Starting to sauté onions is one way to guarantee people nearby will start to feel hungry and come running to see what's for dinner. Onions are one of the most ubiquitous ingredients in the world, and are a staple in many regional cuisines.
Because many varieties of onions store well for months in a cool, dry place, they are a great locavore ingredient because you can find locally grown onions year-round. (A locavore is a person who eats only locally grown food as much as possible.)
I've seen onions offered by several vendors at the monthly winter Bellingham Farmers Markets this year, and even though it's March, I'm still harvesting red and yellow onions planted last spring in my home garden.
Besides their appetite-stimulating aroma, onions are a powerhouse of flavor, too. How they are cooked has a lot to do with how they taste. Raw onions may have a sharp taste that some people find unpleasant, though rinsing or soaking chopped onions in ice water can help remove that biting taste. Onions sautéed too hot can develop a bitter flavor. Keeping the heat down to a medium temperature will prevent that problem.
Do you avoid onions because they make you tear up when you chop them? Try leaving the root end attached until the last cuts. According to the National Onion Association (NOA), "the root end has the highest concentration of sulfuric compounds that make your eyes tear."
Also, to remove the onion smell from your hands, I hold the blade of a stainless steel knife in my hands under cold running water. I have no idea why it works, but it does for me. Others suggest rubbing your hands with salt under cold water. And one last tip from the NOA - cooked onions should not give you "onion breath." If you eat raw onions, eat a piece of parsley afterward to freshen your breath.
Nutritionally, onions are high in vitamin C and have a strong anti-inflammatory effect. They are also a good source of fiber, some B vitamins (especially B6 and folate), manganese and potassium. They are especially rich in chromium, a trace mineral that helps insulin do its job controlling blood-sugar levels.
Food writers often talk about caramelizing onions in our recipes, but in fact what we usually are describing is browning them, which is a different technique. True caramelization of onions is a process that takes about an hour and a fair amount of constant attention. It's not difficult, but it is an exercise in culinary patience. Fortunately, it also yields a uniquely sweet and delectable result that almost anyone will enjoy, making the long, slow process worthwhile.
What is actually happening is that an amazing amount of natural sugars in onions are slowly released and converted into caramel as the moisture is cooked out. Onions will reduce to about one third their original size as they caramelize.
Instructions for caramelizing onions are described in the recipe below, which makes about one-and-a-half cups. I like to use the biggest cast iron skillet I've got and double or triple the recipe.
I've heard they can also be made in a crockpot, but I've never tried it. Once made, they will keep for several days in the refrigerator, or you can freeze them for later use. In our house, they never last long enough to worry about how to store them.
Caramelized onions are particularly good on mashed potatoes, steaks, chicken, omelets, or mixed with other sautéed vegetables, as in today's recipe. You can also serve them on their own as a side dish. A small amount of vinegar or red wine can be added to brighten the flavor of the onions alone. Delicious!
Special note: Don't miss the last winter Bellingham Farmers Market next Saturday March 16, at Railroad Avenue and Chestnut Street, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Weekly markets start again in April!
THIS WEEK'S RECIPE: CHARD WITH CARAMELIZED ONIONS
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons hazelnut oil (Holmquist Hazelnut Orchards, Lynden)
2-4 large onions (various vendors at winter Bellingham Farmers Market, Bellingham)
pinch of salt
1 large clove garlic, minced (Boxx Berry Farm, Ferndale)
1 bunch rainbow chard, cleaned and coarsely chopped (home garden, Lummi Island)
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar (BelleWood Acres, Lynden)
Optional: chopped hazelnuts
Prepare onions by peeling, trimming stem end off, and cutting onions in half from stem to roots. Notch out the roots, lay each onion half down on its cut edge, and then slice as thinly as possible, also from stem end to root end. You should have 4-5 cups of chopped onions.
In a heavy skillet or Dutch oven, add 2 tablespoons of the hazelnut oil and set heat to medium. Add the onions and stir quickly to coat with oil. Do not let the pan become too hot. Onions should not sizzle when added to the skillet. Sprinkle lightly with salt.
Continue to cook over medium heat until onions have lost most of their liquid, about 8-10 minutes. If the pan gets too dry, add a small amount of water or stock.
Reduce heat to low. Stir frequently enough to keep the onions from burning. The onions will gradually begin to turn a golden color, deepening the longer they cook, and will shrink up to about one third their original size by the time they are finished.
You can remove the onions from the heat after another 30-40 minutes, but the longer you leave them, the better they will get, up to about an hour.
Just before onions are done, start cooking the chard. Heat 2 teaspoons hazelnut oil in a deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add minced garlic and cook for 1 minute. When oil is hot, add the chard. Stir constantly until chard is wilted. Quickly stir in 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar, then remove from heat.
Add some of the caramelized onions a little at a time to the chard until you like the flavor combination. If desired, sprinkle with chopped hazelnuts for a crunchy texture.
Serves 2-4. You will probably have some caramelized onions left to use separately.
You'll find Whatcom County foods at these stores and farms. Many outlets have seasonal hours. We recommend you call or check websites for current hours.
Acme Farms + Kitchen
Appel Farms Cheese Shoppe, 6605 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4996; appel-farms.com
Artisan Wine Gallery, 2072 Granger Way, Lummi Island; 360-758-2959; artisanwineclub.com
Bellingham Farmers Market, Railroad at Chestnut; 360-647-2060; bellinghamfarmers.org
Boxx Berry Farm Store and u-pick, 6211 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-380-2699; boxxberryfarm.com
Cloud Mountain Farm Nursery, 6906 Goodwin Road, Everson; 360-966-5859; cloudmountainfarm.com
Community Food Cooperative, 1220 N. Forest St. and 315 Westerly Road, Bellingham; 360-734-8158; communityfood.coop
Everybody's Store, 5465 Potter Road, Deming; 360-592-2297; everybodys.com
Ferndale Public Market, Centennial Riverwalk, Ferndale; 360-410-7747; ferndalepublicmarket.org
Grace Harbor Farms, 2347 Birch Bay Lynden Road, Custer; 360-366-4151; graceharborfarms.com
Green Barn, 8858 Guide Meridian, Lynden; 360-354-1008
Hopewell Farm, 3072 Massey Road, Everson; 360-927-8433
Lynden Farmers Market, 514 Liberty St., Lynden, fiveloavesfarm.blogspot.com
Pleasant Valley Dairy, 6804 Kickerville Road, Ferndale; 360-366-5398; facebook.com/pages/Pleasant-Valley-Dairy/161872142667
Red Barn Lavender Farm (egg CSA), 3106 Thornton Road, Ferndale; 360-393-7057
Small's Gardens, 6451 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4637
The Islander, 2106 S. Nugent Road, Lummi Island; 360-758-2190; islandergrocery.com
The Markets LLC, 3125 Old Fairhaven Parkway and 1030 Lakeway, Bellingham; 8135 Birch Bay Square St., Blaine; 360-714-9797; themarketsllc.com
Terra Organica, 1530 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham; 360-715-8020; terra-organica.com
Bellingham Country Gardens (u-pick vegetables), 2838 East Kelly Road, Bellingham; bellinghamcountrygardens.com
Reach Whatcom Locavore columnist Nancy Ging at 360-758-2529 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To follow her day- to-day locavore activities, go to Whatcom Locavore on Facebook or @whatcomlocavore on Twitter. For locavore menus, recipes and more resources, go to whatcomlocavore.com.