Saturday, July 6, 2013

What's in season now: Sweet Onions

Sweet onion with baseball for size comparison. And, as sweet onions go, this one is not very big.
Sweet onions are showing up all over the place right now. There are a number of different types (Texas 1015's, Sweet Mexican, Vidalia, Maui) but they can be treated the same, culinarily speaking.
  • They are all sweeter than your average yellow onion, which is not to say they won't make your eyes water when you chop them! But, the additional sweetness makes them milder and a great raw onion slice on a burger.
  • They are big, sometimes very large.
  • They are juicier than yellow storage onions.
  • They don't keep well.
That last point is the most important thing to keep in mind when buying sweet onions. Unlike yellow onions, which are grown to be stored for months through the winter, sweet onions will get moldy and mushy in short order. Don't buy more than you can use in a week or so.

The shrimp and white beans with pasta recipe I posted recently is great with sweet onions. French onion soup is delicious made with sweet onions, though I rarely make it with sweet onions. French onion soup is a winter dish for me and there are no sweet onions around in the winter. But, if there is a little chill in the air (or you just have the A/C cranked way up), here's a magnificent version. It's not hard, but it does take a long, long time to cook. It also makes a lot of soup, but you can freeze it. Or have a French onion soup party, since this is definitely a treat. All you need to make a complete meal is a simple green salad and fresh fruit for dessert. Very French!

This recipe uses a roux, a mixture of a fat (in this case oil) and flour, to thicken the soup. A roux is a common thickener in French cooking and it is used frequently in Cajun and Creole cooking. Very dark roux, used in gumbo or Étouffée, is sometimes referred to as Cajun Napalm because this stuff will hurt if you get it on your skin. You don't need to go that far in this recipe, but I felt you needed to know that there is something edible called Cajun Napalm. :-)

French Onion Soup
(serves 10)

¼ cup flour
¼ cup vegetable oil

1 stick of butter
4-5 large onions, sliced (about 10 cups)
1 ½ teaspoons sweet paprika
¾ teaspoon celery salt
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
10 cups beef stock
1 cup dark beer
½ cup dry red wine

10 1" thick slices French bread
10 oz. Swiss or Gruyère cheese, sliced or coarsely grated

Heat oil in a large heavy dutch oven or soup pot over medium heat. Add flour. Stir constantly to keep it from burning and cook for about 10 minutes. Remove the roux to a small bowl. Return the pot to the stove and medium heat. Add the onions and sauté them, stirring often, until golden yellow. Add paprika, roux, celery salt, salt, pepper, and beef stock. Stir well. Reduce heat to low and cook for 4 to 6 hours (yes, that long!).

Add beer(if using) and wine and simmer while you toast the bread slices. Heat the oven until very hot, 450°F. Toast the bread in the oven until golden brown. To finish soup, ladle into large soup bowls. Add a slice of bread, sprinkle a scant ¼ cup of grated cheese or 1 slice over the bread slice and place the bowls on a baking sheet. They are easier to put in and take out of the oven this way. Place the soup in the hot oven and bake until the  cheese is melted and gooey. Serve immediately but be careful! The soup under the cheese is burn-your-tastebuds-off hot.

To freeze, freeze only the soup. Reheat to a simmer then proceed with heating the oven and toasting the bread.

Note: I have not tried this recipe in a slow cooker, but I bet it would work there too. You still need to make the roux and sauté the onions on the stove, though. If you dump the raw onions and the stock into the slow cooker, the onions never get that wonderful soft texture that comes from sautéing them first.

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