The amazing onion. Egyptians once worshiped them and used an onion ring as a symbol of everlasting life. In Europe, onions were used by Greeks and Romans for their flavor. During the Middle Ages in Europe, onions were one of the few vegetables available to commoners as well as kings. And beyond their culinary value, they were also prized medicinally. Spaniards brought onions to the West Indies on their early voyages and thanks to natives and settlers, their popularity spread rapidly. There are always two or three in a small basket in my kitchen waiting to be used as needed.

White, yellow and red and that’s just for starters. Not only are onions amazing as one of the most popular seasonings in the entire world, but it is nearly impossible to imagine cooking without them considering their value and what they offer. Well beyond sweet raw slices for hamburgers or being chopped for hot dogs, they can also be cooked, baked, blanched, boiled, braised, caramelized, fried, grilled, roasted, sautéed, simmered, and stewed. Along the way consider grating, mincing, pickling, and sweetening. By including garlic, leeks, shallots, and chives (other members of the onion family), the culinary world becomes further seasoned and why they’ll be featured again in the near future.

In the meantime, here are more reasons and ways to keep them on hand. Cut onions should be wrapped in plastic and placed in the refrigerator, while scallions, also wrapped in plastic, should be kept in the crisper drawer in the refrigerator where they will keep for up to 10 days. Whole onions should not be refrigerated, but instead kept in a cool, well-ventilated place such as a basement until you are ready to use them.

If you are interested in freezing onions, spread chopped or sliced onions on baking sheets and freeze before packing them into containers or bags. When you’re ready, just remove as many as you need. If you are planning to store the onions for more than 3 months, blanch them for 2 minutes first to preserve their zip.

Here are just a few simply delicious recipes using onions from Rodale’s “Garden-Fresh Cooking” cookbook.

Onion sauce for roasted meats and poultry

2 tablespoons butter

1 pound onions, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon honey

1 small garlic clove, minced

¼ cup red wine vinegar

1/3 cup beef or chicken stock

¼ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon crushed coriander seeds

Melt butter in a medium-size skillet over low heat. Add onions, cover, and cook until soft, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes. Add honey and garlic and cook, uncovered, for about 5 minutes, or until onions are beginning to turn reddish brown. Transfer to a food processor or blender and puree until smooth. Return to skillet. Blend in vinegar, stock, pepper and coriander. Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer for 1 minute.

Note: If a thinner sauce is desired, add more stock.

It would be impossible for me not to have at least two red onions on hand at all times.

Grilled red onions

1 large red onion, cut into 1/3-inch slices (don’t separate into rings)

2 teaspoons olive oil

Paint onion slices on both sides with oil and grill or broil for about 4 minutes on each side. Serve with fish, meat, or poultry.

Note: For a variation, while slices are still hot, sprinkle with sprigs of thyme or dill.

This is a delicious and simple recipe using pasta and onions.

Ditalini with four onions

1 cup baby onions, steamed until tender

½ red onion, thinly sliced and separated into rings

3 scallions, minced

1 cup sliced mushrooms

1 carrot, cut into julienne strips

1 red pepper, diced

2 cups cooked ditalini (elbow macaroni may be substituted)

1 teaspoon peanut oil

¼ cup white wine vinegar

1 teaspoon minced ginger root

½ teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed

¼ teaspoon ground turmeric

2 shallots, quartered

In a large bowl, combine baby onions, red onions, scallions, mushrooms, carrots, peppers, and ditalini.

Set aside. In a blender, combine oil, vinegar, ginger, fennel, turmeric, and shallots, and blend until smooth. Pour over ditalini mixture and toss well before serving.

Serves 6

David Letterman’s Mom, Dorothy, spent 40 years at home in Indiana making meals to remember that were proudly shared in “Home Cookin’ With Dave’s Mom!,” a cookbook she wrote and published in 1996. So, while searching for an exceptional onion soup recipe, I turned to page 57, and there it was, described as being…”unforgettable.”

Unforgettable French onion soup

6 cups beef broth

2 large onions, thinly sliced

1 cup sliced mushrooms

½ cup sliced almonds

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons dry sherry (optional)

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

2 cups homemade or store-bought croutons

1 ½ cups shredded Swiss cheese, or 6 ounces sliced

In a large saucepan, over medium heat, combine beef broth, onions, mushrooms, almonds, butter, sherry and Worcestershire sauce. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes or until onions are tender. Ladle soup into 4 microwave-safe or broiler-safe bowls. Top with croutons and cheese. Cook in microwave or under the broiler until the cheese melts. (Allow about 2 ½ minutes on high power in the microwave).

Makes 4 main dish servings

Note: Don’t leave out the mushrooms and almonds—-they make all the difference.

In Italy, cipolline means “little onions.” However, if you are shopping in American markets, you might find Cipollini, a small yellow-skinned onion that grows flat. If you cannot find Cipollini, substitute small yellow onions or, as a last choice, white pearl onions. This recipe from “Contorni,” a cookbook featuring special Italian side dishes for all seasons, is perfect on a holiday table buffet, and is especially nice with roast turkey.

Cipolline in agrodolce

(Sweet-and-sour little onions)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons sugar

1/3 cup good-quality red wine vinegar

2 pounds cipollini or small yellow onions, peeled and rinsed but not dried

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Chopped fresh mint leaves, optional

In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt butter in olive oil. When butter has melted, add sugar and stir until it dissolves. Lower heat, add vinegar and simmer until mixture is the consistency of maple syrup. Add onions (with a bit of the rinse water still on them), salt, and pepper to the pan. Stir to thoroughly coat with the sauce. Lower the heat, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until a tester easily passes through them, about 30 minutes. Serve immediately. Garnish with mint leaves, if desired.

Contact the Cooks’ Exchange in care of the Wisconsin State Journal, P.O. Box 8058, Madison, WI, 53708 or by email at greenbush4@aol.com.

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