Monday, June 15, 2009

The Onions have Landed

Dear Boo,

I write to you from beneath an avalanche of onions. I've been living under here for a couple of weeks and have only now dug my way out of the kitchen for some fresh air. I can happily report that I have wrestled the bulbs into submission, with only a few tears shed, and emerged, ultimately, victorious.

Let me explain.

Sometime back in December, I attended a holiday benefit party for A Mac's fabulous theater company, ERS. There was drinking and snacking and music and around the room were tables with silent auction items tempting guests to bid. Amid the dresses and theater tickets and photo sessions, in a corner, tucked away, was an item that caught my eye. "Famous Sweet Jumbo Vidalia Onions" shipped to the winner by the mother of the Artistic Director, direct from Vidalia, GA, as soon as they come into season. On my second or third glass of mulled wine, I plunked my bid down. Next to me, A-Mac's dad laughed, "What the hell are you going to do with 50 POUNDS of onions?!" I looked closer. Whoops. "Winner is entitled to: Two 25-pound bags". What, Indeed.

Shortly after I was informed that I'd won the item, I got an email with the following:

"The onions are usually shipped sometime before the middle of May. The grower from whom we buy our onions does not rush his crop and they are usually really sweet. He lets them dry in the field after digging and before bagging and shipping. Hope you will be pleased."

And then I forgot entirely about them. Months passed and I received another email letting me know they had been shipped. My Super must have thought I was insane as he lugged the two 25 lb boxes upstairs, labeled "Onions". Wrapped in a bright mesh bag, marked with the official Georgia Sweet Onion Growers Association seal, direct from The McDonald Farm, standing on end the onions reached past my knees.
So what does one do when you find yourself buried under 50 lbs of sweet, milky white, voluptuous bulbs?

1) Eat one.
The first night we received the shipment, I sliced up thin rings of onion for a riff on a caprese with tomato, mozzarella, and basil. I noticed as I cut into the first one, how there was virtually no onion smell. I held the cross section up to my face, the milky juice running down my fingers, and took a breath. My eyes didn't even smart. We have a friend who used to eat onions like apples. I never understood how until I tasted one of these. They were so sweet, so crunchy, so utterly lacking in that tearful bite, that I could almost imagine packing one for breakfast.

2) Give some away, for the love of all things holy!
For the past couple of weeks, anyone who stopped by our apartment left with at least a couple. Onions are the new olive branch.

3) Pickle Some.
Great idea, Boo. I've always regarded anyone who does home pickling as somewhat of a magician, possessing skills I could never have. Turns out it's about the easiest thing in the world, made easier by this recipe for pickled onions I found from good old Martha Stewart. Despite my anxiety about having the precise alchemy, here's what I learned: Vinegar+sugar+salt+vegetable/fruit object=pickles. It's pretty simple. 48 hours later, we had lip-smacking, sour/sweet, salty onion pickles. Great on sandwiches, salads, burgers, hot dogs, or right out of the jar. (For the record, I ran out of white vinegar partway through and had to use some cider vinegar to replace it which worked just as well. I also added some pickling spice to the jars, which I didn't love. I think next time I'd just throw in a few peppercorns and be done with it.)

4) Make Jam.
Once I had bought the jars for pickling, jam seemed like the likely next step. Remember "Enjoy", the Stop and Shop label that mom found, which makes delicious balsamic onion jam that mom kept calling just "enjoy" for short--as in, "I put a couple of jars of enjoy in your suitcase," or "spread some enjoy on that cracker"? I set out to find a comparable recipe. What I found was one from your favorite, The Splendid Table. It was good, but not quite what I was looking for. More like a chutney or spread than a jam, it nevertheless would be delicious on chicken or fish, and makes for a tasty accompaniment to cheese and crackers. I'm not really a fan of the strong orange flavor the zest added, but that might have to do with the fact that I got distracted by Jeopardy and added it too late so it didn't get as much of a chance to mellow out.

5) Make Confit.
On my errand to Chelsea Market to buy some jars from the restaurant supply store, I ran into my high school friend Jake Dickson (supplier of Hamlet the Pig), whose company, Dickson's Farmstand Meats, is opening a butcher shop in the Market in the fall. In the meantime, they have a stand set up outside their future home, featuring a different farm each week. Over some steak, I told Jake about my onion conundrum, and he ventured the suggestion that I make onion confit. Basically, he said, you slice up a ton of onions, and sautee them for a reeeeally long time in a ton of butter over medium heat until it becomes a pile of caramel colored, soft sweet mess. Then you add a bottle of red wine and cook it down for a reeeeallly long time. It lasts forever, and tastes amazing on anything. Boy, was he right. The already sweet onions became practically candied with a lovely rose color and intense flavor. We had them on sausage sandwiches one night, then on the organic flatiron steaks I bought from Jake, the next night. It was incredible. The steakhouse-themed dinner I made featured onions in every dish--the Peter Luger salad of onions and tomatoes with Luger sauce, my faux-creamed spinach (with goat cheese and a splash of milk), and the hash browns.
My mouth is watering just remembering this. Lastly, yesterday I turned them into an onion dip similar to the kind you make with the lipton packet, but with confit onions, sour cream, lawry's season salt, and a dash of the Luger sauce.

6) Make Onion Soup.
As you know, we've been having awful weather. Rain every day, with temperatures ranging from low 60s, to 80s and back down to 50s at night, humid and horrid and altogether depressing. Lucky for me, this downer weather was perfect for soup. I'm sure if I were a self-respecting cook, I would have made this with homemade stock, but come on. I already had my hands full tackling an apartment full of onions. Gimme a break. Anyway, it was delicious, rivaling any diner version I've had in the late, drunken hours. I've frozen a batch for future days when the season of Vidalias is but a sweet memory.

7) Make more jam.
Emboldened by my pickle-making success, I decided it was time to take my home canning project one step further and actually attempt the whole sterilization/sealing process. There's a lot of scary stuff out there about Ph levels and botchulism that frankly I still don't fully understand, but the second bag of onions didn't seem to be getting any smaller, and though I hate to waste, I figured I could afford an experiment in my quest for homemade Enjoy (hopefully not a fatal one)...
The instructions that accompanied the two packets of pectin powder gave me shuddering flashbacks to honors chemistry. You'd think I was trying to build an atomic bomb, not make jam, for lord's sake. The result is fantastically tasty, if a tad bit shy of jam consistency. Enjoy! :) (For the record, I used 1 fewer cup of sugar because I ran out, and it was PLENTY sweet. I also used half light brown sugar for the same reason, and I substituted 1 t of dijon mustard for the ground mustard which I didn't have)

I have to say, I've done a lot of complaining, a lot of omg, please take some onions off my hands, over the past couple of weeks, but really, deep down in my heart, I've loved every second of the onion deluge. It's felt good to have a challenge, to research new recipes and techniques I might never have tried otherwise, and to come home every day, eager to get started on the next experiment. And truthfully, this is probably much like our eating and cooking life is supposed to be--cooking meals structured around the harvest, finding time-tested ways to preserve the bounty for the colder seasons, and spending quiet afternoons canning, sauces simmering on the stove, bell jars rocking gently in the boiling water, clinking against the sides of the pots, their lids sealing with a ping! from the other room.

I'll miss you, onions. Thank you for bringing some sweetness, spice, and excitement into my life. I only regret you had to travel so far to find me. But the lessons I've learned with you as my guide, I plan to bring with me next visit to the farmer's market. I see some pickled peppers, carrots, and snap peas, strawberry preserves, and fresh tomato sauce jarred for winter, in my near future. But you'll always have a special place in my recipe file.

The Mouse


The BMT said...

Hooray onions. Now it's all I want for dinner.

luis18 said...

Onions have been in everything. I'm surprised we haven't brought them into the bedroom.

Anonymous said...

just "for the record," I'd posted a comment on this entry that was somehow attached to another - This is one of the most inspiring entries in your blog - you take this thing...this necessary but difficult (to digest, ya know what I mean?) vegetable (did you say they were something else?can't remember) and play with such abandon, or so it seems...quite revelatory - the way to live one's life, I do believe!!! Brava ms.mousie - you sure can write..onions for I goooooooooo

Max said...

omigod that picture of the two ladies of this blog...grand to get to see who you really are!!! great blog! great entry!!

Anonymous said...

i'm hysterical and printing for big G right now! xoxoxo

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