Sweet onions (Allium cepa) are in, and I was lucky enough to receive a box from Luther Wannamaker in St Matthews, South Carolina, just a few miles up the road from where I grew up. In the photo you can see three varieties of his Charleston Sweets, which he is growing in the unique soils of Calhoun County. His S.C. Certified pesticide free sweet onions are available both in the fresh green state and in the traditional dry state. They are all the hybrid Granex type (like Vidalias), but they are grown in small plots, not mass produced like the 14, 000 acres of Vidalias. Luther is growing three types, the yellow “Sweet Caroline,” the red “Pinot Rouge,” and the white “Cirrus,” all of which are pictured here. Call Luther and he’ll ship you some. 1-800-378-2107.
As my friend and vegetable expert Elizabeth Schneider has written, sugar content is not really what defines sweet onions. Instead, it’s the degree of “heat.” It’s really mildness that characterizes these onions.
I’ve been out of town for my surrogate daughter’s graduation and for the Memorial Day weekend, so I have fallen behind in my blogging. But I have cooked these sweet beauties several times, even though I think, as Elizabeth has written, that these “mild onions are the only ones to use raw as rings, whether on canapés of seasoned butter, smoked fish, or cheese; or on sandwiches with tomato, roast beef, Cheddar, or herbed flavored mayonnaise. And of course, on burgers.” When I cook them, I do so, as Elizabeth advises, in ways that don’t hide their delicacy. They’re great on the grill, and I also love them paired with summer squash and steamed for a few minutes, then annointed with a little butter, salt, and pepper, or perhaps some chopped herbs.
I’ll be writing more about these onions as I cook with them, but don’t expect elaborate recipes. You really need to show them off mostly uncooked. They’re perfect for quick cooking methods such as in onion rings, and, in fact, Elizabeth included my onion rings in her exhaustive Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, a book no cook should be without.
Here’s what I had to say about onions in The New Southern Cook:
Seventeenth century gardeners in coastal South Carolina were quick to get their garden seeds sown in February, along with the onion and leek sets. By the time Mrs. Hill (1872) wrote her cookbook in Georgia, southerners were using several other members of the lily family in their kitchens. She gave 4 recipes for shallots and several for onions, including an onion custard not unlike the sweet onion tart that follows. “For seasoning, the red onion will answer,” she advised, “but only use the white silver-skinned for boiling, stewing, etc.” Her leek recipe is perfect: “Skin them; lay in cold water an hour; boil in salted water until they yield to pressure. Put them upon a hot covered dish; pour over melted butter.”
Fifty years earlier in Virginia, Mary Randolph had written a recipe for Potatoes Mashed with Onions, noting that “you will be guided by your wish to have more or less of their flavor.” Cajuns and Creoles in Louisiana would obviously want more of that bold flavor, given their Spanish and French heritage, but, as the late, great culinary historian Karen Hess wrote, Mrs. Randolph’s heavy use of garlic in old standbys from England, where so many of her recipes originated and where garlic had been conspicuous in its absence up until then, is indicative of a new palate in the South.
Southern Appalachia has its own wild leek, the ramp, whose harvest in mid April sparks ramp festivals and cookoffs in at least 6 West Virginia towns. They are downright stinky, but delicious — raw, boiled, sautéed, fried, pickled, in soup, and baked with fish. I’ve seen tears well up in one grown man’s eyes at the mere mention of the possibility of having some ramps; he had grown up in the Tennessee hills and hadn’t had any since childhood. (I ate some recently here in Washington. See the goat grilling story, below.)
You’ll see more than tears at the mention of sweet onions. In what was once a virtual monopoly all but owned by onion growers in and around the tiny town of Vidalia, Georgia, apple-like onions from Texas, Mexico, Hawaii, South Carolina, and Washington state have flooded the market. They, too, are wonderful in all sorts of preparations, such as the ones that follow.
I love baked onions, roast garlic, grilled leeks, and a garnish of chives on just about anything. Most of my one pot meals of soups, pilaus, and sauces start with the sautéing of some onions, shallots, or garlic. I can’t imagine a southern meal without these lilies of the table, if only the scallions in the salad.
Fried Sweet Onion Rings
You can’t go wrong with onion rings, especially if they are made with sweet onions. You can simply dip onion rings into milk and then into flour; they will fry to a golden brown with a crispy coating. Some recipes call for a sticky batter, others call for thin ones. Some have baking powder and some have egg whites. This one is made with beer — something most southerners have sitting around.
This is a large recipe to serve 8 people, but I figure if you’re deep frying, you may as well get your money’s worth out of the oil. I use an outdoor burner and a large pot. I still have to work in batches, but I offer baskets of onion rings as they come out of the grease. My guests enjoy a drink on the patio while I fry the onions.
Start making the batter up at least an hour before you plan to fry because it must rest. These are greasy, but they’re good. They remind me of the onion rings from the drive-in restaurants of my teenage years.
2 cups flour, preferably a soft southern flour such as White Lily
3/4 teaspoon salt
a 12-ounce beer, flat and at room temperature
1/4 cup peanut oil, plus peanut oil for frying
2 egg whites
4 large, rather flat sweet onions, about 3/4 pound each
In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour and salt. Combine the beer and the oil. Pour the liquid into the dry ingredients, stirring with a wire whisk only until combined. Do not beat the batter. Let it stand for at least an hour.
To prepare the onions for frying, cut 1/2-inch slices of peeled onions and carefully separate into rings. Large, flat onions will separate into nice rings almost all the way to the center. Save the centers for use in a salad or another dish.
When you are ready to fry, heat at least 2 inches of oil in a large pot over high heat. While the oil is heating, beat the egg whites until they hold stiff peaks, then fold them into the batter, working lightly.
Dip the rings into the batter, then drop into the oil heated to 365o. Do not crowd the pot. Fry until golden brown all over, then remove from the pot, holding each onion ring for a moment over the pot so that any excess oil drains off. Place on a rack, then continue frying. Serve when you have a plateful. They stay hot for awhile. Be sure to wait for the oil to return to 365obefore adding the next batch, and try to maintain that temperature throughout the frying.
Let your diners salt their own. They’ll get soggy if you salt them before serving.
Sweet Onion Confit
Young chefs throughout the country are cooking a global cuisine that draws on techniques and ingredients from around the world. It’s especially gratifying to me to see traditional southern condiments — chutneys, relishes, pickles, and preserves — not to mention the desserts, making their way onto the menus of some of the nation’s finest restaurants. Southern chefs, of course, are not immune to to this cross-cultural trend; their restaurants offer Mediterranean and Oriental fare along with grits and greens.
The finest foods, though, are always the freshest. It matters not whether you are frying chicken or making coq au vin: a freshly killed, organically raised bird that was not bred for its breast size or precociousness will always taste better. I always order those menu items that are preceeded by the words, “fresh local” — whether ramps in the mountains, peaches in the foothills, or softshelled crabs on the coast. And I try to buy fresh local products as often as possible.
Sweet onions are now grown in several states, not just in southern Georgia, and they are shipped throughout the country. I’ve seen menus offering Vidalia Onion Marmalade, Maui Onion Compote, and Walla Walla Onion Jam — though none of the preparations are traditional. We’re hoping these Charleston Sweets will become identified with the lowcountry as well. This sweet onion confit is a delicious condiment that combines a technique from the south of France with our fine local onions. I like to spread it on bread, add it to sauces, and garnish roast meats with it. It is also delicious pureed with roasted peppers or with mayonnaise.
Chef Frank Stitt in Birmingham uses a sweet onion confit atop cornbread crostini smeared with sautéed rabbit livers; Chef Stephan Pyles in Dallas serves his with venison. Both chefs cook the onions fairly quickly, with some vinegar to cut the small amount of fat used. Mine leans more toward tradition and will keep for several weeks. Though widely available, sweet onions are juicy and do not keep particularly well. Elizabeth Schneider recommends wrapping each onion in a paper towel and storing it in the vegetable bin of your refrigerator. In the South, many people tie their sweet onions up in panty hose, making a knot between each onion, then clip off the onions as needed from the bottom. This recipe is a perfect way to extend their shelf life.
1 cup rendered duck fat (see December 20, 2007)
3 pounds sweet onions, peeled and sliced vertically in 1/4-inch slices
4 bay leaves
1 sprig thyme
1 teaspoon salt
3 whole black peppercorns
2 whole allspice berries
In a large heavy sauté pan or Dutch oven, melt the duck fat over medium heat. Add the onions and seasonings and stir carefully so as to coat the onions in the fat but not to break up the bay leaves. Make sure there are no pieces of onion skin or any yellowed or soft spots on the onions. If there are, remove them from the pan.
Allow the onions to cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally to make sure that they do not stick or brown, until they are all transclucent. It will take about an hour. In the meantime, sterilize a quart jar and lid.
When the onions have finished cooking, remove the herbs and spices from them and discard, then put the confit in the jar. Run a chopstick or tool designed for the purpose around the inside of the jar to release any air bubbles, then seal.
The onions will keep for several weeks. I put it out with hearty bread on the hors d’oeuvre table. Always use a clean utensil to remove the confit and be sure to leave a layer of fat on top of the onions as an extra seal.
Makes 1 quart.
Sweet Onion Tarte Tatin
You should see my red-headed friend Donna Skill on a bright spring day: she is the very essence of the season, sunny and cheery, befreckled and frolicsome. One lovely day in late April while I was working on The New Southern Cook, she dropped by to see me. “I’ve been making Tarte Tatin with Vidalia onions,” she told me. “Use frozen puff pastry from the grocery store and you’ll have housewives all over the country making it. It’s wonderful as a vegetable dish or as a first course now that the onions are in.”
Sweet onions are available throughout the country now in the late spring and early summer. They don’t have to be a Charleston Sweet or a Vidalia from the South, but be sure to use a sweet hybrid. You’ll need to start this recipe several hours before you plan to serve it. Sweet onions are so much juicier than white or Spanish onions; it takes a long time for the juices to cook out. If you’ve got the time, you should really cut them the day before you plan to use them in this recipe to let them air-dry. Don’t worry if they turn a little dark; they’re going to brown in the tart anyway.
2-1/2 pounds of sweet onions
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 sheet puff pastry (see text below)
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
1/2 cup chopped scallions (white and green parts)
1 chopped shallot
Ahead of time if possible (as much as a day before), slice the onions in half vertically, then slice off the tops. Slice the bottoms, leaving a hint of the tough base above the roots to help hold the onion together. Peel the onions. Place on a cloth or paper towel over some newspaper and allow to air dry.
In a 10-inch cast iron skillet, melt the butter, add the sugar, and remove from the heat, stirring to mix well. Place the onions, root ends down and curved edges touching the outside of the pan. Shove the onions into the pan, cramming it full. You should have enough to tightly pack the skillet.
Place the skillet over medium heat and cook until bubbles appear. Turn down the heat a bit and continue to cook until most of the liquid has cooked out of the onions and they begin to collapse. It will take anywhere from 1-1/2 to 3 hours, depending on how juicy your onions are and how high the heat. You must not stir the onions, because you want them to stay in place, but it is okay to shake the pan a little bit. I turn the skillet around on the eye several times while it is cooking to be sure there are no hot spots. Remove the pan from the heat the moment that the remaining sugar in the bottom of the pan caramelizes. Tilt the pan slightly to be sure that there is no clear liquid left.
Preheat the oven to 400oand take the puff pastry out of the freezer to thaw. Several manufacturers make a 17-1/4-ounce package that contains two frozen sheets. They take about 20 minutes to thaw. After they have thawed, remove one of the sheets and wrap the other well in its original covering, then a layer of aluminum foil. Refreeze immediately.
Dust a counter and rolling pin well with flour and place the thawed sheet of puff pastry on the counter. Sprinkle the pastry with the thyme leaves and roll it out so that it forms a circle about 12 inches in diameter.
Sprinkle the chopped scallions and shallot all around the sweet onions in the pan, then lift up the puff pastry sheet and place it down on top of the onions. Let it sit for a moment, then press it down over the onions and down the sides between the onions and the sides of the skillet. You may have to use a thin tool such as a hard plastic spatula to wedge the pastry down the sides.
Place the tart in the oven and bake for 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove to a rack to cool.
To serve, invert a large plate over the skillet. Invert the skillet and lift it from the tart. Slice carefully with a serrated bread knife and serve.
Serves 8 to 10.
Debbie Recommends: A fruity white Côtes du Luberon will add an earthy touch.
May 18, 2009 Goat meets Grill
Yesterday afternoon I went to the lovely home of Jan Whitener in Georgetown with my buddy Betsey Apple, where the folks from Grillworks, Inc, were showing off their famous wood-burning adjustable grills, with foods prepared by Chef Thang of Hank’s Oyster Bar and Joy Reinhardt of Restaurant Vero and Arlington Catering.
The Eisendrath family were there – Charles, who invented “the grillery” nearly 30 years ago; wife Julia; and sons Mark and Ben (above, left) who took over the ownership of Grillworks in 2007. Charles is also Director of the Knight-Wallace Fellows Program at theUniversity ofMichigan, and he and the late, great R.W. “Johnny” Apple, Jr., (Betsey’s husband) were good friends. To quote Johnny, “If the cavemen had had [a Grillery], frying and boiling would never have been invented.” I wouldn’t be surprised if the latest collection of Apple’s articles, due out in August, includes other raves about these remarkable pieces of equipment.
Jan found a butcher with 4 young goats (wethers) down south of Charlottesville, where Ben drove to pick them up. Chef Thang cleaned the organ meats and marinated them in buttermilk. The larger pieces of meat were browned over the open flames, then braised for 3 to 4 hours. The legs were grilled, braised, then reheated on the grill. The kidneys, livers, and hearts were simply grilled (I would have left the caul fat, which is difficult to remove, on the kidneys, and simply grilled them medium rare). I also would have foregone the buttermilk. But the meal was delicious, with gorgeous beets, asparagus, and side dishes such a piquant applesauce and several starters including ramps and shaved tuna. Tiny octopi were marinated in olive oil and grilled lightly (see my September 16, 2008, blog on for instructions). There was delicious bread as well as several wines chosen by Veronica Kunkel (left, offering yogurt-marinated kabobs to Betsey) of Grape Juice Wine Shop inArlington, including a scrumptious Moselle blend from Château de Vaux, their 2007 Les Gryphées. The wine was a real surprise to me, with its peachy notes and its bone dryness. It was a blend of 30% Auxerrois, 30% Muller Thürgau, 30% Pinot Gris , and 10% Gerwurzträminer.
Josh Volz, from 14th Street hotspot Marvin was mixing drinks, but I stuck to wine. And I finally got to meet Nancy Pollard of Alexandria’s famous La Cuisine, pictured here on the left with charming Kristen Coffield of In Good Taste Caterers and Event Planners.
To the right, Chef Thang grills octopi. You can see the Grillery’s patented V-Channel, spaced and slanted to catch every drop of juice to the basting pan instead of the fire.
To the left, Chef Thang and Josh prepare to serve grilled West Virginia ramps with a tomato concassé. Thang has worked at both NYC’s Momofuku and Dupont Circle’s Komi, and his talents were evident in every bite. Of course, I had to venture into the kitchen to see the behind-the-scenes action. There, I discovered his secret: a pressure cooker full of goat bones reduced to a luscious sauce. I saw a big piece of pork belly and whole garlic bulbs in the mix.
In the photo to the right, Charles (in hat) advises Ben on trimming the offal as Joy and Kristen prep some plates in the background. In this final shot, Jan looks out over her party, which was lovely.
Thanks to all for including me!
May 16, 2009 Rosie’s birthday
Today is the birthday of my childhood friend Rosemary Knight Funderburk, whom I have written about here. Mikel is in South Carolina visiting his family and I’m still working on my Liguria notes. Go here to read about our trip to the Italian Riviera. I’m continually adding and editing the blog.
May 13, 2009 Leila M. Greene
My next-door neighbor, Leila Greene, died last week and we buried her yesterday. Leila and I have gardened together in these 4+ years here in DC and I will miss her ebullient smile and her generosity of spirit. I spoke briefly at her funeral yesterday and was not exaggerating when I said that she and her husband Joe are easily the best neighbors I’ve ever had. In the photo below, taken on New Year’s Day 2005, Leila and Joe are shown with our friend Yvonne Wade.
After the funeral I made some cathead biscuits, stuffed them with baked ham (see December 17, 2007, for instructions on how to slow bake a city ham so that it’s tender and juicy), and took them and a jar of pear chutney to go with (recipe on the same page with the ham) over to Joe’s, along with some potato salad. Though I rarely follow a recipe when making potato salad, the distinctive ingredient in southern versions is sweet pickle relish. Here’s a typical recipe, from The Fearless Frying Cookbook.
New Potato Salad
If you’re taking fried chicken on a picnic, or simply having a dinner of fried fish, make up a batch of this old standby in advance. There’s nothing new about it; it’s made with unpeeled new potatoes. People love it. Down South, we usually use a sweet pickle in the salad to balance the fiery seasonings used with the main dish. If the dish it’s accompanying is mildly seasoned, use dill pickle instead. Don’t boil the potatoes, but let them simmer until a sharp, thin knife easily slips into them. Drain them immediately and cool. For the eggs, place them in a pot of cold water to which a half-teaspoon of baking soda has been added. Bring the pot to a boil, turn off the heat, and cover for 10 minutes. Lift the eggs out of the hot water with a slotted spoon and place them in ice cold water to cool. Then return them to the hot water for a few seconds before placing a second time in the cold water before peeling them.
2 pounds new potatoes, scrubbed and halved or cut into 1 1/2-inch wedges, cooked, and cooled
3 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and chopped
1 1/2 cups finely chopped celery
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup Blender Mayonnaise (see June 5, 2008)
1 heaping tablespoon prepared mustard
1/2 cup finely chopped pickles, sweet or dill
Salt, freshly ground black pepper, and cayenne to taste
1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs of your choice to taste
1/2 teaspoon paprika
In a large mixing bowl, combine the potatoes, eggs, celery, onion, mayonnaise, mustard, and pickles. Season with salt, black pepper, and cayenne. Cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days, until ready to serve.
Just before serving, add the herbs to the salad and mix well. Dust the top with paprika, and serve.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
In the meantime, I continue to work on my blog about our trip to Liguria.
May 11, 2009 After a weekend on the Eastern Shore of Maryland
We spent a weekend on the shore with friends, learning the ropes of their new sailboat, working in the garden, and eating delicious local rockfish (striped bass). Rockfish almost disappeared from the Chesapeake and elsewhere, but successful farming, reintroduction, and conservation efforts have seen their numbers rise to healthy populations on the East Coast, where they are so revered. The species is the state fish of Maryland, Rhode Island, and South Carolina. When I was growing up in the Carolina Lowcountry, stripers were wildly popular game fish. Anadromous like salmon and sturgeon, they spend most of their lives in the Atlantic Ocean, but come up into fresh waters to spawn. They have been introduced into the Pacific and into freshwater lakes throughout the Americas, where they have thrived. They have also been interbred with white bass to produce a hybrid striped bass that is stocked in rivers, streams, ponds, and lakes throughout the country, much to the joy of many a fisherman.
They have a firm, but delicately flavored, slightly sweet flesh that is best enjoyed when prepared simply. I cooked one-inch-thick skin-on fillets by simply annointing them with olive oil, seasoning them with salt and pepper, and splashing them with a hint of white wine before running them under the broiler for about 10 minutes. I made sure the broiler was red-hot before I put them in about 3 inches from the heat. Alongside the fish I placed big hothouse tomatoes cut in half, seasoned, and drizzled with oil.
For dessert, I made yet another simple tart filled with apricot jam. Here’s the dough getting ready to go in the oven to be baked “blind,” with beans weighing down the tart crust while it bakes empty. A recipe appeared on January 22.
For lunch on Sunday, I tossed the leftover fish (and a few oysters) with boiled potato, chopped onion, egg, and fresh dill from the garden. I breaded them lightly with cornmeal and pan-fried them. If you want a recipe for proportions, follow the one for the Salmon Croquettes that I made in Ireland.
My friends’ pear trees were just beginning to bear fruit, so I rigged a bottle over one of the little pears and hope that it will ripen in the bottle. I’ll then add pear brandy and have my own Poire Williams! Of course the French eau de vie is made from the Williams (or Bartlett) pear, and the pear in our bottle will be Kieffer (the favored pear of the South because it does so well in both the heat and humidity), but I’m doing this experiment mostly for fun. I’ll keep you posted (especially if it works)!
I’m continually adding to my Liguria blog. Be sure to check it out.
May 7, 2009 After a trip to Liguria
Mikel and I have returned from two weeks in Liguria, the crescent-shaped Italian province that hugs the Mediterranean from Tuscany to France. It’s the Italian Riviera, on the Ligurian Sea. On clear days, you can see the snow-capped peaks of the Alps as well as Corsica. I’m gradually posting my travel notes here, using my journal and photos as a guide. Bear with me. I wrote about the unique cuisine of Genoa, the capital of the region, over 20 years ago for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. You can read the article, complete with recipes, here.
Pasta not swimming in sauce
One of the things that always strikes me about the cooking of Liguria, and Italy in general, is how simple much of it is. And how healthy. Check out these photos of some pasta dishes we had while there. In none of them was there more sauce than just enough to coat the pasta. The one dish with a bit of extra sauce, the zuppetta di frutti di mare, is served with bread in lieu of pasta; hence the “extra” sauce in the bottom of the bowl. Of course anyone who has been to Italy or to a fine Italian restaurant in the States already knows that that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But I am continually amazed at just how much we Americans eat. You just don’t see obesity in Italy. Not like here.
To the right, troffie, another Genoese specialty,
are hand made little twirls of pasta often accompanied with pesto and a few green beans and chunks of potato.
The spaghetti ai frutti di mare on the right, above, was served at the elegant Grand Hotel Miramare in Santa Margherita. Nary a drop of sauce spills onto the plate. It was intensely flavored, the reduced octopus, clam, and squid juices clinging to the fresh pasta and balanced by the fruity and acidic overtones of tomatoes.
In this flash photo, taken outdoors at my friend Ester de Miro’s terrace one night, her delicious orrechiete with broccoli charmed all of us. Ester is from Foggia, in the South, and is a marvelous cook. She steamed broccoli, then tossed the cooked broccoli in olive oil seasoned with garlic and a salted anchovy. A bit of grana (grating cheese, I didn’t ask which kind) tossed in at the last moment was the perfect complement to this scrumptious dish that I will definitely be making at home.
These triangolari were served at longstanding Trattoria Da Ugo in the old city center. The entire staff is women, so I jokingly told them that they should change the name to Uga. I was then told that the restaurant, in its third generation, was begun by one of the women’s fathers, whose name was Ugo, in 1969. The food was authentic and tasty and the service was professional and friendly in this charming spot filled with locals. The triangles, filled with greens and cheese, were billed as being served with a piquant oil, but every “hot and spicy” dish we tasted in Liguria was mild, given our American palates hardened on Tex-Mex and Thai cooking. The ravioli di pesce at Ugo, also pictured here, were excellent.
One last pasta dish (and these weren’t all we had) we ate at Gianni Martini’s farmhouse high above the city. Also filled with greens, the ravioli were sauced simply with a thin film of olive oil heated with fresh sage leaves. Gianni worried that he had perhaps put too much oil on the pasta, covering the delicate flavor of the ravioli filled with prebuggiun (for a recipe for this mix of greens, see February 17, 2009). Here’s Gianni (in photo, below) heating the thin film of oil. Before lunch, Gianni set out a bottle of Paola Rosina’s lovely DOCG Gavi, the La Mesma Black Label, some salame di Sant’Olcese (fresh and barely aged, not hard at all) and some foccacia from Panificio Fiore in Genoa’s fascinating Via Canneto Il Lungo. The bakery opened in 1914 and the current owner uses sourdough and organic flours to make his bread, using only extra-virgin olive oil in his focaccia. What more do you need? A salad, perhaps? Or maybe just strawberries for dessert. In the photo below, Paola is cleaning berries to which she will add perhaps a teaspoon each of vinegar and sugar (“Not to sweeten them,” Gianni says, “but simply to draw the juices.”) After a walk in the woods and through the fields of wildflowers, we gather outdoors for tea, coffee, and cookies. A perfect “picnic,” as Gianni called it.