY: I am so drawn to what you refer to as the "lean greens" in your book, the scallions, chives, and the like. What do you like about those?
KW: We eat with our eyes first, and that beautiful green really does get you. I think that's wonderful. What a lot of people love is that they're really easy to work with. You don't have to peel them. They're just easier to get those little wispy bits off and start chopping. I think for kids, they're a great thing to practice chopping on, so a good way to get kids in the kitchen is to start working with them. And they don't make you tear up so much as sometimes a bulb onion does, especially scallions. Their gentle flavor is a nice gateway allium for a lot of people.
JY: Your chapter for the lean greens has some incredible looking recipes. I was loving the look of that Four Onion Dip, which maybe it should be called a four allium dip.
KW: I guess so, yeah. Not quite, because it has garlic.
JY: Right. Doesn't quite roll off the tongue as easily. But you double down, or quadruple down on the alliums in that one. Can you tell us how you make that?
KW: Sure. It starts with a totally traditional sour cream base, but we sauté some onions, finely chopped onions - you could use yellow, you could use sweet, you could use red - and some sautéed garlic too. Then you're going to fold into that some finely chopped fresh scallions and lots of black pepper, a drizzle of Worcestershire sauce and some lemon- fresh lemon- and then you top it with lots of chopped chives, so you're getting that extra last bit of allium as you dip your potato chip in there.
JY: You have some incredible other recipes in other chapters, like those gorgeous Red Onion Blossoms, which I thought were a stunning idea. Can you describe those?
KW: That is a real show stopping dish which I like, because as we're talking about onions being a workhorse, it’s nice to remember they can also be pretty glamorous-looking. This is taking a whole red onion and making six cuts into it, from the blossom to the stem end, or to the root end, but so it stays intact, sprinkling a lot of salt and pepper inside there, and drizzling it with some white balsamic vinegar and some olive oil, and then wrapping it all up in foil and putting it in the oven to roast. It roasts for twenty minutes or so until it gets soft. You take it out and unwrap it, trying to keep all those juices that have collected in there along with the oil and vinegar, and as you unwrap it, it just sort of slumps open and creates this beautiful blossom effect. It looks almost like a lotus flower, and the color has really popped with that bit of heat and the acid from the vinegar. It's delicious alongside a steak or some roast chicken or other vegetables.
JY: I looked at it and thought that Outback Steakhouse really has something to worry about. No Bloomin' Onions for me.
KW: You don’t need a Bloomin' Onion when you have an onion blossom.
JY: No, no. So, I'm a taco fanatic, and I'm an onion fanatic, and I never would have thought to make onion tacos. How did you come up with that?
KW: That was several, several years ago. I was in Pittsburgh, and I went out to a taco restaurant in town one night. On the menu was just something called an onion taco, and I had to order it. It was just the most simple dish of some really super soft buttery grilled onions that were just folded into hot corn tortillas and topped just with a little bit of queso fresco and some salsa. It was so simple and so satisfying. It just stopped me in my tracks. I thought "who would have thought to do this?" Ever since then it's become something we make all the time. We fire up the grill, we put extra onions on there, and you can just fold them into tortillas. They’re meaty when you cut them thick like that, they really have such a nice presence and are very satisfying.
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