Gourmet: Seasonal Kitchen – State of the Onion

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Sometimes sweet, sometimes stinging, onions are a delicious common denominator in cuisines around the globe

By Sofia Perez

[Published by Gourmet, March 2004]

State of the Onion scanWhen I was a teenager growing up in New York City, it wasn’t only boys that made me cry. One of my chores was to help my mother prepare dinner, and at my house, that almost always involved peeling and slicing onions. The dish that elicited my loudest groans was tortilla española, a hearty onion and potato omelet that requires piles of thin slices. It’s a classic recipe from Spain, where my parents were raised—but when I stood over the cutting board, squinting in pain, I’m ashamed to admit I often found myself wishing that my family had emigrated from somewhere else.

My resentment always dissipated, though, with my first bite. The sweet, mellow onions—especially those that had poked their way through the bottom to be seared on the cast-iron skillet—were enough to induce short-term memory loss.

Despite my protests, I’m sure I wasn’t the only New York kid shedding tears over a cutting board. Onions figure prominently in regional dishes all over the world, and I’d wager that no American city can boast as many versions of these recipes as the five boroughs of my hometown.

In high school, one of my favorite non-cafeteria lunches involved my three best friends, a free fourth period, and the scallion pancakes at Rice Fun, a (now defunct) Chinese restaurant on the Upper East Side. My parents and I lived in Astoria, Queens, a neighborhood that was known as Little Athens, which translated to tart and salty Greek salads topped with thick pieces of mildly piquant red onion, followed by skewers of tender grilled lamb with onions. Summers included Italian sausage sandwiches loaded with peppers and onions, the lifeblood of any New York street fair worthy of the saint it’s named after. And of course there were visits to Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island for hot dogs, french fries, and perfectly crisped onion rings.

Like the city itself, the onion family is large and diverse, from the sweetness of the Vidalia to the bracing sting of a workaday bulb. Onions come in a palette of whites, greens, yellows, and reds and can be as small as one centimeter and as big as five pounds. And their culinary range is astounding. Bite into a wedge of raw yellow onion and feel the skin on your scalp tighten. Sauté slices of the same in oil and they turn into a soft, golden tangle of caramelized bliss. You could say that the onion is a vegetable with an identity crisis, but I prefer to think of it as the consummate professional, always ready to punch up a recipe when needed.

[Ed. Note:] When the above piece first ran in Gourmet magazine, we received a note from one of our readers asking for my mother’s tortilla recipe, which was not included with the original group of onion-focused dishes. It was subsequently published in our “Letters to the Editor” section in response to this person’s request.

Josefina Perez’s Tortilla Española

SERVES 6 – 8 (FIRST COURSE)
Active time: 35 min, Start to finish: 1 3/4 hrs
Sofia’s mother, Josefina, recommends using Despaña brand chorizo.

2 (4- to 5-inch) links Spanish chorizo (cured spiced pork sausage; 6 oz. total)
1 cup olive oil
2 large russet (baking) potatoes (1 lb total), peeled, halved lengthwise, and cut crosswise
into 1/4-inch-thick slices (2 cups)
1 large Spanish onion (3/4 lb), halved lengthwise and cut crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick slices (2 cups)
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
7 large eggs
1 bunch scallions, chopped (1 cup)
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley

  1. Cover chorizo by 1/2 inch water in a 1-qt saucepan and simmer 5 minutes, then transfer to a cutting board. When chorizo is cool enough to handle, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices.
  2. Heat oil in a 10”-inch nonstick skillet over moderate heat until hot but not smoking, then reduce heat to moderately low and carefully add potatoes, onion, garlic, and 1/2 teaspoon salt (oil may splatter). Cook, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes, then add chorizo and cook, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes more.
  3. Drain potato mixture in a colander set over a bowl, reserving drained oil, and cool 10 minutes. Set skillet aside.
  4. Lightly beat eggs in a large bowl, then stir in potato mixture, scallions, parsley and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt.
  5. Add 1 tablespoon reserved oil to skillet, discarding remainder, then add egg and potato mixture, and cook over low heat, covered, until side is set but center is still loose, about 12 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, 15 minutes.
  6. Shake skillet gently to make sure tortilla is not sticking (if it is sticking, loosen with a heatproof spatula). Slide tortilla onto a large flat plate, then invert skillet over tortilla and flip it back into skillet. Cook, covered, over low heat 10 minutes more. Slide tortilla onto a plate and cool to room temperature, then cut into wedges.