Posts Tagged ‘Onion’

From the desk of…

Roasted Onion Tart

An Open Letter to Martha Stewart

Dear Martha

You are such a doll. I appreciate your supportive comments; just that fact that you take the time to read my blog on your iPad each week during your morning yoga, and that you’ve assigned it its own button on your home screen has me thrilled to kittens. To answer your question: yes, my blog is free for everyone, and for the time being I have no plans to charge a subscription fee. Let’s just say that my overhead is a bit lower than yours.

Just loving your magazine of late—it absolutely comes alive on the iPad. I’ve taken the liberty of making a few notes that I have forwarded via DM. Just think of them as a few idle thoughts that I know will help you to improve your magazine. (You’re welcome!)

Anyhoodle, it seems that you and I are about to butt heads (again!) I hope this won’t be as contentious as The Great Caesar Salad Battle of 2008, but I make no promises. I know that you are a bit of an absolutist, but please keep an open mind: even Julia Child tried McDonald’s once.

The lovely sampler you cross-stitched for me is framed and hanging in my kitchen. It serves as a constant reminder about pie crust and similar pastry, exhorting me to “make it cold and bake it hot.” Here’s the thing, though: I happened to come across an old cookbook that General Foods published in 1955 for their Spry brand vegetable shortening, a product that fell out of sight many years ago.

(You have no one to blame but yourself for this bit of kitchen archeology; you’re the one who encouraged me to get into collectables.)

I recognize that the ages-old technique for making pie crust has been to “cut” chunks of fat (lard, shortening, butter) into flour. Even for me that remains the ideal way to go. And as you so often remind us, the reason for working with cold ingredients and baking them in a hot oven is pure science: as the pastry bakes, the fat and liquid steam away, leaving a delicate, flaky pastry.

Ah, but some unknown home economist at General Foods had an idea to streamline the process. The “Water-Whip” pastry recipe was devised to take most of the guess work out of pastry. Harried housewives could whip some shortening with a bit of boiling water, and then add the flour, and they were done. No waiting for the dough to “rest.” No guessing if they’d added just the right amount of water.

Yes, the resulting dough was a little sticky, but the instructions were clear: roll the dough between two pieces of waxed paper. (To me, the most startling thing about the 1955 cook book is that there is not an electric mixer in sight. Every recipe is stirred by hand with a wooden spoon or fork. Can you imagine? Pioneering days: all that is missing are the covered wagons.)

In the past you and I have chuckled about my aversion to the old-fashioned vegetable shortenings, of which the late, lamented Spry was one. Was it you or Alexis who kept calling me “Fat-O-Phobe”? Well, no matter. They are loaded with hydrogenated fats and preservatives, so I won’t use them, I don’t care what you call me. (Sticks and stones…).

To be fair, vegetable shortening wasn’t really invented to be health food, was it? It was invented to be a convenient alternative to lard, and to have a longer shelf life. It was only in the past twenty or so years that we realized the hydrogenated oils and the trans-fats they contain are so bad.

Thankfully there are now some really good non-hydrogenated alternatives—I think even Crisco makes one. (Modern living! Yay!) I’m a fan of Earth Balance. I’m perhaps a bit more forgiving of whatever a product’s flaws may be. I remember reading an article a few years back where some woman said if she tasted a cookie made with margarine she would spit it out. I know! Tacky, right?

A few days ago I thought it would be fun to experiment with the old “Water-Whip” recipe with an eye toward adapting it to the twenty-first century. As mentioned, my choice of shortening is healthier. I also used my Kitchen-Aid stand mixer. Yes, it makes a somewhat sticky dough, but I knew ahead of time that I would not have patience for rolling it out between two pieces of waxed paper. I’ve tried that before with unhappy results. If I couldn’t roll it on a floured board then all bets would be off.

I’m happy to report that I enjoyed the results. The dough wasn’t that difficult to use with a dusting of enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to the board and the rolling pin, if you work fast, and roll only as much dough as you have room for: small counter or small kitchen = small crust. (Hey, I could put that on a sampler for you!)

Yes, yes, I know. It’s not really pie crust. It’s more of a savory shortbread. But baked into a Roasted Onion Tart it had the appropriate toasty, crumbly, tenderness. Rough and rustic? Yes. Polished and complete? Perhaps not. Delicious? Mmmm-hmmm.

Roasting the onions gave them a sugary sweetness that the slight saltiness of the “Water-Whip” crust showed off with aplomb. It would make a wonderful side dish with a green salad or as a selection in a summer breakfast buffet. (Can’t wait to visit you in Maine this summer. Remind me again when “black fly” season is?)

Hope you’ll try the crust. Ring me if you have questions.

XOXO

M

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Click here for my recipe for “Roasted Onion Tart.”

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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I Want My Umami

Pissaladière

Pissaladière: umami francaise

Yeah, yeah, I know: you hate anchovies. You think they taste like hairy fish.

This is the point in the conversation when my Mother would chime in, “But that’s the best part!”

While I didn’t share her enthusiasm for certain items that have received that endorsement over the years, when it comes to anchovies I agree with Mom. They’re good. As she would say, “You just haven’t had them prepared properly.”

A while ago I mentioned in this space that I used to have a waitering gig where I prepared Caesar salads tableside. Folks would crow about how much they loved Caesar salads – until they saw the little fish filets waiting to be thrown into the bowl. Like some eager but poorly dressed party-goer, they were not admitted to the disco, the folks at the table turning their collective thumbs down with the certainty of an experienced bouncer.

Little did they know: a Caesar salad without anchovy is like a Twix without the cookie inside. It’s just not the same thing.

I think what I am saying is fairly obvious: no one eats anchovies solo, they are almost always part of a recipe, and the flavor they add is vital. Don’t leave them out (please).

A huge problem is those little tins of anchovies that people buy. Don’t buy those. Perhaps more than with many other ingredients, this is one item where it pays to buy the good stuff, and it costs very little more to do so. Here’s my “blind side-by-side” taste test: Anchovy from the tin tastes like a salt attack. Quality anchovies (usually sold in little glass jars) are somewhat salty, yes, but not hairy, and are much more complex in flavor, adding a certain nutty quality to what you are preparing. They are subtle, and in certain recipes folks will be unable to put their collective finger on what that “other” flavor is. (Even better and less salty – when you can find them – are White Flat Anchovies.)

The Japanese have a word for the other flavor: umami, which translates (albeit loosely) as “good flavor.” Their assertion is that this “savory-ness” is one of the basic tastes your tongue is tuned to receive, along with sweet, and sour. The Japanese have an ingredient they often use to “game” the umami of food: MSG.

Of course, mention MSG to someone and you are likely to get a negative reaction. I’m not here to advocate its use, I avoid the stuff too. If you flip through cookbooks from the fifties and sixties you will see it listed as an ingredient along with salt and pepper. Chances are that Mad Men’s Betty (Draper) Francis has a container of “Accent” meat tenderizer in her cupboard, a product that was comprised mainly of MSG.

Many post-Moo Goo Gai Pan headaches, body aches, and who-knows-how-many-other-physical-maladies-real-or-imagined later, MSG finds itself the subject of the same fear and loathing as saccharine – so much so that most Chinese restaurants post on their menu that they don’t use the stuff.

What’s the big deal? I contend that there is no need for MSG at all; that’s why there are anchovies. As a laboratory for my use of the anchovy as umami ingredient we need go no further than the south of France.

I have a friend who lived in Nice while working for an American computer company. While there, she was turned on to a local specialty called Pissaladière. If you are unfamiliar with Pissaladière, the little slip of paper in your fortune cookie says that this is your lucky day to learn something new.

Quite simply, Pissaladière is an onion tart cross-hatched with anchovies, and dotted with Nicoise olives. Its big buddy is the Pizza. What I love about Pissaladière is that on paper it is a collection of flavors that you and I think of as being fairly aggressive.

But keep in mind that we are talking about food from the Riviera, a resort, a vacation spot, and that is the spirit that pervades the taste of the ingredients: a little laid back compared to their everyday selves. The tone here is harmony.

So while onions are usually spiky, here they have been caramelized to the point of sweet jamminess. The nicoise olives are mere dots that lend their mellow woodiness, and the anchovies are sort of the life of party, lending – yes – their saltiness to counteract the sweetness of the onions, all from the comfy chaise of crunchy pizza dough.

And while the basic ingredients sound simple, this is actually an exercise in blending and layering flavors so that the finished product tastes only like the sum of the parts, yet somehow transformed.

You can find my recipe for Pizza dough here, but caramelized onions are a bit deceptive. It is easy to think of them as just onions, sliced, and sautéed in a pan. Instead, I recommend you think about this less as a vegetable and more as a jam. These onions require a bit of babysitting; the more you stand and stir, the more you will prevent scorching or burning them and the sweeter and suppler they will become. You want silk, not a pile of brown onions. (A teaspoon or two of brown sugar early on – just after the onions have started to look translucent – is a worthy cheat that will yield great results.) Expect to spend about a half hour, perhaps more, “keeping an eye on” the onions.

Pissaladière makes a great hors d’ouevre with a chilled Rosé, or with a salad, as a great main course.

…and it’s a great umami “fix.” Who needs Doritos?

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No Suffering

Succotash

Succotash with Cheddar Cracker Crust

One of the truly iconic images of late summer is fields of corn, to quote a song lyric, “…as high as an elephant’s eye.” True, it is not late summer yet, but, while shopping this past weekend I had a choice of fresh peaches or early fresh corn, and almost compulsively chose the corn.

(Peaches or corn? Why not both? Hmmmm. I’m not sure.)

Anyway, why my “almost compulsive” choice of corn? I think it has something to do with happy memories of summers gone by. It should come as no surprise to anyone that someone who writes a blog measures nostalgia in meals partaken.

Granted us urban folk don’t glimpse fields of corn from the windows of the subway, but I grew up in suburbia, and in an era before every available square inch had been developed, so there were frequent views of open fields as we drove by in the station wagon.

I also have a Mom who is a daughter of the depression. Like many folks who grew up in the depression she celebrates her removal from that era by practicing a certain kind of food snobbery. When I was a kid she flat out refused to serve anything from a can. Chef Boyardee? Horror. This extended to other food as well: Supermarket bread? Are you kidding? (Except of course for Pepperidge Farm, back in the day when it was a little regional bakery.) (Not that she baked her own, but that’s what the neighborhood bakery was for.) Then there were also certain table manners: the ketchup bottle was never allowed on the table. You poured a bit of ketchup into a dish and that’s what was placed on the table.

The only canned vegetables that were allowed in our house were Le Seur Baby Peas – which were so fancy that Sex And The City fans may remember the Samantha character trying to seduce a Monk by donating a can of the peas to his food drive.

My Mother was a regular at what used to be known as a “greengrocer” which was the storefront version of a farm stand. Later on when my parents moved to a slightly deeper slice of suburbia she found and frequently haunted a real farm stand.

I’d hate to think that this all sounds as though I grew up in a stuffy home with a frilly Mother who tinkled a little bell when dinner was served. That was not the case.

On occasions when she would return from the farm stand with a big bag filled with ears of corn, we would all dig in and help shuck the ears. As I was shucking corn this past weekend in my own kitchen I was struck by how easy the task is, the surprise stemming from memories of childhood when – for little seven or eight year old me – shucking corn was hard work. I also remembered all the different ways there are to cook corn on the cob. My favorite was actually learned in adulthood: shucked, smeared lightly with butter, wrapped in foil, and roasted directly on the barbecue coals.

This brings up an important point: corn is hard to ruin, its dirty little secret being that it is actually perfectly edible uncooked. True, you can over-boil it. But in the sauté pan or roasting in the barbecue coals even if you overcook it slightly it is still good, if perhaps a bit toasty.

Now, you don’t need me to tell you how to make corn on the cob. Besides that, I eat my corn “de-cobbed.” (Long story: let’s just say this is due to adventures in orthodontia that would fill a whole other blog.) Anyway, fresh corn off the cob is my ticket to a bit of culinary play time.

Succotash isn’t necessarily as summer dish, but its key player is our summery buddy, corn. Besides, if you cook Succotash, you get to tell people that you cooked Succotash. Say it. Out loud. See what I mean? And if you bring a big casserole of Succotash to a barbecue announcing, “Hey everyone! I brought Succotash!” you may garner a laugh or two. (Past performance is no guarantee of future results.)

The definition of Succotash is really wide open, the only constants being corn and lima beans. I scoured the web and found as many variations as there are kitchens. My favorite finds indicated that a cracker crumb topping was a particularly popular finishing touch. Fresh corn topped with buttered cracker crumbs? I’m at a loss for a worthy adjective. Use a really sturdy unsalted cracker like oyster crackers or Neva Betta crackers for best results. (In a pinch unsalted Saltines will do, although the results may be slightly soggy.)

You’ll see from my “recipe” that there really isn’t a recipe, more like a “how-to” guide, so feel free to adjust this to your own tastes.

Actually I added a little “zetz” to this by changing the buttered cracker crumbs to a Cheddar Cracker Streusel crust by adding a healthy handful of the sharpest English cheddar I could find. This transformed a side dish that is almost an afterthought into a really great summer meal.  Be warned: this cracker crumb crust may find its way—cheddar cheese included – this coming fall on top of apples for a really amazing Apple Brown Betty.

Stay tuned!

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Click here for the recipe for Succotash.

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Limited Edition

Ramp Goat Cheese Crostini

Ramp Goat Cheese Crostini

When I was a kid my Dad frequently travelled to New York City on business. It was not unusual to see him climb down the stairs from the Eastern Air Shuttle lugging all manner of things that he either couldn’t find in Massachusetts, or thought he could get at a better price in New York. Occasionally my Mom or I will still invoke his promise, “I’ll get it in New York.”

(Yes, he flew the Eastern Air Shuttle, and yes, he climbed down the stairs. I have vague memories of propellers. The whole scene is very “Mad Men.”)

(A shoe textile engineer, it was also not unknown for my Dad to climb down the shuttle stairs lugging a shoe that had been sawed in half lengthwise. Ah, glamorous New York.)

I’ve made New York my home for many years, but I wonder if my Dad’s idea of New York as a great source for any and all things may have become musty with time. Or is it that the rest of the world has caught up?

I should perhaps cut New York a break here as I have been searching for something that is generally considered hard to find under any circumstances: squash blossoms. (C’mon, sooner or later you knew I would bring the conversation back to food.) The problem is that squash blossoms are as rare in New York as garden space. Squash blossoms are exactly what they sound like: the flower that grows on top of the growing squash. Considered a delicacy, they are slightly sweet and “squashy”, and they have a very brief shelf life. You literally need to eat them the day they are picked or “pffft” they’re gone.

Squash blossoms are usually stuffed with cheese and fried, although recently on TV I spied Frontera Grill Chef Rick Bayless chopping them (from his own garden) and mixing them with Queso Blanco, then using the mixture as a loose quesadilla filling. Later, as summer settles in I’ll have to try haunting the local greenmarkets in search of my elusive prize.

This past weekend I found myself in rapt conversation with the mother of a friend of mine. The subject? Gardening, something that to this urban dweller seemed as distant and far away as mining for rocks on the moon. I’m the first to admit that I don’t know if I have the right stuff to be a gardener. I hate bugs flying around my head (cows handle this better me: they swat them with their tail.) I prefer air conditioning (mine has three settings: “cold”, “colder”, and “meat locker.”)

The flip side to this spoiled city boy rant is that folks with gardens eat enviably well, my definition of eating well, in this case confined to flavor. Everyone and their mother know that veggies fresh from the garden taste better. Tomatoes are the prime example of this. I am very happy when friends with gardens shove paper bags full of tomatoes fresh off their vine into my hands. I’ve never found anything comparable at the supermarket, although every now and then the Greenmarket delivers the goods. But how many tomato “frogs” must be kissed before one finds the Prince?

Amongst her other bounty, my friend’s Mom also grows her own Watermelon. Imagine that drippy, chilly seed spitting fest on a hot July Sunday afternoon. If that doesn’t cool you down you’re beyond saving.

She informed me that they are just now coming into lettuce season. Speaking of seasonal items, I gently prodded her about those squash blossoms, my ulterior motive droolingly obvious. (No luck.) Taking a different tack, I asked her if she also grows Ramps.

Ramps are this year’s arugula. That’s not my quote. You can read it in Time Magazine. While it seems that I’m edging into true “foodie” territory here, my interest in Ramps is more due to their seasonality – my inner Alice Waters at work. Ramps are also known as Wild Leeks and have as short a season as squash blossoms – albeit with a longer shelf life. Calling them Wild Leeks is perhaps a bit misleading as their raw flavor favors their close cousin garlic in pungency. Their perfume straddles the fence between onion and garlic.

I’m not a huge raw garlic fan, but sauté it with a light touch so that its sugar caramelizes and its spiky “pepperiness” mellows out and I’m in love. Ditto Ramps. The good news is that due to Ramps’ new found fashion they are easier to find. I happily scored some over the weekend at Whole Foods.

Ramps

Ramps

I wanted to do something quick and simple with the Ramps so that I could eat them in the aforementioned mellow state, but not drift too far from their natural state. This is just like when you find really good berries: you don’t want to bake them into a pie. A quick, cool rinse and a dab of loosely whipped cream is all you need.

So I sliced the Ramps into rings, and sautéed them very briefly in good Extra Virgin Olive Oil. They have a lot of natural sugar, so the intense heat of the pan gave the smaller pieces a sweet crunch. Store-bought Crostini served as a stage for the sweet, mellow rings, and I used a drip or two of goat cheese thinned with Greek yogurt to glue the Ramps to the Crostini. The goat cheese / yogurt mixture was totally unnecessary, although it added a creamy counterpoint to the sautéed Ramps. A quarter pound of the pricey Ramps (mine were $9.99 per pound) will make enough of these little forshpeisen to keep four cocktail revelers happy.

Anyone got Squash Blossoms?

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Roots

Still life with onions...

Still life with onions...

Yeah, yeah, I know: I don’t eat enough vegetables.

I recently read an article in a food magazine I respect and enjoy, written by a highly esteemed author/blogger/restaurateur. In the article the writer professed her love of kale, so much so that even writing about it made her hungry.

Kale.

To be clear: I am hardly a “Falstaff-ian” figure. I try to eat correctly, and usually succeed. But kale? No, the mere thought of kale doesn’t make me hungry.

Chocolate, yes. Kale, no.

It’s not that I hate vegetables; it’s just that I like all the other stuff on the plate more. Yet, I freely acknowledge that when vegetables are cooked properly (or uncooked properly, if that applies) they are wonderful.

So it follows that when the winter root vegetables start to show up in the markets every fall, I begin to feel confident that my veggie intake will increase for a few months, because I like them as much as or more than the other stuff on my plate. Heck, sometimes I don’t need anything else on the plate, and for vegetables, that’s saying a lot.

The great thing about winter vegetables is that they seem so easy to prepare that in my mind they qualify as fast food. The reality is that there is a bit of simple labor involved, yes, but knowing what awaits you when the timer rings (or beeps) is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. (This is not to imply in any way that the prep for these vegetables is in any way medicinal.)

Being a city dweller, the closest I get to handling earth is when I water the small juniper bush that sits on the ledge of one of my kitchen windows. So the fact that some of the winter vegetables arrive in my home with traces of the farm still clinging to them only increases the self satisfaction I get from the minor handling they require before they hit the heat.

It all starts with a few turnips, and a sweet potato or two.

Have you met parsnips? (Say hello, parsnips.) They look like carrots that slavishly wore sunscreen (and I thought I was pale!) Cooked, they taste like the progeny of a carrot and a potato. Sweet potato (I’m told) is a bit of a misnomer: the sweet potatoes we get are actually yams, and I like to mix the mellow white yams with the more effusively sweet orange yams.

When I was at the market this past weekend I found golden beets which, in addition to being mellower than their violet brothers, have the added benefit of not staining your hands when you peel and chop them. They’re good.

I also found some little cippollini onions. You don’t even need to peel cippolinis; when roasted they shed their skins so fast it’s almost like they’re stripping because they can’t take the heat.

The preparation / recipe is simple: first I rinse the vegetables to remove the dirt. No need to scrub, just a cool shower and a rub with your fingers is all that’s required (I mean for the vegetables–get your mind out of the gutter.) Then I peel the veggies using a vegetable peeler, but if you prefer, go ahead and use a paring knife. (As I said, you don’t need to peel the onions.)

Then the chopping. Don’t be put off by this. While fancy-shmancy knife skills are not a prerequisite, if there is any part of this routine that qualifies as the “tricky part” this is it. I recommend that you use a sharp knife. Chop everything to approximately the same size, so they will all be finished cooking at the same time. “Chop” is a misleading word. Cube may be more accurate. Cut the veggies into cubes approximately one-half inch wide and high. No need to measure.

Throw the cubes into a large bowl; drizzle generously with extra virgin olive oil, and less generously with salt. Toss everything around to make sure all have been coated. Roast them on a sheet pan or cookie sheet in a hot oven (450˚F) for about 40 minutes.

If you want to magically convert this into a dinner, toss in your choice of protein. Some sliced turkey sausage is an easy choice. This past weekend, I threw the veggies in a roasting pan, and plunked a whole chicken breast (the bone-in, skin-on variety) on top. Fifty minutes later I had two meals.

Please don’t think that you need to adhere to my variety of veggies. If you like sweet potatoes just use those. (They are especially good when, just out of the oven, you drizzle them with a bit of maple syrup and then return them to the oven for a few fleeting moments.) If you can’t find cippollini onions, just chop a big, zesty, red onion into appropriately sized cubes and roast.

There’s also a great time saver that you can usually only find during November and December: many markets sell butternut squash already peeled and seeded.

But keep in mind that this is a great way to gamble at low stakes with a vegetable you’ve never tried before. Roasted using this method almost any hearty vegetable will have a toasty sweetness that won’t disappoint. And preparing vegetables as a Thanksgiving side could not be easier than this.

Isn’t nature wonderful?

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Alice In Onionland

An onion sandwich?

An onion sandwich?

One night many years ago I found myself in the center of the rink in Rockefeller Center. No ice:  it was a hot summer night. Uncomfortable. Humid. Crowded. I looked around, blinking, trying to make sense of the crowd moving me around like a rip tide at the beach. Through circumstances lost to the mists of time, I had found myself at “Taste of the Nation,” the annual event that benefits Share Our Strength, an amazing organization that has been working to eradicate childhood hunger for over 25 years.

I don’t remember the year, but it was definitely BFN (Before Food Network). In the swirl of people, the center of the vortex was Paul Prudhomme, the ample king (in pre-Emeril days) of New Orleans food. He brought blackened food to the fore, a modest idea that unfortunately became a vogue as outsized as Prudhomme himself. The whole thing got a bit out of hand: if it swam or walked, chefs everywhere were suffocating it in too much spice and burning it in a cast iron skillet. 

Can you tell that I never connected to blackened food? I always felt like I was fighting hard to like it —and losing. That’s just my humble opinion, and is certainly not a slam against Prudhomme. He’s forgotten more about food than I will ever know, and he is certainly about more than just blackened redfish.

But on that humid night, in the middle of an ice-less skating rink, Paul Prudhomme may as well have been Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. People just had to be near him, touch him, and eat his purposely-burnt food. 

I am not built for summer. I am bald, pale, and chilly Eastern Europe lurks vaguely in my background. When the mercury goes over 55 degrees I start to sweat. So that night one of my main missions was to find enough water to drink to replace the water that was rapidly sweating out of me and onto my clothes. (Bald, pale, and sweaty: Attractive, no?)

It was in my quest for yet another bottle of water that I found, tucked away in a corner and under the stairs, a kindly-looking, tidy little woman, making tidy little sandwiches with the crusts cut off. She was not attracting a crowd. The only way to explain how bad the location was that she’d been given is to say that if the event had been inside on a cold night, people would have tried to check their coats with her.

My heart went out to this poor ignored woman, so I approached her and asked what she was serving. 

“These are onion sandwiches. Have one!”

Oh, this poor misguided woman. Everyone around her was cooking up a storm, and here she was making these quaint little sandwiches that looked like something Norma Shearer would eat in an old MGM movie. Is that all she knew how to do? Mostly out of pity, I took one and ate it.

How do you best describe in words those moments in life when your perceptions of the world have been changed in a flash? If I were filming the moment, there would be a choir singing “AHHHH” on the soundtrack, and the camera would circle around me while streaks of sunlight would break though misty clouds and hit me like pin spots.

The sandwich was as sweet as sugar. The “onion-ness” we all expect from an onion was only an accent to the sweetness—more like the reassuring presence of a parent at a child’s recital. Understand that this was a sandwich about the size of two fingers, a slice of onion on buttered hearty farmhouse white bread, and as I said, no crusts.

I simply had never eaten anything like it, and quickly asked if I could have another. 

I am blushing as I admit that my next question was, “Is there sugar on the onion?” 

(Picture it: a bald, pale, sweaty, man asking if this woman had sprinkled the onions with sugar. And quite a picture it is, yes?)

The kindly-looking, tidy woman tilted her head to one side, a gesture not unlike a teacher addressing a first grade student, and explained patiently, “No. That’s the onion.”

“But it’s so sweet!”

With almost heartbreaking empathy she replied, “Yes, well, they’re Sweet Onions.” Clearly the kindly-looking, tidy woman was on an educational mission.

I’m sure I ate a lot of food that night, but I only remember the onion sandwich. At the time I had no idea that the kindly-looking, tidy woman–Alice Waters–is considered the pioneering mother of cooking that uses only fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. The influence she has had on American chefs is profound to say the least.

Such a simple philosophy. So easily demonstrated by an onion sandwich. 

I have never tried to recreate this simple, beautiful sandwich. Why? Alice Waters didn’t, after all, invent the onion sandwich. (I think hers was actually modeled after James Beard’s, and I doubt that he invented it either.)

Am I intimidated by being able to find the perfect onion? I am. I think the onion sandwich demonstrates that shopping with an open mind for just the right ingredients is just as important as refined cooking technique–perhaps more so. And to me, that’s a bit daunting.

It is likely that when she woke up that morning, Alice Waters had no idea what she was going to cook that night. She probably decided after she had poked around a greenmarket and found the wonderful Sweet Onions she used in the sandwiches.

My shopping is so passive. I go to the supermarket. I buy whatever is there. I don’t ask questions like, “Is this in season locally?” or “Where did this come from?” I experience frequent disappointment with apples and tomatoes.

I have the exercise backwards! I shop with a recipe in mind, instead of seeing what potential ingredients are at their peak, and then figuring out what to do with them.

I should know better. When I was a kid we lived a short foliage-viewing drive from an apple farm, wonderfully named Honey Pot Hill Orchards, a place where the smell of apples was intoxicating.

My favorites were the small, crunchy, sweet Macouns. I have, at times, tried buying Macouns at various supermarkets here in New York. My ritual is always the same: as the apple approaches my mouth, a rush of memories floods my consciousness. Then the first mealy, dull, bite jolts me back to the present, not unlike being jostled awake because of a mildly disturbing dream.

My parents would never have gone to the orchard at any other time of year. Everyone knows that fall is apple season. I need to apply this same logic to the other things I eat.

Is it time for me to recreate that onion sandwich? The answer would be found at the market.

The bread and butter part is easy. But for the Sweet Onion, as an experiment I decided to try four sources: my neighborhood market, a fancy gourmet market, Whole Foods, and the greenmarket in Union Square. No agenda here: I really like all four markets for different reasons.

I have learned that there are onions, and then there are Sweet Onions: higher sugar and water content, lower sulfur content. Sulfur is what makes your eyes water when you slice onions.

My neighborhood market had navel orange-size faux Vidalias labeled as being from the “Western United States.” But slicing this onion made my eyes water: not a promising sign. Indeed, the onion was very harsh raw; overpowering in a sandwich, but delicious cooked.

The fancy gourmet market had smaller Sweet Onions from Peru whose thin skins held out great promise. These made a decent sandwich, but one not nearly as sweet as Alice’s. And it violates the fresh, local rules: I had at the very least hoped to stick with an onion from the USA.

Whole Foods and the greenmarket were not selling any Sweet Onions the day I went foraging.  Lesson learned. Sweet Onions are advertised as being available all year round. But the prime season is late spring through mid-summer, so I’ll wait to make the sandwiches then.

For now I’ll stick to apples, which are also advertised as being available year round, but are truly coming into their season now. It is still a bit early, but I found some outstanding, crisp, sweet, Courtland apples from Massachusetts, and some better than OK Macintosh apples from Upstate New York.

So now that I have the apples I have to figure out what to do with them.

An apple sandwich? Oh! Even better: Pie, anyone?

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