Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What to do with a bushel of onions

Some time ago, I had my friends Malcolm, Arianna and Jane over for dinner. Before they arrived, I wasn't sure what I was going to make, but I knew that it had to include onions, and lots of them. I often buy white or yellow onions by the bagful because they are much cheaper that way, and of course you can use onions in almost any dish you would ever want to cook. But the fact was that I hadn't been too diligent about using up this particular bag of onions. They stared me down from my refrigerator's crisper drawer (not the best place for onions--they like to be left out at room temperature), where I had placed them a few days earlier in the vain hope of warding off the increasingly more certain fate of sprouting, daring me to use them.

I knew that the most efficient and most flavorful way to cook with them would be to start by caramelizing them. Onions, as I'm sure you've noticed, are mostly water and cook down to next to nothing, so I would have to use a good many of them in order to end up with a satisfactory amount of the final product. And as the onions cooked down slowly, the loss of that moisture would mean an increase in flavor. It was the only way to go. But how would I utilize the caramelized onions? Really, I could have gone in any number of directions: sweet, moist, and yet still full of that allium flavor that is such a necessary part of most good cooking, the onions would go with almost anything. But, as I usually do, I was thinking in terms of cost. I had to feed four people, and I had to feed them generously--I'm one of those cooks who overbuys and overcooks out of the pervasive fear that my guests might leave my table hungry, and it's pretty safe to say that they never do. And so I decided to fold the sticky brown mass into a mess of pasta. I added a bit more heft to the dish by crumbling some soft goat cheese on top, and finished the whole thing with a sprinkling of chopped toasted walnuts. The smooth, tangy cheese was perfectly complemented by the sweet, yielding onions, and the crunchiness of the nuts lent some much-needed textural contrast to the finished pasta:

My guests left happy and sated, and, most importantly, my refrigerator drawer was now free to accommodate another big bag of onions.

Ziti with Caramelized Onions, Goat Cheese and Walnuts
Serves 4

1. Slice the onions: using 3 - 4 large white or yellow onions, slice the onions in half through the root end, which will hold the onion intact. Peel the onion, then lay it flat and slice it into about 1/4" thick half-moons. The slices will break up into strands in the pan. Keep in mind that the onions will shrink considerably, so don't slice them too thinly.
2. In a large, wide, heavy-bottomed pan, heat 3 - 4 tbsp. olive oil over a medium flame. Add the onions and stir them to break them up and coat them evenly with oil. Do not add salt; you want the onions to lose their moisture slowly.
3. Drop the flame to medium-low and add about 1 tbsp. chopped fresh thyme to the pan. Cook slowly, stirring occasionally, for about 20 - 25 minutes, until the onions have lost most of their moisture and are thick, sticky and well-caramelized.
4. Turn off the heat and stir a good amount of salt and black pepper into the onions. Set aside.
5. Set a large pot of water to boil on the stove. When water boils, add salt and about half of a 1 lb. box of shaped pasta like ziti or penne. Stir. Cook the pasta until it is al dente, about 12 - 15 minutes. Drain, reserving a small cupful of the pasta cooking water.
6. Return pasta to its pot and add all of the caramelized onions, along with a little pasta cooking water to help create a sauce--you should need about 2 - 3 tbsp. Mix well to evenly distribute the onions. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper as needed.
7. Meanwhile, toast 1/2 cup walnuts, either in a low oven or in a small pan on the stove. They're done when they smell nutty, about 6 minutes. Let them cool, then chop them into large pieces.
8. Divide the pasta between 4 plates. Top each plate with a crumbling of soft fresh goat cheese. Distribute the chopped nuts between the plates and serve.

*Note: this dish makes a very nice leftover pasta salad the next day. Dress with good balsamic vinegar and olive oil and enjoy!

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