The cover of Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage's new cookbook, Flavor—which, the authors write, was almost named The Ottolenghi F-Bomb—is a sea of marble-sized shallots, bobbing among chestnuts, grapes, and garlic. Meanwhile, the U.K. cover is a Georgia O'Keefe–esque onion illustration. There’s a pattern here.
Of course, there are many more vegetables covered in a cookbook all about vegetables. (Of the 100 recipes, 45 are vegan, though flexitarian flavor boosters like eggs, anchovies, and Parmesan appear throughout.) You’ll find charred peppers with fresh corn polenta, cauliflower roasted in chile butter, tempura-fried beet stems with a tangerine dunk.
But when I fever-flipped through the book for the first time, it was the alliums that hollered out to me. The fried onion rings studded with nigella and caraway seeds. The slouchy onion wedges roasted with just butter, miso, and water. The sweet-and-sour onion petals swimming in pomegranate juice and polka-dotted with creamy goat cheese.
In the excerpt below, the authors talk about the power of alliums. And yes, those three recipes are included, too.
Behind so many delicious dishes, there’s often an onion or two at work. Chopped and added to the pan with some oil, the smell of an onion—or its relatives, shallot or leek—being cooked is one of expectation and promise: a meal is underway! If this all sounds a bit much, it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve been accused of onion-shaped hyperbole. Yotam once wrote in the Guardian newspaper that “every time we chop an onion and sweat it in oil, it changes from being something that makes us cry to something that makes us smile with joy.” A reader responded. “Every time?” wrote Brian Smith from Berlin. “Don’t be daft!” We couldn’t help but giggle. Brian clearly had a point—it’s a lot to put on a little onion—but we do stand by our strength of feeling. The transformation of onions from raw to cooked—from harsh and sulfurous to meltingly soft and sweet—does feel, to us, just a little bit like alchemy.
Peek behind the curtains of the magic show, though, and there’s a fair amount of solid science and practical process at play. Unlike other vegetables, the onion family accumulates energy stores not in starch but in chains of fructose sugars, which long, slow cooking breaks down to produce a marked sweetness. The longer and slower the cooking of the onions, either in the oven or in a pan on the stove, the sweeter and the more caramelized these sugars become. This gives rise to glutamic acid. And it’s this acid that gives rise to the big, yummy umami taste we’re so often in search of in Flavor.
So much of this work—providing the sweet, caramelized base to many dishes—is what’s going on when onions are behind the scenes, playing a background role. They’re always there in the sofrito or mirepoix base: the diced onions, celery, and carrots or peppers that are so often sweated down as the first step to a stew or soup. But this everyday way of using onions isn’t why they get a section all to themselves here. What we find so thrilling are all the instances in which onioniness becomes the “thing” a dish is all about. These are the thick fried onion rings with buttermilk and turmeric or the charred red milder Tropea onions bulking out a summery green gazpacho starter. They’re the sweet and sour onion petals stealing the show of anything they’re plated up with, or the yellow onions, simply peeled and halved, baked with miso and butter until melting. If anything, we’re thinking we need to be laying on a bit more hyperbole, Brian—not less!—to do justice to the onion.