There’s little else in the vegetable drawer more versatile than the humble onion. Whether it’s white or red, shallots or scallions, they can be fresh and bold, raw, soft and unctuous when slow-cooked, or deep and rich with umami when given some hard heat.
Soubise with beef fat croutons
Some traditional recipes for this French sauce call for cooked onions to be mixed with bechamel, but this option forgoes that and turns it into a thick sauce which is great for dipping or a side with steak.
Slice several white onions and cook in butter and a touch of oil, a small amount of salt, and bay leaf, for 30-40 minutes, making sure they remain on low heat and don’t brown. This could take longer if you have a lot of onions. Add more butter, a pinch of nutmeg, pepper and blitz with double cream until smooth and rich. Top with chunks of sourdough toasted in beef fat, sprinkle smoked paprika and finish with finely-chopped scallions.
You can make this with white or red onions. It’s simply a matter of slicing fine and cooking down in a big pot with a touch of oil, butter, salt and a couple of star anise. It’ll take some time but you’ll want a small amount of that Maillard reaction, bringing a touch of caramelisation and colour. As they get soft, add in balsamic vinegar and sugar and keep cooking down, adding more when needed. When thickened but not too solid (it’ll firm up when chilled) that’s you done.
You can cool and then stick into a jar and keep in the fridge. This works well with a strong cheddar or can be folded into a sauce to add sweetness and richness.
Crispy fried shallots
This is a lighter version of Northern Ireland’s favourite tobacco onion (arguably thought of as an even greater delicacy the further north you travel). Take torpedo or banana shallots (most supermarkets stock them), and slice thinly while making sure to maintain the ring shape. Soak in milk for half an hour, then throw into lightly-seasoned flour. Dust off and cook quickly in medium/hot oil until lightly browned and crisp. Season well.
White onion, lime, herb oil, sugar salad
This is a clean, punchy and refreshing addition to any barbecue and goes especially well with smoked chicken or pork chops. Slice white onions into fine rings and mix with lots of fresh lime juice, a touch of sugar, finely-chopped fresh herbs (mint and basil work well), and season with salt and pepper. Let it sit for 30 minutes or so to let the acid do its work and soften the onions, then serve.
A quick pickle will enliven onions or shallots. They can be added atop anything, from a salad, to tacos, noodle dishes or even thrown into a sandwich. Get some torpedo shallots and slice into thin rings. Heat red wine vinegar, a touch of water, sugar, black peppercorns, and whichever other aromatics you fancy (fennel, coriander or mustard seeds work well). Bring to a light boil and let it sit and cool.
Then combine with the shallots and let it do its work in the fridge for an hour. It’ll last a couple of days covered but you can also jar to keep for much longer. You’ll find lots of ways of doing that online if you want to preserve them, or any other pickles, for a lengthier period of time.