I bet 90% of us have an onion sitting on our kitchen counter right now. And I bet 90% of the time we pick that onion up and, without even thinking, peel away its crackling skin and chop or slice it into a hundred little pieces. Then we swipe all those little pieces into a slick of oil so they can bubble and melt away into a stew or soup or sauce.
But wait, treat it like a potato: What if we popped that same onion, whole, into a hot oven and roasted it like a potato or a beet? Then, once it’s tender and collapsing into itself, we cut it in half, crowned it with a pat of butter, showered it with Parmesan, and ran it under the broiler until blistered? How good does that sound?
Indeed, why must an onion so often play a supporting role as a seasoning? It is a vegetable, after all, and a complex one at that, offering heat and sweetness in equal measure. Raw, onions are all juiciness and crunch, but become limpid and yielding when cooked.
A good old yellow onion works well for the idea above, but more often than not I reach for a red onion—I can’t get enough of that punchy pink, as pretty as any radicchio or watermelon radish. One of my favorite things to do is cut the onion into six or eight wedges, keeping it intact at the root. A drizzle of olive oil, a splash of good white wine vinegar, and then I bundle it tightly in foil. After a half hour in the oven, it’s time to do the big reveal. The onion’s layers fall open like the petals of a lotus blossom—a new-school bloomin’ onion (and a very fine accompaniment to a grilled steak, medium rare).
When the grill's hot, I make onion tacos: I like to cut a couple of sweet onions crosswise into thick slices, run a skewer through them (to keep the rings together), brush them with olive oil, and season with a pinch of oregano, salt, and pepper. I grill the onions until they are charred in spots, then scoot them off the skewers into warm tortillas. Topped with salsa verde and queso fresco, these simplest of tacos offer a meaty, elemental satisfaction.
If you have an onion on the counter, you also probably have a half-dozen eggs in the fridge, and with that you can make an onion frittata. It may sound austere, but therein lies part of the charm—you’re allowed to feel a teensy bit smug by making something so tasty from the bare minimum offered by your pantry. I like to sauté my onions until they are softened but not caramelized—they should still have a little spike to their sweetness.
And then there are pearl onions, whose very existence we seem to forget as soon as the holiday decorations are put away. That’s a shame because they are the perfect size and shape for threading onto summertime kebabs. Like all onions, they take very well to sweet and sour flavors, with the added advantage of looking ridiculously cute while doing so. Those agrodolce onions will happily sidle up to roast chicken or a pork chop, but even more alluring is to top that skillet of pearls with a round of pastry and bake it into a tarte tatin—just another unexpected direction this most of common of vegetables can take you.
For more recipes featuring the all-purpose allium, Kate's book is Onions Etcetera: The Essential Allium Cookbook.