Giving thanks with onions

How about creamed onions at Thanksgiving this year?

Chopping onions 521 (photo credit: Marice Cohn Band/Miami Herald/MCT)
Chopping onions 521
(photo credit: Marice Cohn Band/Miami Herald/MCT)
Until a friend served creamed onions at his Thanksgiving feast, I didn’t realize that this was a traditional American dish for the holiday dinner. Undoubtedly the reason my mother never included creamed onions in our family’s Thanksgiving menu was that eating a dairy dish with turkey would not be kosher.
My friend couldn’t get the customary baby onions (also called pearl onions) fresh or frozen and so he used pickled ones. Mixed into the hot cream sauce, they had a peculiar taste.
A dish of creamed baby onions is simple to make. You poach baby onions and heat them in a cream sauce made of butter, flour and milk or cream, flavored with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Some might consider this American specialty bland but when properly prepared with enough seasoning, it is comfort food at its best – savory and satisfying.
Holly Garrison, author of The Thanksgiving Cookbook, prepares her creamed onions the time-honored way. Instead of serving them plain, she turns them into a casserole with a topping of buttered bread cubes that bake to a crunchy crust, for textural contrast.
To enhance this popular onion side dish, Mara Reid Rogers, author of Onions, seasons her cream sauce with tomato paste and dried tarragon, and bakes the onions with a sprinkling of bread crumbs and shredded Swiss cheese.
At chefs’ school I learned a technique for peeling pearl onions. You cook them in boiling water for a minute or two, drain them and cut off the root end; the peel then comes off more easily.
Although baby onions are pretty, peeling enough for several people is time consuming. It’s much easier to use sliced large ones. Elizabeth Terry, author of Savannah Seasons, a book on the cuisine of the American South, makes her creamed onions from diced onions. She gives the dish more pizzazz by adding sauteed celery, celery salt, fennel seeds and vermouth, and a topping of sharp cheddar cheese.
I have served creamed onions as an accompaniment for baked fish and for tofu. Because the dish is so rich, I like it spooned as a sauce over noodles or rice. A favorite of mine is butter-cooked onions heated with spiral pasta and Parmesan cheese.
JAMES VILLAS, author of The Glory of Southern Cooking, makes a creamy onion and rice casserole. He cooks onion slices in butter, mixes them with partially cooked rice, stirs in grated Swiss cheese, cream and milk and bakes the dish until golden.
If you’d like to serve individual whole onions, which make festive portions, there are easier ways than using baby onions. Rogers cuts whole onions so they open up like a flower during baking (the recipe is below) and drizzles them with a glaze of butter, honey and seasonings. This technique is so useful that Rogers gives 10 different ways to vary the recipe. To make deviled onions, for example, she bakes the onions with a topping of Dijon mustard and bread crumbs and sprinkles them with cayenne pepper at serving time. She makes Hawaiian onions by moistening the cut onions with coconut cream before baking. For Indian-style onions, she spoons mango chutney over the onions for the last 10 minutes of their baking time; for citrus onions, she uses orange marmalade the same way.
You can also bake half onions. Garrison’s herb-roasted onions are simple to prepare.She cuts medium onions in half, spreads them with a mixture of butter, lemon juice, dried thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper and bakes them until tender.
If tears are a problem when you cut onions, Rogers has some tips:• “The best way to minimize discomfort when chopping onions is to use a sharp knife and work as carefully but as quickly as possible.”• “To help reduce tearing when you slice onions, chill them first for 30 minutes. Then cut off the stem, peel off the skin, and cut the onion, waiting to cut off the root end until the last possible moment to help prevent those tears. (The root end has the largest concentration of sulfuric compounds, and it is those compounds that make your eyes tear.)”
She would know, after using onions in her onion cookbook in every course of the meal, from appetizers to desserts. Pearapple pie with leeks, anyone?
BUTTER-COOKED ONIONS WITH PASTA SPIRALS  For this simple but delicious side dish, the onions become tender and acquire sweetness when cooked slowly in butter and olive oil with fresh thyme and a bay leaf, before being tossed with fusilli, or pasta spirals.
To serve this dish with roast turkey or chicken, you can substitute olive oil for the butter and omit the cheese and cream. You can cook the onions up to 2 days ahead and keep them in a covered dish in the refrigerator. Reheat them in a large skillet over low heat.
2 Tbsp. olive oil or vegetable oil 2 or 3 Tbsp. butter 2 large onions (450 gr. or 1 pound total), halved, cut in thin slices Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves or 3/4 tsp. dried leaf, crumbled 1 bay leaf 1⁄3 cup heavy cream (optional) 225 gr. (8 oz.) fusilli, rotini or other spiral-shaped pasta (about 31⁄2 cups) 2 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese, if desired Bowl of freshly grated Parmesan cheese, if desired (for serving)
Heat oil and 1 or 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add onions, salt, pepper, thyme and bay leaf and sauté, stirring often, for about 25 minutes or until soft. Increase heat to medium-high and sauté, stirring, until onions lightly brown, about 5 minutes. Add cream and cook, stirring, until most of it is absorbed. Discard bay leaf.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil; add salt, then pasta. Cook uncovered over high heat, stirring occasionally, about 7 minutes or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain well.
Add pasta to skillet of onions, add remaining tablespoon butter and toss gently over low heat until well combined and butter melts. Transfer to a heated serving dish and add cheese if desired. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve with more cheese, if desired. Makes 4 side-dish servings.
                                           BAKED ONIONS This recipe is from Onions by Mara Reid Rogers, who notes that onions take a while to bake but that the dish is easy to prepare for baking with their glaze of butter, honey and ketchup. “The heat forces the pre-cut onion sections to open up, causing them to look like the petals of a flower. Meanwhile, the texture loses its crunchiness and becomes supple, mellow with true onion flavor – a simple, old-fashioned culinary delight.”
6 medium onions, about 7.5 cm. (3 inches) in diameter (about 1.25 kg. or 23⁄4 pounds) 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter or margarine, melted 2 Tbsp. honey 1 Tbsp. ketchup 1 tsp. paprika 1⁄2 tsp. salt
Preheat oven to 205ºC (400ºF).To prepare the onions: Cut a very thin slice from the root end of each onion so that it can stand upright, but don’t penetrate into the interior of the bulb. Cut a very thin slice off the top to remove the stem. Peel, and cut an “X” 5 cm. (2 inches) into each onion top. Arrange the onions, root ends down, in a baking dish that is large enough to hold them in one layer snugly; a 23-cm. (9-inch) square baking dish works well.
To make the glaze: Combine the melted butter, honey, ketchup, paprika and salt in a small bowl and stir until well blended.
Spoon the glaze evenly over the onions and “tent” the baking dish with aluminum foil. (Cover with foil, but do not let the foil rest on the glaze.) Bake the onions in the middle of the oven for 1 hour or until they test very tender when pierced with a fork. (Note: Cooking time may be longer, depending on the size of the onions.) Spoon some of the glaze over each onion and serve hot as a side dish.
 Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning book Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.