Onions are available every day of the year and they are one of the cheapest vegetables at the market. We use them as a flavouring in a multitude of dishes and also as a veggie in their own right.
I know of no household that doesn’t use onions, and most housewives always have a couple on stand-by. A Spanish housewife seldom has to ask herself if she needs onions. She automatically knows if she’s running low — and if in doubt she’ll buy two or three, anyway. They’re cheap and it’s always better to have a few extra ones in the pantry.
Although a housewife may take onions for granted, she has not lost her respect for them. How could she when they are such an essential ingredient in dozens of dishes she cooks throughout the year?
It is fitting that the onion is such a ubiquitous vegetable because it is one that humans cultivated from the earliest farming days. We have been growing it for so long that no one knows where it originated, although most experts think it was central Asia.
What we do know is that the ancient Egyptians cultivated it and it was part of the diet of the slaves who built the pyramids. Even in those early times it was known that the onion was a highly nutritious food although somewhat low in calories.
The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, the oldest legal code in existence, specified a monthly allowance of onions for the poor. The Hammurabi dynasty began in 1800BC. Onions have helped to sustain the needy at other times throughout history.
The Romans also cultivated onions and were fond of them, although more as a flavouring than as a vegetable. Apicius, in his Roman Cookery Book, a compilation of the recipes of the Roman aristocracy, gives only two recipes using onions as a vegetable, but lists 33 in which onions feature as a flavouring. Apicius mentions only three varieties of onions, but there are now hundreds of them.
They have an amazing range of sizes, colours, flavours and pungency. Botanists haven’t quite decided to which family the onion belongs.
Some say it should be part of the Amaryllidacea family which also includes the daffodil. Others opt for the Liliaceae family, whose other members include tulips and asparagus. Some experts get over this problem by giving onions a family of its own: Alliaceae.
But no matter which family you put the onion into, it goes off on a very individual tangent and reproduces itself in a multitude of ways, with several hundreds of varieties growing all over the world. Spain is one of the biggest producers and also consumes vast quantities. Onions are one of the most popular condiments in Spanish cooking and also in the kitchens of all five continents.
They are used throughout Europe to add flavour to salads, soups, casseroles, stews and a wide variety of fish and meat dishes. In northern climes, onions have a role as comfort food, as in a dish of creamed onions or a mound of onions sautéed to a deep golden colour and served with succulent slices of veal liver.
Onions are an essential part of many iconic European dishes. The classic French onion soup wouldn’t exist because it needs masses of thinly sliced onions. Many kinds of pizza wouldn’t be the same without onions, and the French pissaladière relies on them even more for its characteristic texture and taste. Many Middle Eastern rice pilaus have the onion flavour, as do many Indian dishes. The Chinese seem to put onions into every stir-fried dish.
Onions can be boiled, baked, creamed, sautéed, stuffed or fried, and it is the latter method of cooking that still gives some cooks a bit of a problem. Onions contain sugar (the sweeter the onions, the more sugar they contain) and this leads to many people’s perpetual problem: burnt onions.
But this complication needn’t exist if we know what is happening when onions are sautéed in oil — and then follow a few simple rules. The main difficulty is that most people are in too much of a hurry when sautéing onions.
So the first rule is that onions are cooked slowly and over a low heat — unless they are being stir-fried over a high heat for a Chinese dish, in which case the cook removes them after a very short frying time.
Another mistake many housewives make is to sauté a small amount of onions in a big frying pan. They then go off to do some ironing or another little chore —and when they are aware of a burnt smell coming from the kitchen they suddenly remember the onions. But by then it is too late — the onions are black and are sticking to the bottom of the pan.
So another rule to remember is that onions cook a good deal faster than we expect. They need close watching and should be turned over frequently. A small quantity of onions in a big frying pan quickly burns because the pan absorbs more heat than the onions can cope with.
The inexperienced can avoid burning the onions if they sauté lots of them in a small frying pan. But they still have to be stirred from time to time. Another way round the burnt offering problem is to cook onions as Roberta Pianaro does.
She is the best friend of American writer Donna Leon who is famous for her detective novels set in Venice and featuring police superintendent Guido Brunetti. About 12 years ago Leon published a book called A Taste of Venice: At Table with Brunetti, which retells mealtime scenes in the Brunetti household plus recipes devised by Roberta Pianaro.
I think she may have had some disasters when frying onions as a young woman, because in the Brunetti recipes she never sautés onions in oil — it’s always in oil plus a couple of tablespoons (or more) of water. That way should avoid any burnt offerings, but onions cooked in a mixture of oil and water won’t have the same rich taste as onions slowly and carefully done in virgen extra olive oil. So we should learn how to sauté them properly.
Onions go through several distinct stages after they come into contact with hot oil. It is important to know what these steps are and to be aware of them as we read a recipe.
When we start to sauté chopped or sliced onions, the first stage they reach is called ‘softening’. This is self-explanatory: the onions simply go soft. Some cooks call this stage ‘wilting’ and in Spanish they say the onions have become ‘mansa’, or cowardly.
The stage after softening is ‘transparent’, which isn’t a good way of describing them because it doesn’t mean we can see through them. It simply means they have a clear pearly look — indeed, pearly is a much better word. But many years ago someone referred to this stage as transparent and that term stuck.
When onions take on the pearly look they are well on their way to the third stage, which is known as ‘golden’. This means exactly what it says: the onions should be of a light colour, like a pale french fry or a potato crisp.
When the golden tone is achieved the onions have reached a critical point and the person cooking them shouldn’t be ironing, stuffing clothes into washing machines or sending e-mails. The onions now need total concentration because the stage after golden is ‘brown’ and this is as dark as we ever want our onions to be.
This stage is also known as ‘caramelised’ and the difficulty here is that onions go from golden to brown in an amazingly short time, so we have to stand over them, turning them constantly to ensure they don’t go on to the next stage. It can begin only a few seconds after brown and it is called ‘burnt’.
And if onions burn there is only one thing we can do: bin them and start again. Burnt onions not only look unpleasant, they also have a most unpalatable and acrid taste. And they are carcinogenic.
Although hundreds of varieties of onions are grown worldwide, you will usually find only about 20 at Mallorca’s market stalls, shops and supermarkets — and never all 20 at one outlet. However, that’s still nice choice. The most varied selection is at the supermarket of El Corte Inglés.
Spanish onions have a reputation for being larger, milder and sweeter than other varieties. But that doesn’t mean every big onion you see will be a sweet one. When we seek mildness the large white ones are best. They are known simply as cebolla blanca, or white onion, and they are ideal for salads.
The cebolla blanca is an integral part of Majorca’s favourite ensalada de trempó, which is made with sliced white onions, tomatoes and pale green peppers. Some Majorcans also add capers and hard-boiled eggs to a trempó. The cebolla blanca is also an ideal onion for cooking.
Until about 20 years ago, the Spanish red onion was a rarity here but they can now be bought in every supermarket and local fruit and veg shop. Although their colour makes them look as if they would have a strong taste, they are surprisingly sweet. They have the advantage of adding a touch of colour to a dish, especially when used raw in salads.
Some market stalls sell red onions entwined in bunches which can be hung up in the kitchen as an adornment — an attractive way of adding a touch of colour to the kitchen. Red onions are dearer than white ones but they are worth the extra cost. An onion of a light violet colour from Ses Figueres in Catalonia is worth looking for. They usually come in one-kilo bags and they are not very large, but they have a long shelf life.
Shallots imported from France come in little string bags and may seem rather expensive, but as only small amounts are needed the cost isn’t very high. I keep some at hand for use in recipes that call for only a small amount of onion.
There is a Spanish version of this violet-tainted member of the onion family that is known as cebollita or cebolleta. They are smallish and flattish at both ends, making them look like miniature flying saucers. Some Spaniards refer to them as cebollas de platillo, the latter word being Spanish for saucer.
Going further down the scale we come to the tiny pickling onions, which were once available only during the Christmas season but are now on sale for much longer periods. I sometimes buy half a kilo and keep them in a Japanese ceramic bowl as a kitchen adornment. They are handy when a recipe calls for a tiny amount of chopped onion.
Onions are not only one of our most useful and popular vegetables, they are also very good for us, more so than most veggies. One of its relatives is garlic, with which it shares a wide variety of medicinal qualities. These are important for our general health and are especially useful as a detoxifying agent.
They contain vitamins B, C and E as well as carotene, iron, phosphorus, potassium, sulphur and traces of copper. They are also rich in fibre, hormones similar to insulin, volatile oils and are a good source of anti-bacterial substances.
Many of their medicinal properties are similar to garlic, with which they share a natural antiseptic oil, allyl disulphate, and also cycloallin. The latter is a woven fibre that helps the walls of blood vessels to dissolve clots.
Research at the Royal Infirmary in Newcastle has shown that the cooking of onions does not alter this cleaning effect. It was previously thought that only raw onions had these cleansing properties. Cycloallin also dissolves fibrin, which forms in joints when they become inflamed.
Onions are known to reduce blood pressure and are useful in the treatment of heart disorders. They also help to relieve sinus conditions, increase the flow of urine, are slightly laxative and they contribute to the reduction of blood sugar levels.
Although onions are low in calories, they are not necessarily an ally for weight watchers. They contain only 38 calories per 100 grs, but the danger for weight watchers is that we invariably eat onions, either raw or cooked, with oil or some other kind of fat.
Fried onions contain a mammoth 355 calories per 100 grs, although they have an increased mineral content and are richer in vitamins. Boiled onions, on the other hand, lose some of their carbohydrates and calorie content, as well as a small part of their minerals.
But few people eat boiled onions these days because we are all well aware that the addition of a little fat greatly enhances their flavour.