- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 22, 2005

If the food world held an awards ceremony for ingredients, I’m sure the onion would win the prize for best player in a supporting role. There are so many savory additions in which onion makes a contribution to flavor.

But like good supporting actors, onions are so reliable that they often get taken for granted. I never forget about the onion, though. With its combination of pungent and sweet flavors and a texture that ranges from crisp to tender, depending on how long you cook it, onion has a complexity that few vegetables possess. Sometimes, in fact, I like to show off that complex nature by making onion one of the stars of a main course. When cooked the right way and with the right complementary seasonings, as it is in the recipe here, onion can become simultaneously both vegetable and sauce for a main-course sauteed fillet of salmon, chicken breasts or cutlets of veal or pork.

I like to use red onions, sometimes called purple or Spanish onions, for their beautiful color and sweet flavor. You could also use sweet brown-skinned varieties such as Mauis, Vidalias, Walla Wallas or Texas Sweets; or just substitute regular yellow-skinned onions and add a light sprinkling of sugar or a drizzle of honey along with the salt and pepper when you saute them.

I dice the onion into large pieces and then saute it in a mixture of oil and butter until it gives up some of its juices but still retains some crispness. Keep an eye on the pan to make sure the onion doesn’t brown much, or the taste will turn too assertive. A sprig of fresh thyme adds another aromatic flavor note; feel free to substitute a sprig of fresh sage, or maybe a strip of fresh orange zest. Then I finish off the onion with splashes of vinegar and red wine, creating a subtle sweet-and-sour effect, and a little cream and butter to round out and enrich the flavors. I find that the word “marmalade” best describes the delicious, savory jam-like result.

As for the salmon that goes with the marmalade, you might be surprised by my cooking technique. Leave the skin on salmon fillets and cook them in a heavy cast-iron pan, which retains heat well and distributes it, and you can cook the fish on one side without ever having to turn it over. The resulting fillets will be wonderfully moist inside, and their very crisp skin adds a pleasing contrast of color, flavor and texture.

One taste of the crisp-moist salmon and the complex onion marmalade, and you’ll be ready to heap awards on a vegetable you’ve probably hardly been noticing all these years.


Serves 4

4 salmon fillets, about 6 ounces (180 g) each, skin on


Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for sauteing the fish

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 red onions, cut into 1-inch (2.5-cm) dice

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

3 tablespoons dry red wine

3 sprigs fresh thyme

1/2 cup (125 ml) heavy cream

Chopped fresh chives, for garnish

With a sharp knife, make 2 or 3 diagonal slits through the skin of each salmon fillet. Season the fillets on both sides with salt and pepper.

Heat a cast-iron skillet large enough to hold the fillet comfortably over high heat. Add enough of the olive oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pan. Just as the oil begins to smoke, add the salmon, skin-side down, and cook for 4 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and, with the fillets still skin side down, continue cooking the salmon for about 10 minutes, until the fillets are cooked through but still moist in the center when probed with the tip of a small, sharp knife. During the last 30 seconds or so, spoon some of the fat from the skillet over the fillets to help finish their top sides.

While the salmon is cooking, prepare the onions. In a stainless-steel saute pan over medium heat, heat 1 tablespoon each of the butter and olive oil. When the butter has melted, add the onions and saute, stirring constantly, until translucent but not browned, about 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the balsamic vinegar and red wine and stir and scrape with a wooden spoon to deglaze the pan deposits. Add the thyme and continue cooking until the liquid is almost completely reduced, about 3 minutes. Add the cream, bring to a simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cream starts to thicken, 3 to 4 minutes, taking care that the cream doesn’t boil over. Remove the thyme, season to taste with salt and pepper and stir in the remaining butter until it melts.

Spoon the onion marmalade onto warmed serving plates. Place the salmon fillets on top, skin side up, and garnish with chives.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays on the Food Network. Also, his latest cookbook, “Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy,” is now available in bookstores. Write Wolfgang Puck in care of Tribune Media Services Inc., 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, N.Y. 14207.)

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