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James Beard's Braised Onion Pasta

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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.

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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:  

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“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

Tags: pasta, caramelized onions, james beard, onions