Pasta

James Beard's Braised Onion Pasta

January  7, 2015

If you're like us, you look to the seasons for what to cook. Get to the market, and we'll show you what to do with your haul.

Today: A humble pasta you'll be skeptical of -- and yet another recipe from James Beard that teaches us to have faith.


It took us 47 emails to figure out what we’d serve. We bounced from side to main to starter and back to main, virtually piling chana masala on top of chard and Gruyère panade on top of broiled mushrooms and mozzarella. Someone had the enlightened idea to address cocktails circa email 25. (Pamplemousses, if you’d like to know.) We had a globally-confused menu yielding enough to feed 20 but destined for only our small group, but it didn't matter: It was a dinner party comprised solely of recipes from Molly Wizenberg’s Orangette. Excess was in order.    

But the story arc of our epic thread peaked high and early. Following are emails 11 and 12, edited for clarity:  

“YES BRAISED ONION SAUCE”  

“BRAISED ONION SAUCE"

The reason why all capital letters was a justified choice is disguised in a very short ingredient list from an almost middle-aged book. This braised onion sauce comes from Beard on Pasta, authored by the same man who expects us to put sieved egg yolks in our shortcakes; who dares us to put 40 cloves of garlic in our chicken; and who requests that we make lovely little tea sandwiches and fill their pillow-y insides with nothing but butter and raw onion. 

It’s a member of the same class, this pasta -- just strange enough for you to assume it will fail you, and made up of ingredients so run-of-the-mill they border on drab. Excepting the noodles, you’re asked to call on only six ingredients for this recipe. The yellow onions languishing in the dark corner of your pantry? You’ll need those. Madiera? You’ve got a dusty bottle on a high shelf somewhere, right? If you don't have pasta somewhere in your kitchen I can't help you. This is the political science prerequisite of ingredient lists. Are you still awake? 

But look a little closer: There’s a borderline obscene amount of butter. And you cook the onions for as long as you can possibly stand it -- sautéing slow and low is nothing if not a tantric exercise -- and then you cook them a little more, this time soaked in Madiera. What you’ve created is the highest form of caramelized onions known to man. Are you scared of the amount of butter pooling in the pan? Good. Add some more. 

caramelized onions

Then overturn a skein of hot pasta in there, too, its carryover steam loosening everything up, keeping it limber. Toss, and like a couple in the early throes of infatuation, the onions and the pasta will tangle together: the former disappears into the latter, the latter into the former. You’ll detest them for their unabashed PDA, but only for a minute -- they are sweet, they are a little salty, they are drunk on syrupy wine.

Serve this at your next dinner party, like we did, and understand the capital letters, the exclamations, Beard’s well-known -- and well-observed -- idea that “pasta is not a mannerly food to eat.” If you make this with pappardelle, which you should, portions forklifted from the serving dish will stretch and stretch, much like the endless scarf trick the magician at your third grade party performed two times too many. Some unwilling strands of pasta will walk the plank and land smack on the table. Try to take a bite -- half your plate will spiral onto your fork. You will abandon everything your mother taught you.

And you’ll come back to it over and over again, because -- despite your manners and those of your guests -- this dish tastes worlds deeper than the ingredient list promises it will. And therein lies the genius of James Beard recipes: You scoff and then you love. You scoff and then you are put in your place. You scoff, and then you’ll want to scream this recipe from the rooftops -- or into your keyboard, on email 12.  

Braised Onion Sauce 

Serves 4 to 6

10 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 pounds yellow onions, halved and sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 tablespoon sugar
Salt
1/4 cup Madeira
3/4 pound hot cooked pasta (I used papardelle)
Flaky salt, for serving (if needed)
Grated Parmesan, for serving

See the full recipe (and save it and print it) here. 

Photos by Mark Weinberg

48 Comments

Amanda S. January 20, 2016
I just made this for the first time. My husband had turned his nose up when I mentioned what I was making, but he has just finished his second full helping and told me that I could make it anytime. I used very dry sherry instead of the madeira and it was not too sweet, but made no other changes. I did use the sugar as that is a way to jump start the browning and caramelization. I don't think I will be making many more changes. Thanks for a great dish, one that I can also serve to my vegetarian guests with ease.
 
Susan L. February 11, 2015
I make a delicious ziti with toasted slivered almonds but for this dish I would add some chopped scallion for texture and a good grate of nutmeg and perhaps a scrape of lemon zest. One could whip in some fresh ricotta. It has enormous possibilities. Thanks again.
 
Rod L. February 11, 2015
I added a handful of toasted walnuts for some extra texture. Very good. A keeper.
 
Susan L. February 2, 2015
Mine was very good. No sugar next time. I have half frozen in a ziplock bag because it will also be great with some sautéed cabbage. It would also be marvelous au gratin. Thank you.
 
Ann February 2, 2015
I've wanted to try this for so long and today was the day. I, too, didn't understand the sugar/sweet wine addition, but I added both anyway, just to follow the recipe. Neither was really necessary as I have carmelized onions countless times successfully without either. But it is a very simple satisfying dish either way. I carmelized the onions a bit longer--but not much--as did several other reviewers. Very, very rich. I was wondering about a good vegetable side. I served a salad but have other reviews tried anything else with it?
 
fisher6188 February 2, 2015
Since I made this for the first time as a main dish, I have decided (and have) used it for a side dish because, as you mentioned, it is so sweet.
 
Marcella H. January 27, 2015
Susan, you are spot on with the wine. In the original version of the recipe that my late wife Marcella Hazan created, there was no sweet wine and no sugar. Caramelized onions don't need either. But Marcella did use dry white wine. Victor Hazan
 
AntoniaJames February 11, 2015
Yes, even better with dry white wine, and no sugar. ;o)
 
Susan L. January 27, 2015
I got a little mixed up. I tossed in some light brown sugar by mistake and I don't have Madeira. Mainly because I don't like Madeira or Marsala. I'm thinking of tossing in some white wine. It's a blizzard thing :)
 
J.Gillespie January 25, 2015
I was made this because I was quite dubious that it would work. It was really, really good.
 
Marcella H. January 24, 2015
Eileen, you are absolutely right, the simpler, the better. Why did feel you had to add garlic and mushrooms? Victor Hazan
 
Eileen January 24, 2015
This is the best pasta recipe you will ever taste!! It does take a good bit of time to cook, but it is well worth the finished dish. I am convinced the simpler the recipe, the better the taste. I cooked sliced fresh garlic with the onions and added cooked fresh mushrooms at the end. It was a feast worthy of serving to guests!
 
Gigi January 18, 2015
I can't wait to try this recipe...I've tried some other recipes from here and they were all wonderful. This one seems like it would pair well with a pork roast if you used it as a side dish...,and with a lovely glass of red wine...oooh lala!!
 
Marcella H. January 15, 2015
Jim first had this dish at our table in the late 1970's, when Marcella was trying out recipes for her second cookbook. She published the recipe in The Second Classic Italian Cook Book (Knopf 1982). In Marcella's original version, the onions were cooked in lard, or as an alternative, in olive oil, there was no sugar - hardly necessary in caramelized onions- and she chose dry white wine. Madeira would have been too sweet. Victor Hazan
 
Author Comment
Kenzi W. January 15, 2015
Ah, I love this! I'll have to try her variation. Cannot wait.
 
Nanette January 15, 2015
I had imagined that Mr. Beard first had this dish as Marcella's table, and shared the link with Victor. I made the dish on Monday evening, and I completely agree with Victor. I left out the sugar. I used a splash of Madeira and that made the dish rather cloying. Next time, white wine!
 
Alys O. January 14, 2015
You can substitute Marsala (which every Italian kitchen should have) for the Madiera with no ill effects. Also, the sugar is not needed as the onions naturally have lots, but perhaps that is an American thing where you put sugar in everything. :)
 
Jacque January 12, 2015
Never meant to criticize in any way. I haven't found a link to the recipe. I did read the whole post. I am new, I love the recipes. Perhaps I should not be so eager to participate.
 
beejay45 October 18, 2015
Never back off! I didn't see the link either. ;)
 
pennyolsen January 12, 2015
As I write this I'm eating this absolutely divine pasta.
 
fisher6188 January 12, 2015
OMG - I just made and ate this. Soooo good. But very rich - I could only eat a small portion. As one othr reviewer mentioned, it took longer than an hour to get the onions to the desired doneness. Next time I will not put it on the lowest simmer setting on my stove but rather the little higher simmer. It took over two hours. But worth it! I think I would serve this as a small first course rather than a main course because of its richness.
 
NJ January 12, 2015
I got a little too excited reading the description. TMI?! ;) Officially on the menu.
 
Justin B. January 12, 2015
This was as good as advertised. Amazing mid winter comfort food, and not terribly difficult to make if you are doing stuff around the house anyway. One note, my "low" setting was a little too low. I had to turn it up until there was very light bubbling sautee in order to finish the 1 hour braising activity. (Very, very light sautee.)
 
victoria S. January 12, 2015
We love you Kenzi.Keep those recipes coming!!<br />
 
citlalnahuac January 11, 2015
Another wonderful recipe from Beard on Pasta is the Avocado Linguine. I admit I almost (only almost,not never!) make the fresh noodles, but the sauce transfigures plain dried straw-and-hay.
 
Jacque January 12, 2015
Please when mentioning 'another wonderful recipe" include the recipe or a link.
 
Chauqg January 12, 2015
Read b4 u criticize: "see entire recipe here" is the link.......
 
citlalnahuac January 12, 2015
The recipe is in James Beard's book "Beard on Pasta", as I indicated. The book vastly predates the Internet, and is still in copyright. It is worth tracking down at a used-book seller.
 
Lynne D. September 9, 2018
Just ordered it! Looking forward to receiving it.