Food: Meals to make your mascara run: Onions . . . grilled, boiled, stuffed, deep-fried, browned, sweated, even raw. What's a few tears when you have a vegetable as versatile as this?

I REALLY can't imagine cooking without onions. Chopping an onion or two is the kind of thing I do without thinking when I begin to prepare a meal. An occasional tear, a sniff or two, a streak of mascara at worst, and I'm ready for the cooking proper. With onions being as fundamental a background flavouring as salt, we tend to forget that they are bona fide vegetables, as good in their own right as any other, and far more adaptable than most.

From one simple sort of onion, you can extract a wide range of flavours. Raw, they have a juicy aggressive hiss that masks their natural sweetness. Boiled onions are soft and mild and unintimidating, good transformed into a gratin with a crust of melting cheese. Fried briefly, without browning, they retain a slight sharpness, adding a depth of flavour to any savoury dish. Browned briskly, they develop a toasty taste. Sweated slowly and carefully, they soften down to a melting, caramel sweetness, the basis of many an onion 'marmalade', and marvellous in savoury tarts such as Provencal pissaladiere.

Naturally, flavour and pungency vary greatly. Red onions tend to be milder than white- or brown-skinned ones, but much depends on where the onions were grown, the weather and what time of year you use them. In the autumn, newly-pulled onions that have been briefly 'cured' (effectively semi-dried so that the outer skin is tough enough to protect the inner layers) will be very juicy and more likely to make you weep. After a few months of storage, by spring of the following year, they will be a little drier.

The sweetest onions I've ever eaten were the sun-ripened red onions of Tropea, a small town on the toe of Italy. The Tropeans have a passion for their onions, using them on pizzas and pasta, in salads, in sauces and practically everything but pudding. They even hold an annual red onion festival in honour of their prized local product.

In France, it is easy to identify onion- heavy recipes, as they will usually be labelled something or other soubise or a la Lyonnaise. The town of Lyons, home to some of the best food in France, is particularly noted for its use of fried onions. The epithet soubise, on the other hand, is usually applied to onion purees, sauces and soups, and can be traced back to the 18th-century general, Charles de Rohan, Prince de Soubise, who presumably was as fond of onions as the inhabitants of Tropea.

Two very easy, quick ways of using onions for their own sake rank high among my favourite ways of eating them. The first is a trick I learnt from Joyce Molyneux, of the Carved Angel in Dartmouth. She slices onions very thinly, covers them in boiling water and lets them stand for a few minutes before draining thoroughly. Dressed with soured cream, salt and pepper, they make an excellent salad, the raw pungency drawn out by the hot water, leaving just the fresh, oniony taste.

The second is grilled onions, particularly good with the red variety. Peel and slice onions thickly (about 1cm or a scant 1/2 in). To keep the rings together, either push a wooden cocktail stick through to the centre, like a lollipop stick, or clamp them in a double-sided wire grill. Brush with olive oil and grill close to the heat until both sides are well browned. Serve them as a side dish with other grilled foods or, for something more fashionable, pile them on to toasted bread to make crostini, maybe dressed with a few drops of balsamic vinegar, or strips of anchovy, sun-dried tomato or black olives. If you use cocktail sticks, be prepared for the fact that the ends will burn off, so either extract the remaining shards before serving or warn fellow diners of their presence.

You could write a tome on onion recipes alone. Indeed, I know of one slim volume - The Book of the Onion by Ambrose Heath, published in 1933 - that is well worth snapping up if you come across it in a second-hand bookshop.

THERE are two ways to deep-fry onion rings. The first is to soak them in milk for an hour or so, then drain, toss in seasoned flour and deep-fry. The second, more substantial version, which I marginally prefer, is to coat them in batter before frying.

Deep-fried Onion Rings

Serves 4 generously

2 medium onions

4oz (110g) flour

1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 level tsp salt

1 egg

8fl oz (230 ml) buttermilk

Preparation: Slice off the ends of the onions, then slice into discs about 1/4 in thick. Separate the individual rings, setting aside the inner bits for some other dish. Soak in iced water for 1-2 hours, then drain thoroughly and pat dry. Sift the flour with bicarbonate of soda and salt. Make a well in the centre and add the egg and half the buttermilk. Stir, gradually drawing in the flour and adding remaining buttermilk, to make a smooth thick batter. Coat the rings with batter and deep fry a few at a time in oil heated to 370F/190C, until puffed and browned. Drain briefly on kitchen paper, dust with salt and serve.

IN THIS recipe, the onions are boiled first to soften them, then finished off in the oven, and filled with a salty savoury mixture to emphasise their natural sweetness. There is enough here to feed four as a substantial first course, or as a light main course, padded out perhaps with a generous dollop of mashed potatoes and a plainly cooked green vegetable.

Baked Stuffed Onions

Serves 4

4 fairly large onions

olive oil

salt and pepper

Stuffing:

2tbs olive oil

1 clove of garlic, chopped

2oz/55g brown

breadcrumbs

4oz/110g crumbled

Lancashire cheese

8oz/225g tomatoes, skin

ned, deseeded and diced

8 black olives, pitted and

chopped

1tbs chopped parsley

1/2 tsp dried oregano

salt and cayenne pepper

Preparation: Trim roots and loose bits of papery skin from the onions, but do not peel. Boil in salted water for 15 minutes. Drain, run under the cold tap and peel. Slice off the top and carefully ease out the centre of the onions, leaving a sturdy shell. Sit the hollowed-out onion shells in an oiled heatproof dish.

For the stuffing, chop the centre of the onions fairly finely. Fry gently in the olive oil with the garlic until lightly browned. Mix with all the remaining stuffing ingredients and fill the onion shells with the mixture. Drizzle over 2tbs of olive oil and bake at 200C/ 400F/Gas Mark 6 for 30 minutes.

LIVER and onions] Not the British version, but the Italian one, where the onions are cooked down slowly to a melting sweetness to form a bed for quickly fried, tender calf's liver. A blissful combination. If it makes life easier, the onions can be cooked up to a day in advance, then reheated while you fry the liver.

Fegato alla Veneziana

Serves 2 generously

12oz (340g) calf's liver

2tbs olive oil

1oz (30g) butter

2 onions, thinly sliced

1 1/2 tbs chopped parsley

1/2 tbs balsamic or sherry vinegar, or red wine vinegar

salt and pepper

Preparation: Trim the liver and cut into pieces about 2.5cm (1in) square. Set aside for the moment. Heat half the olive oil and half the butter in a wide saucepan. Add the onions and 1tbs of parsley, stir, then cover and cook slowly for 30 minutes, stirring once or twice. Uncover, raise the heat and continue cooking until golden - another 10 minutes or so. Season with salt and pepper and scoop out on to a serving dish. Keep warm if necessary. When the onions are nearly done, heat the remaining oil and butter in a separate pan. Saute the calf's liver for 1-2 minutes over a high heat. Drizzle over the vinegar, season with salt and pepper, stir for a few seconds, then spoon on to the onions. Scatter with remaining parsley and serve.

THIS is a wonderful way of cooking small pearl or pickling onions in a rich sweet and sour tomato sauce, from Ambrose Heath's The Book of the Onion. Serve the onions cold as part of a mixed hors d'oeuvre or as a relish with cold meats or cheese.

Onions a la Monegasque

Serves 4

1lb/450g small pickling (or pearl) onions

1/2 pt (290 ml) water

4fl oz (110 ml) white wine vinegar

3tbs olive oil

2 sprigs parsley

2 sprigs thyme

1 bay leaf

3tbs tomato puree

1 1/2 oz (45g) castor sugar

2oz (55g) raisins

salt and pepper

Preparation: Slice root and tip from the onions. Pour boiling water over them, leave for 1 minute and drain. Slip off the skins. Pat dry. Tie the herbs together in a bunch with a piece of string to make a bouquet garni.

Place onions and herbs in a pan with all the remaining ingredients and bring up to a simmer. Simmer very gently for about 1 1/2 hours, until onions are tender and the sauce is fairly thick. Cool, remove bouquet garni and serve at room temperature.

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