- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2005

It’s summer, which means it is prime time for onions. Bet you didn’t know onions had a season, but, in fact, they have two seasons: summer for fresh and winter (actually, year-round) for storage onions.

They are good at all times, but in summer they can be particularly tender and sweet because of their high water content, so it’s a great time to celebrate them in all their diversity.

Onions often play a supporting rather than starring role. Yet their behind-the-scenes impact should not be underestimated. In every cuisine, a member of this fragrant family — yellow, white, red or green (scallions), leeks, shallots or chives — makes its mark.

From first step to final touch, the onion is often the secret to a recipe’s success. Onions are the basis of mirepoix (along with carrots and herbs), which begins French soups and stews. The rich brown hue of Hungarian goulash comes from onion sauteed with paprika. Italian risotto and Middle Eastern pilaf often begin with sauteed onion. Fresh or charred onions lend their potent flavor to Mexican salsas. Grilled or raw onions are a favorite American topping for burgers and steaks.

Onions can also stand on their own. Europeans love glazed baby onions as a side dish and leeks vinaigrette as an appetizer. In homes around the Mediterranean, stuffed onions appear on feast-day tables. Americans start meals with crispy fried onion rings, the perfect partner for beer.

The appropriate technique for cooking onions varies with the effect needed. When onions are sauteed, the flavor is transformed from sharp to mellow. When cooked over low heat until soft but not brown, they lose the assertive flavor that could overpower a delicate dish.

Hungarian stews gain flavor from onions fried until amber. Middle Eastern cooks serve majadra (lentils with rice) blanketed with caramelized onions that have been browned to a coffee color.

Onions can be added to a stew at the beginning and will slowly turn soft and mild, contributing sweetness to the sauce. Or fry them over a fairly high flame so they brown rapidly and retain some crispness, then add them to the finished dish so they keep their crunch.

As previously mentioned, there are two types of onions: sweet and storage.

Sweet onions, such as Vidalia, Maui and Walla Walla, are sold fresh in spring and summer.

Storage onions are cured or left to dry before going to the market and are available year-round. They include yellow- or brown-skinned, white and red. White and red onions are often milder than yellow, but there can be surprises. Never fear. As soon as the onion is cut, the aroma will let you know how pungent it is.

Pearl onions are about an inch in diameter and are cooked whole; the French glaze them with butter and sugar. Larger boiling onions, about 11/2 inches in diameter, can be prepared like pearl onions, but the cooking time will be longer. Specialty markets sometimes carry cipolline, flat-topped Italian boiling onions.

The terms “green onion” and “scallion” refer to the same onion, but some people call the type with a round white bulb attached to the greens “spring onions” or “bunching onions.” Chopped scallion is great sprinkled into bowls of soup to perk up the flavor and is convenient for salads, when only a small amount is needed.

Leeks look like big scallions but are too tough to eat raw. When cooked, they acquire a mild flavor, and they are delicious braised whole with broth and butter. Leeks are often cooked in boiling water, as asparagus is, or sliced and cooked in soups and stews.

And remember, not only are onions versatile and tasty, but they are good for us, too. Onions contain good amounts of Vitamin C, folate and fiber, as well as other disease-fighting plant nutrients.

A few onion cooking tips:

m Keep onions in a cool, dry, dark, well-ventilated area away from potatoes, which give off a gas that makes onions spoil more quickly. Stored in this manner, they should keep for a few weeks. Delicate sweet onions and pearl onions are best refrigerated. Scallions should be freed of rubber bands and refrigerated in an open plastic bag. They will keep about 4 days. Refrigerate leeks loosely wrapped, and they will keep for up to a week. Shallots can be stored like onions or in the refrigerator for a few weeks.

m Avoid peeling and cutting bulb onions in advance; exposure to air changes their flavor.

• To soften the taste of sliced raw onions, rinse or soak them briefly in cold water, then drain them well.

m When sauteeing onions, use a heavy skillet and watch them so they don’t begin to blacken and burn. Olive oil and vegetable oil are easiest for sauteing. Butter imparts a lovely flavor but can scorch at the high temperatures needed for browning. To avoid this, heat the butter with an equal amount of oil.

To keep fat to a minimum, use a nonstick pan, starting with a nonstick spray or 1 tablespoon oil for 2 large onions. When the pan becomes dry, add broth or water by tablespoons as needed to prevent burning, or cover the pan so the onions steam as they saute.

Spicy onion pizza

Pizza dough (recipe follows) or commercially prepared dough

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for greasing pizza pans and bowl, divided

11/4 pounds yellow onions, peeled (about 2 large), halved and thinly sliced lengthwise

Salt

1 or 2 jalapeno chilies, seeded, if desired, and minced

1 14-ounce can plum tomatoes, drained and chopped

1 teaspoon paprika

½ teaspoon ground cumin, optional

Freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro or Italian parsley

Cayenne pepper, optional

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese, optional

Make dough and let rise.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy skillet. Add onion and salt to taste; saute over medium heat for 7 minutes. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring often, for 10 minutes or until tender and beginning to brown.

Stir in chilies, tomatoes, paprika, cumin (if using), and salt and pepper to taste. Cook, uncovered, over medium heat for 15 minutes or until very thick. Stir in cilantro or parsley. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding cayenne, if desired.

Lightly oil 2 baking sheets. Knead dough briefly, divide in 2 pieces, and put each on a baking sheet. With oiled hands, pat each piece into a 10-inch circle, with rims slightly higher than centers.

Spread topping evenly over dough, leaving ½-inch borders. Brush dough edges lightly with oil, and sprinkle remaining oil over filling. Sprinkle with grated cheese, if desired. Let pizzas rise for 15 minutes. Bake in preheated 425-degree oven for 18 minutes or until dough is golden brown and firm. Serve hot. Makes 2 pizzas, 6 to 8 servings.PIZZA DOUGH

1 envelope (1/4 ounce) dry yeast

3 cups flour

1½ teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil

Heat 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons water to 105 degrees. Set aside but maintain temperature.

If making in food processor, sprinkle yeast over 1/3 cup warm water in a 2-cup measure and let stand for 10 minutes. Stir until smooth.

In food processor, process flour and salt briefly to mix. Add remaining water and the oil to yeast mixture. With blades of processor turning, gradually pour in yeast-liquid mixture. If dough is too dry to come together, add 1 tablespoon water and process again. Process for 1 minute to knead dough.

If making by hand, sift flour into a bowl and make a well in the center. Sprinkle yeast into well. Pour 1/3 cup water over yeast and let stand for 10 minutes. Stir until smooth. Add remaining water and the oil and salt, and mix with yeast mixture.

Stir in flour, and mix well to obtain a fairly soft dough. If dough is dry, sprinkle with 1 tablespoon more water and knead it in. Knead dough, slapping it on work surface, until smooth and elastic. If it is very sticky, flour it occasionally while kneading.

Lightly oil a medium bowl. Add dough; turn to coat entire surface. Cover with plastic wrap or lightly dampened towel. Let dough rise in a warm draft-free area for 1 hour or until doubled in volume. Makes enough for 2 10-inch pizzas; 6 to 8 servings.

French onion compote

This delicious dish has so many uses that I like to prepare it in large amounts to keep on hand.

Serve the compote alongside chicken or other meat, or as a bed for grilled fish. Or mix it with cooked pasta or rice and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

The rich-tasting onions are good served as a replacement for butter with bread and are terrific in sandwiches with sausages, cooked meats, feta or goat cheese, and hard-cooked eggs.

2 to 4 tablespoons butter, olive oil or vegetable oil

1½ pounds white or yellow onions, halved and thinly sliced

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 to 2 teaspoons white wine vinegar, optional

1/4 teaspoon sugar, optional

In a heavy stew pan, heat butter or oil. Add onions, salt and pepper. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring often, for 20 minutes. Uncover and cook, stirring very often, for 15 minutes longer, or until onions are golden and tender enough to crush easily with a wooden spoon; do not let them burn.

Stir in vinegar and sugar, if using, and heat until absorbed. Taste and adjust seasoning. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Onion-smothered chicken

3 pounds chicken pieces, patted dry

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 large yellow onions, halved and thinly sliced

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon paprika

4 large garlic cloves, chopped

3/4 cup chicken broth

A squeeze of lemon juice, optional

2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

Parsley sprigs

Cooked rice or noodles

Sprinkle chicken pieces on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat oil in large, deep saute or stew pan. Lightly brown chicken pieces in 2 batches in pan over medium heat. Remove with tongs to a plate. Add onions to pan, and cook over medium-low heat for 10 minutes or until softened.

Return chicken to pan; add any juices from plate. Add cumin, coriander, paprika, garlic and broth. Cover and simmer, turning pieces once or twice, 30 minutes for breast pieces and 35 minutes for leg and thigh pieces, or until tender and cooked through.

Remove chicken from pan, but leave in onion. Skim fat from cooking liquid. Taste sauce and adjust seasoning, adding lemon juice, if desired. Return chicken to pan.

Cover and warm over low heat for 3 minutes. Serve hot, sprinkled with chopped parsley and garnished with parsley sprigs, with cooked rice or noodles to absorb the juices.

Makes 4 servings.

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