Don't cry for me ...

Why do onions get cast in a supporting role? Mark Hix makes them the star of the show
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Indy Lifestyle Online

I've been getting to know my onions ever since I was a kid. My grandmother used to serve boiled onions for supper. She always claimed it was to keep away colds, though I wonder whether it wasn't an excuse for a cheap supper. Whatever the reason, they were delicious. She cooked them in the pressure cooker, one of those pieces of equipment that you don't see around much any more (but watch this space), for about an hour, so that they were soft and silky, almost falling apart. They had a mellow, delicate flavour - a long way from the harshness of raw onions - and she'd serve them up in a bowl with the cooking liquid, as a dish verging on soup. With just some crusty bread for mopping up the juice, they were a cheap and very cheerful supper I remember with pleasure. Yet such simple pleasures are now rarely heard of at home, let alone in restaurants.

I've been getting to know my onions ever since I was a kid. My grandmother used to serve boiled onions for supper. She always claimed it was to keep away colds, though I wonder whether it wasn't an excuse for a cheap supper. Whatever the reason, they were delicious. She cooked them in the pressure cooker, one of those pieces of equipment that you don't see around much any more (but watch this space), for about an hour, so that they were soft and silky, almost falling apart. They had a mellow, delicate flavour - a long way from the harshness of raw onions - and she'd serve them up in a bowl with the cooking liquid, as a dish verging on soup. With just some crusty bread for mopping up the juice, they were a cheap and very cheerful supper I remember with pleasure. Yet such simple pleasures are now rarely heard of at home, let alone in restaurants.

We don't exactly celebrate the onion; we treat it more as a background ingredient. The Spanish really go to town on their calcots, which are like giant spring onions. The town of Valls has just had its annual calcotada eating contest. But even when they're not competing, some people there will easily eat as many as 20 of these giant grilled onions at one sitting.

I also have fond memories of the French old boy who used to ride around London on his push bike selling ropes of French onions to restaurants. I think he must have grown too old for it, or retired to Roscoff, or more than likely he is enjoying soupe à l'oignon in another life - at every restaurant he visited he had a glass of red wine for his travels. I was never sure whether he arrived from France with his bike laden with onions or whether he just picked them up from Covent Garden on the way.

Calcotada

Serves 4-6

I first came across this seasonal meal about 15 years ago in a farmhouse restaurant, up a windy hill close to Rosas, north of Barcelona where the now-famous restaurant El Bulli is. First we were dressed in bibs, then sections of curved gutter-like tiles arrived, filled with burnt, leek-like onions, along with pots of romesco sauce. Specialist greengrocers such as Tony Booth in Borough Market, and Philip Britten at Solstice (see Food Notes, page 45), have calcots. The vegetable has a laborious upbringing lasting more than a year. The seeds are planted in September, and the seedlings transplanted in January, and allowed to grow until late June or early July. Then they're uprooted and stored until they've sprouted, which they do in August or September. They're then trimmed and replanted, with earth covering the stalks to keep them white. They're harvested again at this time of year, and eaten with gusto as calcotada, cooked as below. I have cooked calcots at home, and have also used those giant spring onions, which work pretty well. In Spain the onions are cooked over a charcoal barbecue for 8-10 minutes until the skins are black, but you can use a regular grill.

24-30 calcots, or large spring onions, washed

for the romesco sauce

125ml olive oil
2tbsp flaked almonds
1 red pepper, halved, seeded and roughly chopped
A good pinch of sweet pimenton
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
2 ripe tomatoes, skinned, seeded and roughly chopped
1tbsp red wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a heavy pan and cook the sauce ingredients on a medium heat for 3-4 minutes with a lid on, stirring every so often. Drain off most of the oil into a jug and coarsely blend the solids in a food processor, trickling the oil back in a little at a time. Remove and leave to cool.

For the onions, heat a grill, barbecue or charcoal grill and cook for about 5-6 minutes on each side, or until they are black. It's best to eat them just after they're cooked, wearing a bib or napkin. Remove the black skin with your fingers, and dip the soft white onion into the sauce. Oh, and have some finger bowls ready.

Grilled lamb steak with Soubise sauce

Serves 4

Sauce Soubise, named after an 18th-century French prince of that name, is one of the classic comforting sauces that can be served with meats such as lamb, mutton, poultry or veal. There are several versions using milk, stock and milk, cream or a roux (butter and flour) base. I prefer to keep it simple and use some stock for flavour and finish with a touch of cream. You can blend it to a smooth purée but, depending on the cut of meat, I quite like to keep it a little coarse and just blend half and mix it back in with the rest.

The cut of lamb you use for this is up to you and depends what's available. Chump or Barnsley chops, lamb cutlets or a leg of lamb steak will all be suitable.

4 lamb leg steaks or Barnsley chops weighing around 200-250g
A little vegetable oil for grilling

for the Soubise sauce

3 medium onions, peeled and roughly chopped
A good knob of butter
150ml chicken stock or half a good-quality stock cube dissolved in that amount of water
60ml double cream
Salt and freshly ground white pepper

First, the sauce. Cook the onions on a low heat with a lid on for 5-6 minutes without colouring, stirring every so often. If they begin to colour, add a tablespoon of water. Add the stock, season and continue to simmer gently for 30-40 minutes with a lid on, topping up with a little water if necessary. Remove the lid, add the cream and simmer for another 10 minutes or so until it thickens. Blend half in a liquidiser and add back to the pan. Simmer again until thick.

Season and lightly oil the lamb. Cook on a pre-heated griddle or under a hot grill for 4-5 minutes on each side to keep them pink, a few minutes more for medium. Serve with the sauce on the plate or separately.

Onion chutney

Makes about 500ml

This is an easy-to-make chutney that goes perfectly with hard cheeses, including Cheddar and Lancashire, or cooked meats, such as cold ham and tongue. Remove the chutney from the fridge an hour or so before serving to get the most flavour out of it.

Vegetable oil for frying
4 large red onions, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
Small piece of fresh root ginger, scraped and finely chopped
2tsp thyme leaves, chopped
1/2tsp mustard seeds
Pinch of ground cloves
1/3tsp ground cumin
5tbsp sherry vinegar
5tbsp balsamic vinegar
1tbsp brown sugar
1tbsp redcurrant jelly
1tbsp tomato purée
1tsp cornflour

Heat the vegetable oil in a pan and gently cook the onions, garlic, ginger and all the herbs and spices until they are soft. Add the vinegars, sugar, redcurrant jelly, tomato purée and 150ml water, and simmer gently for 20 minutes.

Mix the cornflour with a little water and stir it into the chutney. Continue to simmer over a low heat for 30 minutes until the liquid has almost evaporated. If the liquid evaporates completely, add a little more water.

Remove the pan from the heat and let the chutney cool. Serve within a few days or store in a sterilised Kilner jar in the fridge. The chutney will keep for up to a year if you seal the jars by immersing in boiling water and simmering for 15 minutes.

Onions and parsley sauce

Serves 4

This is a dish you don't see that often. It takes my gran's boiled onions to the next level. It is a great accompaniment to boiled ham or mutton, Sunday roasts, or as a vegetarian main course.

There are lots of different types of onions available these days, from the delicious French Roscoff to the little flat Italian cippoline. For this recipe, stick to white onions; don't try to be clever and use red ones. If you do, you'll only end up with a yucky-looking pink sauce. Sure, it might taste fine but it will put everyone off before they've even tried it.

600-800g small white onions, peeled
1.5 litres vegetable stock, or a good-quality cube dissolved in that amount of water
50g butter
40g flour
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
2tbsp chopped parsley
1tbsp double cream

Put the onions into a saucepan with the vegetable stock and lightly season. Bring to the boil and simmer with a lid on for about 45 minutes, depending on the size of the onions, until soft but not falling apart.

Drain the onions in a colander, reserving the stock. Melt the butter in the pan the onions were cooked in and stir in the flour on a low heat. Gradually add the reserved stock, stirring constantly to avoid lumps forming (a whisk helps), bring to the boil and simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened. Add the parsley, cream and onions and simmer for another 3-4 minutes. Eat with toast.

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